Nahmod Law

A Section 1983 Primer (6): Claim and Issue Preclusion

This is the sixth of my section 1983 primers. I previously blogged on section 1983′s history and purposes (post of 10-29-09); on Monroe v. Pape (post of 11-29-09); on constitutional states of mind (post of 2-6-10); on causation in fact and the Mt. Healthy burden-shift rule (post of 4-25-10); and on statutes of limitations in section 1983 cases (post of 10-27-11).

Overview of Preclusion

This post addresses the important practical topic of claim preclusion (res judicata, which concerns claims that were or could have been raised), and issue preclusion (collateral estoppel, which concerns issues that were raised and adjudicated) in section 1983  cases. Preclusion concerns arise in section 1983 federal court litigation when there is a prior final state judicial or administrative proceeding that involved the same parties (or their privies) and implicated (or could have implicated) the same issues.

To what extent may those claims or issues be relitigated in a subsequent section 1983 federal court proceeding?  As it turns out, the answer in each case depends, as a matter of federal law, on the forum state’s preclusion law.

1. The Relevance of 28 U.S.C. section 1738

Like statute of limitations issues in section 1983 litigation, preclusion issues involve a mixture of federal and state law. This is because 28 U.S.C. section 1738 requires federal courts to give the same effect to prior state judicial decisions as would the courts of the forum state. Section 1738 is based on the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause, Art. IV, section 1.

2. The Preclusive Effect of Prior State Criminal Proceedings

(a)   Suppose that a defendant in a criminal case makes a Fourth Amendment motion to suppress evidence, which the state court denies, and the defendant is acquitted anyway. The defendant then becomes a section 1983 plaintiff seeking damages against the law enforcement defendants for violating his Fourth Amendment rights. What is the preclusive effect, if any, of that state court decision on the plaintiff’s section 1983 Fourth Amendment claim?

In Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90 (1980), the seminal section 1983 preclusion case, the Supreme Court declared that section 1738 governed, and that Missouri collateral estoppel law applied to determine the preclusive effect of the state court’s Fourth Amendment decision denying the motion to suppress. I should also note that this would similarly be the case if the state trial court had instead granted the Fourth Amendment-based motion to suppress and the plaintiff sought to use that ruling offensively against the defendants.

(b)  What is the preclusive effect, if any, of a criminal defendant’s guilty plea in state court on his subsequent section 1983 Fourth Amendment damages action? In Haring v. Prosise, 462 U.S. 306 (1983), the Court held that the preclusion law of the forum state–here, Virginia–applied, and under that law there was no preclusive effect. In addition, the Court declared that the plaintiff had not waived his Fourth Amendment claim just by pleading guilty.

3. The Preclusive Effect of Prior State Civil Proceedings

Not surprisingly, section 1738 also governs the preclusive effect of a prior state civil proceeding on a subsequent section 1983 federal court proceeding.

(a)  Suppose that a discharged employee files a breach of contract action in state court and either wins or loses (it doesn’t matter for present purposes). That employee then files a section 1983 federal court damages action against the same defendants alleging that she was discharged because of her sex or or race. The forum state’s preclusion law would apply, with the result (in most states) that claim preclusion, or res judicata, would altogether bar the section 1983 damages action, because the plaintiff could have raised the section 1983 claim in state court initially. This is the clear import of Migra v. Warren City School District, 465 U.S. 75 (1984).

(b)  Suppose now that the same discharged employee first challenged her firing under state law claim in an administrative proceeding, lost there on the ground that the discharge was not impermissibly motivated, and then also lost on judicial appeal from this decision because there was substantial evidence to support the agency’s decision. The employee then files a section 1983 damages action, again alleging a discharge because of her sex or race. May she proceed with her section 1983 damages claim in federal court?

According to the Supreme Court in Kremer v. Chemical Construction Corp., 456 U.S. 461 (1982), the forum state’s preclusion law applies to determine the collateral estoppel effect of the agency determination, upheld on judicial review, that her discharge was not impermissibly motivated.  The result (in most states) would be that the federal claim is thereby precluded.

(c)  What of a prior state administrative proceeding that has not been judicially reviewed? Does the forum state’s preclusion law similarly apply? After all, section 1738 applies on its face only to prior state court judicial proceedings. Nevertheless, as the Supreme Court, in University of Tennessee v. Elliott, 478 U.S. 788 (1986), held as a matter of federal common law the forum state’s preclusion law applies to  administrative findings of fact despite the technical non-applicability of section 1738.

(d)  Finally, what of prior unreviewed state arbitration proceedings? In McDonald v. City of West Branch, 466 U.S. 284 (1984), the Supreme Court rejected any preclusive effect of arbitral findings of fact on subsequent section 1983 federal court claims. The Court so ruled as a matter of federal law.


It should be obvious that the preclusion law of section 1983 litigation varies from state to state and is both quite complicated and very important as a practical matter. I cover this topic much more comprehensively in Chapter 9 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2011).

Written by snahmod

August 15, 2012 at 8:39 pm


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