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Thana v. Board of License Commissioners For Charles County

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

January 5, 2017

SUTASINEE THANA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
BOARD OF LICENSE COMMISSIONERS FOR CHARLES COUNTY, MARYLAND, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge

         In their one-count 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action in this Court stemming from the revocation of their liquor license for violation of one of the terms under which it was granted, Plaintiffs Sutasinee Thana, Michael James Lohman, and Thai Seafood & Grill, Inc., trading as Thai Palace & Thai Palace & Lounge (“Thai Palace”) seek declaratory and injunctive relief as well as compensatory damages on the basis that the term unconstitutionally restricted their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.[1] Compl., ECF No. 1; Pls.' Opp'n 2, ECF No. 43; Defs.' Mem. 3, 19, ECF No. 38-1. In support of their pending Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 38, Defendants Board of License Commissioners for Charles County, Maryland (the “Board”); Pamela Smith, Chair; and Board members Guy Black, Tomasina Coates, Steven Lowe, and William Young argue that res judicata bars Plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, while collateral estoppel bars Plaintiffs' claims for compensatory damages. Defs.' Mem. 1, 19.

         Plaintiffs insist that “the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel do not bar Thai Palace's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for compensatory damages for violation of its free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Pls.' Opp'n 3; see also Id. at 11 (“Thai Palace's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for compensatory damages for violation of its free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment is not precluded by the doctrine of res judicata.”). They do not address the effects of either preclusion doctrine on their declaratory and injunctive relief claims, and Defendants contend that they have abandoned them. The “court nevertheless has an obligation to review the motion[ ] to ensure that dismissal is proper.” Stevenson v. City of Seat Pleasant, Md., 743 F.3d 411, 416 n. 3 (4th Cir. 2014); see Nance v. Md. Dep't of Juvenile Servs., No. PWG-14-1434, 2015 WL 1210654, at *4 (D. Md. Mar. 16, 2015). Having reviewed the parties' briefings, ECF Nos. 38-1, 43, 45, I find that a hearing is not necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. Because res judicata bars Plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, and collateral estoppel bars Plaintiffs from arguing that they did not waive their claim for compensatory damages, I will grant Defendants' motion and dismiss this case.

         Standard of Review

         Defendants move to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Under this Rule, Plaintiffs' Complaint is subject to dismissal if it “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state “a plausible claim for relief, ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Rule 12(b)(6)'s purpose “is to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012) (quoting Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)). If an affirmative defense “clearly appears on the face of the complaint, ” however, the Court may rule on that defense when considering a motion to dismiss. Kalos v. Centennial Sur. Assocs., No. CCB-12-1532, 2012 WL 6210117, at *2 (D. Md. Dec. 12, 2012) (quoting Andrews v. Daw, 201 F.3d 521, 524 n. 1 (4th Cir. 2000) (citation and quotation marks omitted)). Two such affirmative defenses are res judicata, also known as claim preclusion, and collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion.

         Discussion

         Res judicata “bars a party from suing on a claim that has already been litigated to a final judgment by that party or such party's privies and precludes the assertion by such parties of any legal theory, cause of action, or defense which could have been asserted in that action.” Reid v. New Century Mortg. Corp., No. AW-12-2083, 2012 WL 6562887, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012) (quoting Ohio Valley Envtl. Coal. v. Aracoma Coal Co., 556 F.3d 177, 210 (4th Cir. 2009)) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). When considering this defense, “a court may take judicial notice of facts from a prior judicial proceeding when the res judicata defense raises no disputed issue of fact.” Kalos, 2012 WL 6210117, at *2 (quoting Andrews, 201 F.3d at 524 n.1). Res judicata provides grounds for dismissal if a defendant establishes “(1) a judgment on the merits in a prior suit resolving (2) claims by the same parties or their privies, and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action.” Ohio Valley Envtl. Coal. v. Aracoma Coal Co., 556 F.3d 177, 210 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Aliff v. Joy Mfg. Co., 914 F.2d 39, 42 (4th Cir. 1990)). Even if the plaintiff's legal theory differed in the earlier dispute, the doctrine of res judicata still bars the current action, provided that “the second suit ‘arises out of the same transaction or series of transactions as the claim resolved by the prior judgment.'” Id. (quoting Aliff, 914 F.2d at 42). Further,

The preclusive [e]ffect of a prior judgment extends beyond claims or defenses actually presented in previous litigation, for “[n]ot only does res judicata bar claims that were raised and fully litigated, it prevents litigation of all grounds for, or defenses to, recovery that were previously available to the parties, regardless of whether they were asserted or determined in the prior proceeding.” Peugeot Motors of America, Inc. v. Eastern Auto Distributors, Inc., 892 F.2d 355, 359 (4th Cir. 1989), quoting Brown v. Felsen, 442 U.S. 127, 131 (1979) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Meekins v. United Transp. Union, 946 F.2d 1054, 1057 (4th Cir. 1991).

         Collateral estoppel is “‘based upon the judicial policy that the losing litigant deserves no rematch after a defeat fairly suffered, in adversarial proceedings, on issues raised . . . .'” Grady Mgmt., Inc. v. Epps, 98 A.3d 457, 472 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2014) (citation omitted). The doctrine bars relitigation of an issue if a defendant demonstrates that (1) “the issue decided in the prior adjudication [was] identical with the one presented in the action in question”; (2) “there [was] a final judgment on the merits”; (3) “the party against whom the plea is asserted [was] a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication”; and (4) “the party against whom the plea is asserted [was] given a fair opportunity to be heard on the issue.” Garrity v. Md. State Bd. of Plumbing, 135 A.3d 452, 459 (Md. 2016) (quoting Colandrea v. Wilde Lake Cmty. Assoc., 761 A.2d 899 (Md. 2000)). If all issues raised in the subsequent suit are identical to the issues presented in the previous suit, then dismissal is appropriate. E.g., Graves v. OneWest Bank, FSB, No. PWG-14-1995, 2015 WL 2452418, at *1 (D. Md. May 20, 2015).

         As noted, Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages. Res judicata may bar the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief, but it cannot bar claims for damages where, as here, those claims “could not have been asserted in the circuit court action reviewing the initial [proceeding before an administrative board].” Esslinger v. Baltimore City, 622 A.2d 774, 783 (Md. Ct. Spec. App.1993). Collateral estoppel, however, may bar the claim for compensatory damages. Id. I will address each preclusion doctrine in turn.

         Res Judicata

         1. Final judgment on the merits

         Defendants argue that the Court of Special Appeals's decision affirming the decision of the Circuit Court for Charles County, which affirmed the decision of the Board of License Commissioners for Charles County revoking Plaintiffs' liquor license, “constitutes a final judgment on the merits sufficient to implicate the doctrine of claim preclusion.” Defs.' Mem. 20, ECF No. 38-1; see ...


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