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THREE RIVERS COMMONS OWNERS' ASSOCIATION, INC. v. DONNA GRODNER, ET AL
In this property dispute, the defendant appeals the trial court's judgment that sustained the plaintiff's peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Three Rivers Island is an island located on the south side of the Diversion Canal in Livingston Parish.1 It is accessible by boat, and vehicular traffic is restricted to golf carts. Three Rivers Commons Owners' Association, Inc. (TRC), is a condominium development on the western end of the island. East of the condominium development are subdivisions developed in separate filings. A foot bridge over the Petite Amite River, wide enough to accommodate a golf cart, connects the westerly end of the island to a parking lot located in Ascension Parish. Upon crossing the foot bridge from the parking lot to the island, one encounters intersecting concrete pathways. One pathway extends straight ahead from the base of the foot bridge and across the common space for the condominium development. The other pathway curves in a southerly direction, reconnecting with the straight pathway on the easterly end of the condominium development. Gates are located on either end of the straight pathway at the intersections with the curved pathway.
The initial dispute arose after the gate on the easterly end of the straight pathway was welded shut, effectively preventing anyone from using the straight pathway to access the lots and residences to the east of the condominium development. TRC filed suit in 2014 (the 2014 litigation), complaining that Donna Grodner, who owns property to the east of the condominium development, entered the condominium development property and attempted to open the welded gate to allow golf cart traffic through the straight pathway. TRC sought an injunction to prohibit further attempts at opening the gate. In response, Ms. Grodner and other Three Rivers Island property owners (the TRI owners) filed a reconventional demand, claiming that the welded gate blocked a servitude affording them a right of passage over the straight pathway to their properties. The TRI owners requested a mandatory injunction requiring TRC to remove or open the gate and to cease and desist from obstructing access to the servitude of passage.
After a trial on the merits, the trial court issued written reasons adopting TRC's arguments on all issues and rejecting the TRI owners' argument that the gate obstructed a servitude of passage that provided them access to their properties using the straight pathway. The trial court signed a judgment enjoining Ms. Grodner and those acting on her behalf from opening the gate. The judgment also denied the relief requested by the TRI owners, specifically the mandatory injunction requiring the removal or opening of the gate. Thereafter, Ms. Grodner appealed.
In a per curiam decision, a five-judge panel of this court stated that it reached different conclusions regarding the substantive issues raised with regard to what, if any, servitude exists on the island in favor of the TRI owners, and whether the gate obstructs that servitude.2 However, a majority agreed to partially reverse the trial court's judgment and dissolve the prohibitory injunction, while a different majority agreed to affirm the trial court's judgment denying the injunctive relief requested by the TRI owners, finding that they failed to prove entitlement to an unfettered right of passage. Accordingly, this court reversed in part the trial court's judgment and dissolved the permanent injunction prohibiting Ms. Grodner and those acting on her behalf from opening the easterly gate. In all other respects, the trial court's judgment was affirmed. Three Rivers Commons Condominium Association v. Grodner, 2016-0067 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/10/17), 220 So.3d 776, 780, writ denied, 2017-0974 (La. 4/2/18), 248 So.3d 315.
Subsequently, on August 10, 2021, TRC instituted this lawsuit (the 2021 litigation), by filing a Petition for Preliminary Injunction and Permanent Injunction to enjoin Ms. Grodner from trespassing on private property and from inviting, inciting, and encouraging others to do so. TRC alleged that since this court's opinion, it had complied with the court's decision and left the gate unlocked so that the utility and/or emergency servitude could be utilized. TRC asserted that, nevertheless, on or about July 1, 2021, Ms. Grodner and James M. Lewis participated in vandalizing the gate located on its property and removed a portion of the structure of the east gate with the intent to permanently open the gate to golf cart traffic and for their personal use. TRC also alleged that contemporaneously therewith, Ms. Grodner posted on social media “safe passage to all” and advised the residents of Three Rivers Island that they had a servitude of free access over TRC's property. TRC further contended that Ms. Grodner and other TRI residents have continued to utilize its property for personal use, requiring court action. Following a hearing, the trial court signed a judgment on November 15, 2021, granting TRC's petition for a preliminary injunction and setting a hearing for the petition for permanent injunctive relief.
