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Cheek v. Iron County Attorney

Supreme Court of Utah

August 16, 2019

Haylee Cheek, Petitioner,
v.
Iron County Attorney, Respondent.

          On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals Fifth District, Iron County The Honorable Judge Marvin D. Bagley No. 150500081

          Tyler B. Ayres, Daniel Baczynski, Draper, for petitioner

          Noah M. Hoagland, Jesse C. Trentadue, Salt Lake City, for respondent

          Justice Pearce authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, and Justice Petersen joined.

          OPINION

          PEARCE, JUSTICE

         INTRODUCTION

         ¶1 Haylee Cheek seeks to bring claims in state court against the Iron County attorney, despite having previously sued him in federal court, where her claims were dismissed with prejudice. The state district court dismissed Cheek's claims, concluding that res judicata principles barred her from reasserting them. Cheek argued to the court of appeals that the prior federal judgment was not "on the merits" and should have no preclusive effect. The court of appeals concluded otherwise. We agree and affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 "On appeal from a district court's decision granting a motion to dismiss, we view the facts pled in the complaint and all reasonable inferences from them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Scott v. Universal Sales, Inc., 2015 UT 64, ¶ 4, 356 P.3d 1172. We recite the facts accordingly, but not with great depth or detail; the legal issue on appeal here is not highly fact-driven. Additional background regarding the history of this proceeding can be found in the court of appeals opinion. See Cheek v. Iron Cty., 2018 UT App 116, ¶¶ 2-7, 427 P.3d 522.

         ¶3 Cheek filed suit in federal district court alleging federal constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 and state constitutional violations based on article I, section 9, of the Utah Constitution. She asserted her claims against several defendants, including Iron County and Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett. Cheek sued Garrett as well as the other individual defendants in their official capacities. Garrett moved to dismiss the claims against him under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         ¶4 The federal court dismissed the claims, reasoning that "[a]n official-capacity suit is another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent. What's more, a person sued in his official capacity has no stake, as an individual, in the outcome of the litigation." (Citations omitted.) (Internal quotation marks omitted.) The district court's order stated that the claims were dismissed with prejudice, and the order had the effect of freeing Garrett from the federal litigation.

         ¶5 The federal court subsequently dismissed Cheek's remaining claims-the federal claims with prejudice and the state-law claims without prejudice. Cheek then refiled her suit in state court, alleging state constitutional violations against, among others, Garrett. Garrett again moved to dismiss. This time, he pointed to the federal court order dismissing the claims against him. And asserted that the order was a final judgment on the merits that barred Cheek from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in the federal action. The district court agreed and dismissed with prejudice, concluding that "[Cheek's] claims against [Garrett] are barred by res judicata."

         ¶6 Cheek appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. Cheek, 2018 UT App 116, ¶¶ 16-19. The court of appeals noted that "[t]he district court's decision rested on the claim preclusion branch" of the res judicata doctrine. Id. ¶ 16. Cheek had not challenged the "first two prongs of the claim-preclusion test," which are that "both cases must involve the same parties or their privies," and "the claim that is alleged to be barred must have been presented in the first suit or be one that could and should have been raised in the first action." Id. ¶¶ 16-17 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         ¶7 The court of appeals then addressed Cheek's sole assertion that, under the third prong of the res judicata analysis, the order dismissing the claims against Garrett was not a final judgment on the merits. Id. ¶¶ 17-19. The court of appeals turned to our decision in Mack v. Utah State Department of Commerce, 2009 UT 47, 221 P.3d 194, which held that a "district court action, which was resolved under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), resulted in a final judgment on the merits." Id. ¶ 29. The court of appeals then reasoned that "even though it does not involve the usual hallmarks of a resolution on the merits, a successful motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim results in a final judgment on the merits." Cheek, 2018 UT App 116, ΒΆ 19. And given the limited briefing and record Cheek ...


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