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South Dakota Res Judicata Ban of State Constitutional Due Process Claim Upheld

by David Reutter 

The South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a trial court's summary judgment dismissing a wrongful death suit brought by Lynette Johnson (Johnson) against the South Dakota Department of Corrections (DOC) and several of its officials. It held that there was no evidence of extreme or outrageous conduct in DOC's preparation of its incident report, there was no material facts supporting the fraudulent misrepresentation claim, and there was no error in applying res judicata  bar to state constitutional due process claim already ruled and the federal court.

Johnson's husband, officer Ronald Johnson (Ronald), was killed by prisoners in a failed escape attempt. DOC voluntarily published on incident report evaluating its performance and recommending charge. Johnson learned that the reported omitted important facts, like the warden's decision to reduce the killer's custody despite reports of their previous plan to kill a guard and escape. The report also misrepresented that the staff had followed all rules and procedures, but they had not.

Johnson filed a lawsuit in the state court. The suit was removed to the federal district court where the federal constitutional due process claim was dismissed based on a finding that the killers were "private actors," and the provision protected against "government actors."

On remand to the state, Johnson argued an identical due process claim applied to the state constitution. The state Supreme Court upheld the trial court's ruling that the cause was res judicata barred because there was no distinction between the state and federal due process clauses, and no expanded protection presented in the state claim. Johnson sought to argue new facts were available, but the court noted that newly discovered evidence does not prevent application of res judicata.

Johnson also argued that the trial court erred in finding there was no evidence of DOC's intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) by publishing the faulty incident report. She cited cases showing extreme and outrageous conduct may be based on written reports. However, those cases were distinguished. Both cases falsely reported the cause of death, this case did not. Both cases involved extreme and outrageous emotional distress. One resulted in the wrong person being charged with murder. The second resulted in stopping the funeral for a second autopsy. No such distress was present here and none was proven to be intended.

Johnson also argued that her claims of fraudulent misrepresentation of facts were supported by material facts. The state supreme court looked to applicable law and ruled that DOC's intent to publish the report is not proof of an intent to deceive Johnson. The court further held that Johnson's own admissions showed she did not rely on the report, and this claim required the reliance on the false information. Finally, there was no showing of any actual harm caused. Johnson argued that the harm was emotional, but the court found no case law to support that conclusion.

The supreme court upheld summary judgment.

See: Estate of Ronald E. Johnson v. Douglas Weber, South Dakota DOC, 2017 S.D. 36, N.W. 2d (S.D. 2017).

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Related legal case

Ronald E. Johnson v. Douglas Weber