On June 20, 2022, Ms. Grodner filed a reconventional demand against TRC, asserting a servitude of passage over TRC's property.3 TRC responded by filing a peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata on July 11, 2022. The trial court set the matter for hearing on August 22, 2022. On August 15, 2022, Ms. Grodner filed an opposition to the exception, and TRC followed with a reply memorandum on August 18, 2022. On August 22, 2022, the trial court heard the exception, after which it sustained TRC's peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata.
When the trial court sustained the exception, Ms. Grodner requested in open court that the judgment be designated as final and appealable pursuant to LSA-C.C.P. art. 1915(B). Counsel for TRC objected, arguing that the ruling was interlocutory, and the trial court agreed. Thereafter, the parties submitted competing proposed judgments to the trial court. On August 23, 2022, TRC filed a motion for new trial or to amend the oral ruling of the court, arguing that it had mistakenly objected to the Article 1915(B) designation, as the trial court's ruling dismissed Ms. Grodner's cross claim with prejudice in its entirety. Therefore, according to TRC, the judgment would be pursuant to LSA-C.C.P. art. 1915(A) and did not need certification. The limited motion for new trial was set for hearing on September 19, 2022.
On September 9, 2022, prior to the hearing, but after the filing of the motion for new trial regarding the judgment, Ms. Grodner filed an Opposition to Exception of Res Judicata with an Amended Cross Claim. Arguing that neither the Opposition to Exception of Res Judicata nor the Amended Cross Claim were appropriate responses to the motion for new trial, TRC filed a Motion to Strike on September 14, 2022.
The motion for new trial was argued before the trial court on September 19, 2022, after which the trial court signed a judgment granting the motion, as well as a judgment sustaining the peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata. The judgment sustaining the exception also denied the request for certification of the judgment as unnecessary, finding the judgment to be a final judgment as defined in LSA-C.C.P. art. 1915(A). The trial court further determined that the motion to strike was moot. This appeal followed.
The peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata is based on the conclusive legal presumption that there should be no relitigation of a thing previously adjudged between the same parties. Res judicata bars relitigation of a subject matter arising from the same transaction or occurrence of a previous suit and promotes judicial efficiency and final resolution of disputes. Hill v. TMR Exploration, Inc., 2022-0703 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/22/22), 2022 WL 17843098, *4 (unpublished); State ex rel. Tureau v. BEPCO, L.P., 2020-0595 (La.App. 1 Cir. 10/7/21), 330 So.3d 1107, 1111, writ denied, 2021-01773 (La. 3/14/23), 357 So.3d 829. The doctrine of res judicata is codified in LSA-R.S. 13:4231, which provides:
Except as otherwise provided by law, a valid and final judgment is conclusive between the same parties, except on appeal or other direct review, to the following extent:
(1) If the judgment is in favor of the plaintiff, all causes of action existing at the time of final judgment arising out of the transaction or occurrence that is the subject matter of the litigation are extinguished and merged in the judgment.
(2) If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, all causes of action existing at the time of final judgment arising out of the transaction or occurrence that is the subject matter of the litigation are extinguished and the judgment bars a subsequent action on those causes of action.
(3) A judgment in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant is conclusive, in any subsequent action between them, with respect to any issue actually litigated and determined if its determination was essential to that judgment.
In deciding whether res judicata applies, the chief inquiry is whether the second action asserts a cause of action that arises out of the transaction or occurrence that was the subject matter of the first action. The Louisiana Supreme Court has also emphasized that all of the following elements must be satisfied in order for res judicata to preclude a second action: (1) the judgment is valid; (2) the judgment is final; (3) the parties are the same; (4) the cause(s) of action asserted in the second suit existed at the time of final judgment in the first litigation; and (5) the cause(s) of action asserted in the second suit arose out of the transaction or occurrence that was the subject matter of the first litigation. Burguieres v. Pollingue, 2002-1385 (La. 2/25/03), 843 So.2d 1049, 1053; Tureau, 330 So.3d at 1111.
