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Howell v. Hodap/Johnson - 5/12/2009

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Claim Preclusion Bars State Law Claims That Could Have Been Asserted in a Federal Court Cause of Action.

In March 2003, officers with the Prescott Area Narcotics Task Force, including Officers Hodap and Johnson, arrived at the home of Patti and Robert Howell to execute a search warrant.  When nobody answered the door, the officers used a battering ram to enter the premises, startling the Howells awake.  Frightened, Robert Howell fired a warning shot toward the door just as the officers entered.  The shot came within inches of one of the officers.  Both Robert and Patti Howell sustained injuries when the officers removed them from their home and handcuffed them.  The Howells were both taken to the police station while their investigation was completed.  No charges were ever filed against Patti Howell; the charges filed against Robert Howell were eventually dropped. 

In December 2003, the Howells filed a lawsuit in Yavapai County Superior Court against Hodap and Johnson, among other, asserting the following claims for relief: violations of their rights under the Arizona Constitution, on the basis of substantive due process violations, unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force, and unconstitutional arrest; negligence; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; false arrest; assault and battery; and violation of A.R.S. § 13-3916.  Before the trial could be held, the Howells filed a lawsuit in federal court asserting similar claims for relief:  violations of their rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, on the basis of substantive due process violations, unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force, and unconstitutional arrest, and interference with their right to a fair trial.  The defendants prevailed on all of the claims in the federal district court; three were decided on summary judgment and the rest by the jury.  

Johnson then filed a motion for summary judgment in the state court proceeding on grounds of issue preclusion and claim preclusion.  Hodap filed a motion for summary judgment arguing issue preclusion and joined Johnson’s supplemental briefing on claim preclusion. The trial court denied these motions.  Before trial, the trial court granted the defendants’ motions for judgment as a matter of law on the substantive due process, unconstitutional arrest, judicial deception, false arrest of Robert Howell and assault claims.  The court also determined that Hodap was liable for Patti Howell’s false imprisonment.  At trial, the jury returned verdicts in favor of the defendants. 

On appeal, defendants argue that the trial court erred in failing to apply the doctrine of claim preclusion.   The Arizona Appeals Court agreed, affirming the entry of judgment in favor of Johnson and Hodap and vacating the entry of judgment in favor of Patti Howell.  Addressing the necessary elements for claim preclusion, the Court explained that the issue in the case was whether the federal court case involved the same claims or causes of action as the state court case, and noted that the Arizona Supreme Court has not yet articulated the appropriate test for making this determination.  As a result, the Court looked to Ninth Circuit law.  The Ninth Circuit cases also discuss a variety of tests for determining whether a subsequent case involves the same claims, but the Court noted that the key issue in all of the Ninth Circuit cases is whether the two cases arise out of the “same nucleus of facts.”  Applying this test to the facts at hand, the Court held that the federal and state court actions arise out of the same transactional nucleus of facts, and the claims brought under Arizona law in the state court could have been brought in the federal court action. The Court further explained that the state tort claims also arise out of the same transactional nucleus of facts, even though the legal theories are different from those asserted in the federal cause of action. 

Judge Barker authored the opinion, Judges Weisberg and Gemmill concurred. 

Posted On: 5/19/2009