Facts: Following an incident with one of her children, Mother was charged with aggravated child neglect and aggravated child abuse. Mother pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to six years’ incarceration. In a separate proceeding, Mother’s children were determined to be dependent and neglected and victims of severe child abuse, and Mother filed a timely appeal of that ruling. At a hearing to terminate Mother’s parental rights, the Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”) sought to have the issue of whether Mother committed severe child abuse conclusively established under the doctrine of res judicata through the findings in the dependent and neglected action. Mother’s attorney objected, arguing that the dependent and neglected order, which had been entered that same day, it was not a final order subject to res judicata because it could be appealed or revised within thirty days of its entry. DCS argued it was a final judgment under Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 58 and that, although it was subject to appeal, it was nevertheless a final judgment which would satisfy Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure Rule 3(a). The trial court determined the previous finding of severe child abuse was res judicata and did not permit Mother to relitigate the issue. Mother appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
The doctrine of res judicata, also referred to as claim preclusion, bars a second suit between the same parties on the same cause of action with respect to all issues which were or could have been litigated in the former suit. Res judicata applies when an existing final judgment rendered upon the merits, without fraud or collusion, by a court of competent jurisdiction, is conclusive of rights, questions, and facts in issue as to the parties and their privies, in all other actions in the same or any other judicial tribunal of concurrent jurisdiction.
Collateral estoppel, also referred to as issue preclusion, is a species of res judicata. Generally, the rule of collateral estoppel states that when an issue of fact or law is actually litigated and determined by a valid and final judgment, and the determination is essential to the judgment, the determination is conclusive in a subsequent action between the parties whether on the same or a different claim.
The Tennessee Supreme Court summarized the distinctions between the two related doctrines as follows:
The doctrine of res judicata bars a second suit between the same parties or their privies on the same cause of action with respect to all issues which were or could have been litigated in the former suit. Collateral estoppel operates to bar a second suit between the same parties and their privies on a different cause of action only as to issues which were actually litigated and determined in the former suit.
Importantly for this case, both res judicata and collateral estoppel require a final judgment from which to take their preclusive effect.
So what makes a judgment a “final judgment?” In Tennessee, a judgment from a case in which an appeal is pending is not final and cannot be res judicata until all appellate remedies have been exhausted.
The Court determined the finding in Mother’s dependent and neglected action did not have finality because Mother had not exhausted her appellate remedies.
We have thoroughly reviewed the evidence in the record. While there is some evidence from which a trial court could conclude that Mother committed severe child abuse (i.e., Mother’s conviction for aggravated assault and her testimony that [Child] was the victim), such a finding cannot be reached without providing Mother an opportunity to assert a defense on that issue. As we have stated, the trial court could not simply adopt the order of the dependency and neglect court given its non-final nature. And it could not reach its own conclusion on the issue because it had precluded any relevant evidence or argument. The trial court simply cannot give preclusive effect to a non-final order, thereby preventing Mother from presenting a defense on an issue which, given the procedural posture of the case, required litigation in the trial court.
The trial court’s judgment was vacated and the case remanded to the trial court for a new trial.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce And Family Law Attorney.