The Use of Collateral Estoppel by a Private Party in Suits Against Public Agency Defendants

Collateral estoppel has been defined as “the facet of the doctrine of judicial finality that deals with a judgment’s conclusive effect in a suit on another cause of action.” It precludes relitigation of a previously decided issue when that same issue arises in the context of a subsequent suit based on a different claim.

Traditionally, a party seeking to assert collateral estoppel must establish three elements: (1) identity with an issue actually and necessarily litigated in the prior case, (2) mutuality of parties, that is, the same parties or their privies in the second case as in the first, and (3) a final judgment rendered in the first case; In addition, collateral estoppel has traditionally been used defensively rather than offensively, and has been held to apply only to questions of fact.

In recent years the judiciary, responding in part to the increased congestion of court dockets, has expanded the scope and flexibility of the doctrine of collateral estoppel. This trend has had a significant and beneficial impact in multiparty tort litigation, 9 patents and trademarks, and antitrust law. However, the same cannot be said for public interest litigation, civil rights, and poverty law. This article discusses the application of collateral estoppel against a public agency defendant in civil litigation. Welfare law hypotheticals are used to illustrate the procedural points. The authors are here concerned with cases in which a private litigant might take advantage of a favorable ruling in a prior case to which he or she was not a party by asserting collateral estoppel.