N.D.Ill. Examines Res Judicata and Claim-Splitting Doctrines

In Tank v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 2013 WL 4401375, the Northern District of Illinois examined the reach of the res judicata and claim-splitting doctrines in an employment discrimination suit. 

In 2012, the plaintiff sued T-Mobile, his former employer, for employment discrimination and for violating the Telecommunications Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. (the “TCA”), which outlaws employers accessing “customers’ proprietary network information” (basically, “cell phone records”) without the customer’s consent.  Plaintiff’s TCA count claimed the defendant accessed plaintiff’s cell phone records without his permission while looking into plaintiff’s EEOC claim against the telecom giant. 

This was plaintiff’s second discrimination suit against T-Mobile. In 2011, he filed similar Federal employment discrimination claims (but not a TCA claim) which were defeated on T-Mobile’s summary judgment motion.  After plaintiff filed his second action in 2012, T-Mobile moved to dismiss on the basis of res judicata and improper claim-splitting.  T-Mobile argued that plaintiff’s 2012 case was based on the same operative facts as his 2011 suit (which T-Mobile won on summary judgment) and so the 2012 case was defeated by res judicata’s and claim-splitting.

Held: The Court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s TCA claim and granted the motion to dismiss plaintiff’s employment discrimination claims.

Reasoning/Rules

Res judicata and claim-splitting both aim to prevent repetitive and duplicative litigation; ensuring that all factually-related claims are brought in a single case. 

Res judicata’s elements:

(1) an identity of causes of actions (that is, the second claim is based on the same core of operative facts as the previously litigated “first” claim);

(2) identity of parties or their privies (a fact-specific inquiry decided on case-by-case basis); and

(3) a final judgment on the merits (final judgment = judgment based on the parties’ legal rights as opposed to matters of practice, procedure, jurisdiction or form)  

Claim-Splitting Doctrine

Related to res judicata, claim-splitting differs in only a single sense: while res judicata contemplates a final judgment and separate, sequential lawsuits, claim-splitting applies to two currently pending lawsuits that have not yet reached the final judgment stage.  The claim-splitting doctrine provides the basis for dismissal where two pending lawsuits are duplicative of  one another.    

The ‘Single Core of Operative Facts’ Element 

The Court held that plaintiff’s TCA claims (based on T-Mobile’s (alleged) cell phone snooping) were not barred by res judicata or claim-splitting.  While both the 2011 and 2012 suits pled T-Mobile’s discriminatory conduct, only the 2012 suit alleged T-Mobile violated the TCA’s privacy provisions by scouring plaintiff’s cell phone.  As a result, the Court found that the core of underlying facts giving rise to the 2011 suit (which exclusively involved employment discrimination claims) differed from the 2012 suit (which additionally involved T-Mobile’s violation of the TCA).  *5-6. 

Take-aways: Res judicata and claim-splitting are properly brought as part of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.  The Tank Court gives content to the same claim/same core of operative facts element of res judicata/claim-splitting and shows a willingness to look into factual differences between two separate lawsuits which look on the same on the surface.

Tank provides ammunition to litigants opposing res judicata or claim-splitting pleadings motions by highlighting what a court should focus on when analyzing the same cause/identity of cause action element of the defenses.