Louisiana Revised Statutes 13:4231 embraces the broad usage of the phrase “res judicata” to include both claim preclusion (res judicata) and issue preclusion (collateral estoppel).4 Global Marketing Solutions, L.L.C. v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 2018-1765 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/27/19), 286 So.3d 1054, 1061, writ denied. 2019-01886 (La. 2/10/20), 347 So.3d 741. Linder claim preclusion, the res judicata effect of a judgment on the merits precludes the parties from relitigating matters that were or could have been raised in that action. Linder issue preclusion, once a court decides an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision precludes relitigation of the same issue in a different cause of action between the same parties. Id. Thus, res judicata used in the broad sense has two different aspects: 1) foreclosure of relitigating matters that have never been litigated but should have been advanced in the earlier suit; and 2) foreclosure of relitigating matters that have been previously litigated and decided. Id.
The party pleading the objection of res judicata has the burden of proving facts essential to sustaining the objection. If any doubt exists as to its application, the peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata must be overruled and the second lawsuit maintained. Wicker v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company, 2018-0225 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/21/18), 257 So.3d 817, 821-822.
The doctrine of res judicata is not discretionary and mandates the effect to be given to final judgments. When an objection of res judicata is raised before the case is submitted and evidence is received on the objection, the standard of review on appeal is traditionally manifest error. However, the res judicata effect of a prior judgment is a question of law that is reviewed de novo. Tureau, 330 So.3d at 1111. Therefore, we will conduct a de novo review to determine if the trial court was legally correct in sustaining TRC's objection of res judicata.
In her appeal, Ms. Grodner asserts that the trial court erred in sustaining the peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata, arguing that her reconventional demand in this matter arose out of new facts and actions taken by TRC after this court's earlier decision. Specifically, she argues that TRC welded an iron pipe across the servitude after this court's earlier ruling; thus, the inconvenience caused by the iron pipe was not considered in that decision.5 Ms. Grodner further maintains that the trial court erred in sustaining the exception, arguing that the trial court and this court in the 2014 litigation made a factual finding that there was no servitude over the cart path through TRC's property.
To the contrary, TRC frames the issue before this court as whether the claims asserted in Ms. Grodner's reconventional demand are barred by res judicata because the issues were litigated and decided in the 2014 litigation and because the causes of action asserted in Ms. Grodner's reconventional demand existed at the time of the previous final judgment. TRC contends that both the instant matter and the 2014 litigation are attempts by Ms. Grodner, a resident of TRI, to gain unfettered, general, and all-purpose access to a concrete pathway owned in common only by residents of TRC.
In the 2014 litigation, in her answer and reconventional demand, Ms. Grodner asserted the existence of a servitude running through the property owned by TRC. She alleged that “the servitude is a servitude of passage and it runs from the parking area, over the bridge, through the commons and to the end of the Three River's Subdivision.” In her prayer for relief, Ms. Grodner requested injunctive relief requiring TRC “to open the gate and cease and desist from further obstructing the [TRI residents'] access to the servitude in this matter” and to “immediately remove and/or open the gate and that they cease and desist from actions that restrict or encumber the [TRI residents'] right of access to the servitude.” Ms. Grodner also requested “a declaratory judgment allowing open access to her and her designees of the servitude of passage located in Livingston Parish, and allow passage on and over the servitude.” Following the bench trial in that matter, the trial court found in favor of TRC in all respects and issued a permanent injunction against Ms. Grodner prohibiting any effort by her or those acting on her behalf from opening the gate on TRC's property.6 The trial court also specifically denied the claims raised by Ms. Grodner and dismissed them with prejudice.
