Res Judicata: California Mandamus Claims Are Not Fundamentally Distinct From Federal Counterparts Under California’s Primary Rights Theory

The age-old doctrine of res judicata is as strong as ever in California. In Franceschi v. Franchise Tax Board, et al. (B267719, filed July 8, 2016) the California Court of Appeal Second District, held that Ernest Franceschi’s Superior Court action against the California Franchise Tax Board (the “Board”) was barred as a result of a prior dismissal, with prejudice, of Franceschi’s Federal District Court action against the Board. The decision’s importance is highlighted by the Court of Appeal’s determination that mandamus claims arising under California state law are not fundamentally different from similar federal privacy claims.

According to the decision, in February 2014, the Board advised Franceschi, a California attorney, that he was delinquent on taxes owed to the Board. They further advised him that failure to pay owed amounts would result in his name being placed on the Board’s published list of the Top 500 debtors, and that it could affect his license status pursuant to California Business & Professions Code § 494.5. On March 14, 2014, Franceschi filed suit against the Board, in United States District Court. Franceschi alleged the publication constituted an invasion of privacy, and violated his Constitutional rights.

The Board filed a Motion to Dismiss, and the District Court granted the Motion. After Mr. Franceschi indicated that he did not believe he could amend the Complaint to state a valid claim, the District Court dismissed the case, with prejudice.

On March 18, 2015, Franceschi filed a Petition for a Writ of Mandamus in the Los Angeles Superior Court against the Board. Franceschi’s petition sought to enjoin the Board from publishing his name on the list, and to have certain statutes deemed unconstitutional. Notably, Franceschi’s petition was premised solely on his right to privacy under the California Constitution.

The Board demurred to the Petition, arguing it was barred by the doctrine of res judicata and failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Superior Court granted the demurrer, holding that the Petition was barred by the doctrine of res judicata because: (1) Franceschi could not avoid the impact of res judicata by choosing to file certain claims in federal court, and thereafter filing suit for claims arising only under the California Constitution in Superior Court, after dismissal of the federal action; and (2) because Franceschi’s procedural tactic was designed to give him a “second bite at the apple.”

The Court of Appeal affirmed. It reasoned that res judicata bars litigation “not only of issues that were actually litigated in the prior proceeding, but also issues that could have been litigated in that proceeding.” (Emphasis in original.) Reaffirming that application of res judicata in California adheres to the “primary rights” theory, the Court of Appeal held that the District Court action involved the same primary right as the Superior Court action, i.e., Franceschi’s right not to have his name and other personal information placed on the list.

Significantly, the Court of Appeal determined that the Federal Court could have exercised supplemental jurisdiction over Franceschi’s California Constitutional claims. In so ruling, the Court of Appeal rejected Franceschi’s argument that the mandamus claim arising under California state law was fundamentally different from its federal counterparts.

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July 18, 2016