Every once in a while, although not very frequently, the doctrines of procedural laws impact litigation a land-use planning issues. In Finley v Marshall County, the petitioner attacked the decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals denying his request that he be recognized as a nonconforming rock quarry. Unfortunately, several years before, the same applicant had requested the same relief from the same as zoning board and of course with the same result. However, since the applicant at that time had not appealed the case by means of the common law writ of certiorari up to the chancery or circuit courts of the county, the Tennessee Court of Appeals determined that the prior case operated as res judicata in the context of the current case. That is, the result in the first case barred further litigation in a new case in an attempt to change the result. As the court said in Finley:
The doctrine of res judicata applies to the determinations of administrative agencies ―acting in a quasi-judicial capacity-- when the following conditions are met:
(1) the issues decided in adjudicative proceedings are identical; (2) the prior adjudication resulted in a judgment on the merits; (3) the proceedings involve the same parties; and (4) the parties had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior proceeding.
Wayman v. Transp. Licensing Comm’n of Metro. Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cnty., No. M2009-01360-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 1293796, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 5, 2010) (citing Mangrum v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 950 S.W.2d 33, 36 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997)).
The general rule concerning the application of the doctrine of res judicata to decisions by administrative boards has been summarized as follows:
Like a judgment of a court, an administrative adjudication is res judicata or conclusive between the same parties on the same cause of action not only as to all matters litigated, but as to all matters which could have been litigated in the proceeding with respect to such cause. An administrative decision denying or dismissing a party‘s claim on the merits precludes such party from obtaining, in a judicial proceeding not designated for review of the administrative decision, the relief denied by the administrative agency, whether upon the same ground as urged in the administrative proceeding, or upon another ground. An administrative decision granting a party the relief asked for prevents such a party from obtaining additional relief in a judicial proceeding upon the same ground.
Purcell Enters., Inc. v. State, 631 S.W.2d 401, 407 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1981) (quoting 2 AM. JUR. 2D Administrative Law § 502 (1962)).
The Tennessee Court of Appeals went on to apply the four factors and concluded that in this matter, all four factors applied properly. That is, because the issues were fully and fairly litigated in a previous case where the issues were identical, parties were identical and a judgment was reached by the board of zoning appeals, the applicant had no further opportunity to contest the final judgment in the original zoning board matter.
Res judicata does not often apply in the context of administrative proceedings. That is, you don't often see a case where a prior zoning board decision did not get appealed in the first instance and then gets appealed at a later time. I recently had a case myself where I was contacted at a approximately the end of an administrative proceeding, with the idea of filing an appeal. However, I could not make contact with the other attorney who was originally representing the client, and I did not want to interject myself into the case until I had spoken with the original attorney. Because I was never able to get any satisfactory contact with the original attorney, I asked that the client just refile. Unfortunately, this also had the effect of res judicata and ultimately we lost in the Chancery Court on that basis.
Certainly while the doctrine of res judicata does not crop up too often in zoning and land-use planning litigation, when it does, it certainly has the effect of ending the litigation without the ability of the applicant to get to a final decision in that particular instance. On the other hand, certainly the result is fair: the petitioner should have appealed the case in the original instance and sought judicial review and cannot now complain that his failure to do so is unfair.