Ms. Grodner appealed the trial court's judgment, and, on May 10, 2017, this court issued its per curiam decision that partially reversed the trial court's judgment, dissolving the prohibitory injunction, and affirmed the trial court's judgment, denying the injunctive relief requested by the TRI owners. In all other respects, the trial court's judgment was affirmed. Thereafter, Ms. Grodner sought supervisory review with the Louisiana Supreme Court, which was denied. Accordingly, this court's per curiam opinion became the final judgment in the 2014 litigation between TRC and Ms. Grodner.
Currently, in the 2021 litigation, Ms. Grodner argues that she and the island residents are entitled to “unfettered use of the servitude.” She denies that the “path is for limited use” and continues to maintain that the servitude is a fifty-foot all-purpose servitude.7 In her reconventional demand, Ms. Grodner prayed for the following:
WHEREFORE, Ms. Grodner prays that a Permanent Restraining Order issue herein enjoining [TRC] from having any structures in the servitude including the gate, the gate posts, or any fence in the servitude and that [TRC] be enjoined from obstructing [Ms.] Grodner unfettered use of the servitude and in the alternative that [TRC] be enjoined from obstructing [Ms.] Grodner[‘s] [a]ccess through this gate for moving/hauling trailers, in the event of inclement weather, or in case of emergency.
As to the first and second requirements of res judicata, the parties do not dispute that the first judgment is a valid and final judgment.8 Additionally, Ms. Grodner does not dispute that the parties are the same.9 We find that the first three requirements of LSA-R.S. 13:4231 are satisfied.
However, Ms. Grodner argues that the fourth and fifth requirements for res judicata have not been met, as this court's judgment in the 2014 litigation neither adjudicated whether the TRI residents have a servitude of passage nor whether the use of the servitude was unfettered. Further, Ms. Grodner maintains that the facts and actions of TRC presently at issue arose after the 2014 litigation, precluding the application of res judicata to the present reconventional demand.
With regard to issue preclusion or collateral estoppel, once a court decides an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision precludes relitigation of the same issue in a different cause of action between the same parties. Global Marketing Solutions, L.L.C., 286 So.3d at 1061. Therefore, under LSA-R.S. 13:4231(3), issue preclusion requires that an issue essential to the prior judgment has been actually litigated and determined. Horrell v. Horrell, 99-1093 (La.App. 1 Cir. 10/6/00), 808 So.2d 363, 373, writ denied, 2001-2546 (La. 12/7/01), 803 So.2d 971.
Ms. Grodner maintains that the issue of whether there exists an all-purpose predial servitude in her favor was not litigated or resolved in the 2014 litigation. We disagree. In that litigation, this court affirmed the trial court's judgment insofar as it denied the injunctive relief requested by Ms. Grodner. Further, a majority of the panel on appeal found the existence of a utility servitude.10 The same majority also determined that Ms. Grodner and the TRI owners failed to prove that they had the unfettered right to use the servitude. Therefore, the issue of whether Ms. Grodner has a right to the unfettered use of the concrete pathway on TRC's property was determined in the 2014 litigation. Additionally, in the 2014 litigation, Ms. Grodner requested injunctive relief seeking removal of the gate, as well as an order enjoining any obstructions to access through the gate. While a majority of the panel on appeal agreed to partially reverse the trial court's judgment and dissolve the injunction that prevented the TRI owners from opening the welded-shut gate, a different majority agreed to affirm the trial court's judgment denying the injunctive relief requested by the TRI owners. Thus, the issue of obstructions to the use of the gate was litigated in the 2014 lawsuit. As these issues were litigated in the first suit and essential to the prior judgment, we find that the requirement of issue preclusion is met.
Next, regarding claim preclusion, the res judicata effect of a judgment on the merits precludes the parties from relitigating matters that were or could have been raised in that action. Global Marketing Solutions, L.L.C., 286 So.3d at 1061. Thus, claim preclusion forecloses the relitigating of matters that should have been advanced in the earlier suit. Mandalay Oil & Gas, L.L.C. v. Energy Development Corporation, 2001-0993 (La.App. 1 Cir. 8/4/04), 880 So.2d 129, 135-36, writ denied, 2004-2426 (La. 1/28/05), 893 So.2d 72.
