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OR: Inconsistent Judgments Bar Issue Preclusion

Johnson v. Babcock, Court of Appels of Oregon, November 10, 2010 (Unpublished). 

Facts:  After being sentenced to 30 years in prison, Dwayne Johnson filed a post-conviction appeal in which he was represented by Attorney Babcock.  The Appellate Division remanded the case for a resentencing hearing.  The trial court again found Johnson to be a dangerous offender and imposed the 30 year sentence.  

Plaintiff then pursued a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel at the resentencing hearing.  Plaintiff argued that under Oregon law, the maximum sentence he could have received was 80 months.  The trial court denied this petition and the appellate court affirmed, finding that Plaintiff failed to show his former attorney’s performance was "unreasonably deficient."

Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff sought habeas relief in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon.  The federal court concluded that the attorney’s representation did not comport with constitutionally minimum standards of effective assistance.  Specifically, the federal court determined that the attorney’s failure to object to the 30 year sentence on the basis of pertinent Oregon case law was unreasonable and prejudiced Johnson.  Ultimately, the state court stipulated to a sentence of 80 months. 

Plaintiff then initiated this legal malpractice action.  Babcock argued that the suit was barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion because the state court had already decided that his performance had not been "unreasonably deficient."

Issues:  When two separate courts have rendered two separate findings with regad to the same issue, is that issue precluded from relitigation in another proceeding? 

Ruling:  No.  

First, the Court set out the five factors that must be present in order for the doctrine of issue preclusion to apply 

1. The issue in the two proceedings is identical.
2. The issue was actually litigated and was essential to a final decision on the merits in the prior proceedings.
3. The party sought to be precluded has had a full and fair opportunity to be heard on that issue.
4. The party sought to be precluded was a party or was in privity with a party to the prior proceeding.
5. The prior proceeding was the type of proceeding to which this court will give preclusive effect.

The Court then noted that the doctrine does not come without exceptions.  One exception is the existence of inconsistent determinations of the pertinent issue: 

Those courts and commentators which have considered the question are in virtually unanimous agreement that where outstanding determinations are actually inconsistent on the matter sought to be precluded, it would be patently unfair to estop a party by the judgment it lost.

Given the disparate determinations on the issue of the adequacy of Babcock’s representation in the state and federal courts, the issue preclusion doctrine did not bar Johnson’s subsequent suit for legal malpractice.

Lesson:  Inconsistent determinations on the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, or legal malpractice, will not bar relitigation of the issue in a subsequent suit where the sufficiency and adequacy of the attorney’s representation is again at issue.

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Posted in: Oregon