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Pailes v. United States Peace Corps

November 2, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


This matter is before the Court on defendant's motion to dismiss, plaintiff's opposition thereto, and defendant's reply. For the reasons discussed below, defendant's motion will be granted.


Plaintiff alleges that he sustained an injury in March 1989 while working in Mali as a volunteer with the United States Peace Corps ("Peace Corps"). See Compl. at 3, 23. Generally, he alleges that the Peace Corps failed to provide him adequate medical treatment and subsequently inserted false information into his medical file pertaining to his diagnosis, see id. at 3, 22-23, placing his "record in false light before the public and within the agency," id. at 28, and "besmirching and impugning [his] character," id. at 27. For reasons that are not clearly articulated in the complaint, plaintiff alleges that he was "officially coercively discharged with an inaccurate medical separation." Id. at 27; see id. at 55. The false information in the medical file allegedly prevents him from securing employment, particularly employment with the federal government or a government contractor. See id. at 23-25, 72.

It appears that plaintiff brings this action against the Peace Corps under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12111, et seq., the Federal Employment Compensation Act ("FECA"), 5 U.S.C. § 8101 et seq., the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552, the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2671, et seq. Among other relief, plaintiff demands compensatory damages and injunctive relief. Compl. at 59, 63, 65-67.


A. Neither Res Judicata Nor Collateral Estoppel Bars Plaintiff's Claims Against the Peace Corps

By his own admission, plaintiff has filed suit against the Peace Corps on at least two prior occasions. See Compl. at 11, 22, 29, 41; Pl.'s Mot. in Opp'n to Def.['s] Mot. to Dismiss ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 10 (referring to "many other cases in 1980's - 2003"). The Peace Corps moves to dismiss this action on the ground that plaintiff's entire complaint is barred under the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. See Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss the Compl. ("Def.'s Mem.") at 8-11. Plaintiff counters that "[t]he judicial system has not once considered [his] case on the merits." Pl.'s Opp'n at 7; see id. at 12. Moreover, he asserts that his "course of action differs from [his] prior complaint in 2002," id. at 2, as he also brings constitutional claims and other tort claims in this action, id. at 3-6.

1. Res Judicata (Claim Preclusion)

Generally, a plaintiff is expected to "present in one suit all the claims for relief that he may have arising out of the same transaction or occurrence." U.S. Indus., Inc. v. Blake Constr. Co., 765 F.2d 195, 205 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (quoting 1B J. Moore, Moore's Federal Practice, ¶ 0.410[1] (1983)). "Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits bars further claims by parties or their privies based on the same cause of action," Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153 (1979), on "any ground for relief which [the parties] already have had an opportunity to litigate[,] even if they chose not to exploit that opportunity[,]" regardless of the soundness of the earlier judgment, Hardison v. Alexander, 655 F.2d 1281, 1288 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Among other things, the doctrine is designed to promote judicial economy by preventing needless litigation. See Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore, 439 U.S. 322, 326 (1979) (citation omitted).

Under res judicata, "a subsequent lawsuit will be barred if there has been prior litigation (1) involving the same claims or cause of action, (2) between the same parties or their privies, and (3) there has been a final, valid judgment on the merits, (4) by a court of competent jurisdiction." Smalls v. United States, 471 F.3d 186, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (citations omitted); see Polsby v. Thompson, 201 F. Supp. 2d 45, 48 (D.D.C. 2002); Brannock Assocs., Inc. v. Capitol 801 Corp., 807 F. Supp. 127, 134 (D.D.C. 1992).

2. Collateral Estoppel (Issue Preclusion) "The Supreme Court has defined issue preclusion to mean that 'once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision may preclude relitigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case.'" Yamaha Corp. of Am. v. United States, 961 F.2d 245, 254 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (quoting Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980)), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1078 (1993). "To preclude parties from contesting matters that they have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate protects their adversaries from the expense and vexation attending multiple lawsuits, conserves judicial resources, and fosters reliance on judicial action by minimizing the possibility of inconsistent decisions." Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. at 153-54.

3. Plaintiff's Prior Civil Action Against the Peace Corps*fn1 In 2002, plaintiff "filed a document seeking the appointment of an attorney and describing alleged claims against [the Peace Corps]" in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Pailes v. United States Peace Corps, Civ. No. 02-11358-MEL (D. Mass. Nov. 21, 2002) (Memorandum and Order) at 1.*fn2 "Without reciting all of the facts alleged by plaintiff,... he claim[ed] that he has been wrongfully denied federal employment compensation for an alleged injury he suffered while serving in the Peace Corps." Id. On initial review of the complaint, the court found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's claim because the FECA provided the exclusive remedy for an on-the-job injury for federal employees, including Peace Corps volunteers. Id. at 3. "[T]o the extent that plaintiff [sought] review of [the] denial of FECA benefits and damages for... pain and suffering, his complaint should be dismissed because these claims are not cognizable[.]" Id. at 4. Because plaintiff neither had paid the filing fee nor submitted an application to proceed in forma pauperis, the court directed him to do so. Id. at 1, 6. In addition to denying his request for appointed counsel, the court advised plaintiff that, "if [he] file[d] an Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees and Affidavit or pays the filing fee, he [was] directed to demonstrate good cause why this action should not be dismissed." Id. at 6. Presumably because plaintiff took no further action, the case was dismissed. Pailes v. United States Peace Corps, Civ. No. 02-11358-MEL (D. Mass. Dec. 23, 2002) (dismissal order).

4. Dismissal of the Massachusetts Case Has No Preclusive Effect It is clear that plaintiff has sued the same party, the Peace Corps, both in this district and in the District of Massachusetts, and his cause of action is the same as well. In both cases, the facts on which plaintiff relies pertain to the injury he suffered in March 1989 in Mali and the alleged denial of proper medical care. Although the sole issue before the Massachusetts court appears to have been the denial of federal employment compensation benefits, it appears that plaintiff had an opportunity to litigate any other claims at that time, including those pertaining to his separation. The Peace Corps' motion based on res judicata fails, however, because the Peace Corps cannot show that there has been a final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction. "[D]ismissals for lack of jurisdiction are not decisions on the merits and therefore have no res judicata effect on subsequent attempts to bring suit in a court of competent jurisdiction." ...

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