Res Judicata and Massachusetts Foreclosure Defense: Understanding Your “One Bite at the Apple”

Res judicata is an important topic that comes up in Massachusetts foreclosure law that claimants need to consider in deciding how to defend against foreclosure.
Res judicata is a tricky concept, but can be summarized with an analogy to the criminal law concept of “Double Jeopardy.”  Double Jeopardy comes from the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (and Ashley Judd) and prevents a defendant from being tried again on the same criminal charges following a legitimate acquittal or conviction.  In short, the prosecution has one shot to make its case and if unsuccessful, can’t have a “do-over.”

Res judicata is the civil law version of “Double Jeopardy.”  This defense prevents a claimant from raising matters that had been raised, or could have been raised, in a prior lawsuit.

Suppose, for example, that Snoopy sues Pig Pen in Suffolk Superior Court for negligence, from Pig Pen making a mess in Snoopy’s dog house.  Based on res judicata, Snoopy will be barred from bringing the same claim in another case later on.  If Snoopy loses his case, he can’t go to another trial court and try the same issue over again, hoping for a better outcome.

That’s not to say he couldn’t appeal this decision.  All parties, as a right, can appeal their cases and ask an appellate court to review the trial court decision for errors of law.  What he can’t do is go to another trial court—such as District Court, Land Court, or Federal Court—and try the same issue over again.

Importantly, res judicata will also bar Snoopy from raising claims that could have been brought in the prior lawsuit.  For example, from the same example above, Snoopy would also be barred from bringing a claim against Pig Pen in another court for nuisance, since he could have raised this issue in Superior Court (along with his claim against Pig Pen for negligence). The test for this is where the claim is based on the same transaction that was at issue in the first action.  Since the claim for Pig Pen’s negligence and nuisance arose out of the same transaction—Pig Pen’s mess—Snoopy will likely be unable to bring this claim again, regardless of how strong of a claim it may be.

Related to res judicata is collateral estoppel, which prevents claimants from relitigating issues that have already been decided in a prior civil action. For example, suppose that in Snoopy’s Suffolk Superior Court case, the Court held that Pig Pen did not have any ownership interest in Snoopy’s doghouse, and this issue was essential in the outcome of the case.  Pig Pen, therefore, would be barred from trying to relitigate this issue in a subsequent case.

For example, if Pig Pen brought a case against Snoopy to seek rent that he claims Snoopy owes him from living in the doghouse (or, to be completely accurate, on the doghouse!), he would be barred from raising the issue over the ownership of the doghouse (which would almost certainly defeat his claim for rent).
Confused?  You’re not the only one; res judicate and collaterial estoppel are challenging concepts for lawyers and judges alike. There is much, much more to these concepts than written above, but here’s the take-home point:

In law, you only get “one bite at the apple.”  This is a popular metaphor for describing res judicata/collateral estoppel and should be remembered when planning a foreclosure defense.   Res judicata and collaterial estoppel prevent claimants from bringing multiple lawsuits based on the same thing.  Just like poor Snoopy above, you don’t get a “do-over” if you make an ineffective case or miss an issue.

This is particularly important for Massachusetts foreclosure defense.  This is because in Massachusetts, homeowners can challenge their foreclosures either in (1) a civil action, as a plaintiff against the foreclosing entity or successor, or (2) in an eviction, as a defense to the foreclosing entity’s claimed right to possession. But, with very, very limited exceptions, you can’t challenge a foreclosure in multiple court cases.  Your one “bite at the apple” is an extremely important factor in a foreclosure defense, and this makes it especially important for claimants to get good legal advice in this area of law.