Ms. Grodner alleges that the facts are entirely different in this litigation from the 2014 litigation, arguing that the placement of the iron pipe occurred after this court's opinion and could not have been the subject matter of the earlier suit. In her 2021 reconventional demand, Ms. Grodner requests an order enjoining TRC from having a gate, gate posts, and any fence obstructing the concrete pathway, claiming that any gate structures pose an unreasonable obstruction to the use of the servitude. However, we first point out that the iron threshold across the concrete path was removed prior to the filing of the 2021 litigation. Further, Ms. Grodner's request in 2021 for an order enjoining any gate obstruction to the use of the servitude was advanced in the 2014 litigation and was denied; thus, Ms. Grodner's claim is foreclosed.
Consequently, after a thorough de novo review of the record, we find that Ms. Grodner's reconventional demand in the present case is precluded by res judicata. Accordingly, we find no error by the trial court in sustaining TRC's peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata.
Considering the foregoing, we affirm the September 19, 2022 judgment of the trial court that sustained the peremptory exception raising the objection of res judicata filed by the defendant-in-reconvention, Three Rivers Commons Owners' Association, Inc., and dismissing with prejudice all claims of the plaintiff-in-reconvention, Donna Grodner, against Three Rivers Commons Owners' Association, Inc. We assess all costs of this appeal against the appellant, Donna Grodner.
I respectfully concur in part and dissent in part. In accordance with the decision of the majority in Three Rivers Commons Condominium Association v. Grodner, 2016-0067 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/10/17), 220 So.3d 776, writ denied, 2017-0974 (La. 4/2/18), 248 So.3d 315, I find that there is a utility servitude in question. However, the trial court should hold a trial or a hearing to determine what structures may or may not be located in the utility servitude, as that issue is not res judicata since the trial court and this court have failed to decide that issue in any previous case or appeal. I would remand this case to the trial court to determine that issue, which has led to years of litigation.
1. We borrow these facts in part from this court's prior related opinion in Three Rivers Commons Condominium Association v. Grodner, 2016-0067 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/10/17), 220 So.3d 776, writ denied, 2017-0974 (La. 4/2/18), 248 So.3d 315.
2. We note, however, as more fully explained herein, a majority of the panel agreed that a utility servitude exists across TRC's property.
3. Although styled as a cross claim, Ms. Grodner actually asserted a reconventional demand. Ms. Grodner also filed her answer with this pleading.
4. The 1990 amendment to LSA-R.S. 13:4231 made a substantial change in the law. See LSA-R.S. 13:4231 Comments-1990, comment (a); Burguieres, 843 So.2d at 1052.
5. We note that the “iron pipe” referred to by Ms. Grodner was a threshold, which Ms. Grodner asserts made it difficult for golf carts to cross.
6. As reasons, the trial court specifically adopted the arguments of TRC on all issues before the court in its post-trial memorandum.
7. Therefore, according to Ms. Grodner, dog walking and golf cart passage on the pathway are permitted.
8. For purposes of res judicata, a valid judgment is one rendered by a court with jurisdiction over both the subject matter and the parties after proper notice was given. Likewise, for purposes of LSA-R.S. 13:4231, a final judgment is one that disposes of the merits in whole or in part. See LSA-R.S. 13:4231 Comments-1990, comment (d); Burguieres, 843 So.2d at 1053.
9. Both the civilian law and the common law mandate that there must be “identity of parties” before the doctrine of res judicata can be used to preclude a subsequent suit. This requirement does not mean that the parties must have the same physical identity, but that the parties must appear in the same capacities in both suits. Burguieres, 843 So.2d at 1053.
10. This majority was made up of Judges McClendon, Holdridge, and Calloway.
Holdridge J. concurs in part and dissents in part.
Response sent, thank you
Docket No: 2023 CA 0050
Decided: October 31, 2023
Court: Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit.
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