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The Divorce Encyclopedia
Res Judicata

Term Definition Res Judicata - a Latin term meaning "thing adjudged."
Application in Divorce The term means that the final judgment is the end of the case. In practice res judicata means that the final judgment of a competent court on the merits of a case is conclusive as to the rights of the parties and constitutes an absolute bar to a subsequent action involving the same claim.

This rule acts as a bar or a defense against a party who, unable with his first day in court, attempts to relitigate a case with the same cause for action. Its application bars attempts to litigate a case by a dissatisfied party who might attempt to bring identical causes for action to court in another court.

Res judicata is a procedural defense against attacking a separation agreement after a divorce case has ended. When a court has ruled that a separation agreement is valid, the party who seeks to attack it after a decision and judgment has already had his or her "day in court."

While most disputes after equitable distribution involve disagreements about the settlement, some other litigation following the distribution might involve claims unrelated to the property distribution, such as what are known as marital torts.

At one time, a husband and wife could not sue each other for harmful actions committed during their marriage, but now former spouses (often the wife) may bring marital torts (usually personal injury actions) in connection with domestic violence, the transmission of sexual diseases, psychological distress and emotion injury, slander and libel as well as dissipation of community property.

In general, these cases turn on the claims emanating from disputes between the parties during the marriage, but may not seem directly related to the divorce action itself and do not deal directly with the issues such as property distribution, alimony and children support.

A spouse responding to such a claim might argue res judicata or equitable estoppel, but courts have permitted postdivorce court actions unless the tort issues "were actually litigated and decided in the dissolution proceedings." For example, in a 1988 Wisconsin case a former wife’s claims of assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotion abuse were not barred by res judicata, equitable estoppel or waiver. The issues in the divorce and tort action were not identical, thus res judicata did not apply. Estoppel did not protect the husband because he failed to show that he had relied on any representation she made during the divorce to his detriment. And the principal of waiver did not apply because there was no indication she intended to waive any claims in her divorce action.

Sometimes a disappointed party ties to outflank a court’s decision "with new theories grounded on property, contract, or corporate law"; but courts check these efforts with applications of other res judicata or collateral estoppel. For example, in a 1992 North Dakota case, the court turned back a former wife’s claim to back wages against her former husband’s business, which she raised after their 1988 divorce, because "...the wage claim was capable of being, and should have been raised, as part of the divorce proceeding."

A few courts have asserted that the parties have a duty to disclose any tort claim during the divorce.

See also Equitable Estoppel; Marital Tort; Tort.

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