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Fourth Circuit Rules Lawsuit over Inadequate Prison Food Not Barred by Res Judicata

by Lonnie Burton

On April 25, 2016, the Fourth Circuit overturned a district court’s order dismissing a lawsuit filed by a South Carolina prisoner who alleged that the food served at a state prison was so inadequate and lacking in nutrition as to violate his Eighth Amendment rights. The appellate court held that a previous unsuccessful lawsuit filed by another prisoner alleging the same violations did not bar the plaintiff’s complaint.

Lewis Duckett and 15 other prisoners at the Kershaw Correctional Institution in South Carolina filed suit in April 2013, challenging the quality of food served at the facility. They alleged that meals failed to meet the recommended daily amounts of vitamins and nutrients, that the prison served insufficient portions, and that food purported to be beef was actually made from poultry offal and organs.

The parties agreed that the complaint was drafted by Bernard McFadden, a prisoner who had previously filed and lost an exact same lawsuit while housed at another South Carolina prison. The state defendants moved to dismiss Duckett’s suit – which had since been split into 16 separate cases by the district court – on the basis of res judicata, arguing the “subject matter of this action had already been litigated by Plaintiff’s privies and a full and final decision on the merits had been rendered by this court.”

While the magistrate judge recommended that neither res judicata nor collateral estoppel barred Duckett’s complaint, the district court granted the state’s motion to dismiss on res judicata grounds. The court concluded that Duckett “was in privity with Plaintiff McFadden in the prior case,” and that because Duckett would have benefited had McFadden prevailed, his claim was now barred. Duckett appealed and the Fourth Circuit reversed.

Overruling the state’s assertion and the district court’s conclusion that Duckett was bound by the judgment in McFadden’s prior lawsuit, and that Duckett’s interest was “so identified with the interests of” McFadden that “representation by one party is representation of the other’s legal right,” the Fourth Circuit said that argument was foreclosed by Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008) unless an exception applied.

Taylor held that each person should have his or her own day in court with a “full and fair opportunity” to litigate their claims, and that “a person not party to an action is not bound by a judgment.” There are six exceptions to that rule, however the Court of Appeals found none were applicable to Duckett’s lawsuit.

Four of the six exceptions clearly did not apply. Duckett did not agree to be bound by McFadden’s suit, was not involved in it, did not assume control over it and Duckett’s current complaint did not implicate “a special statutory scheme limiting relitigation.”

Another exception applies if the parties had a previous legal property-based relationship, which the Court easily found was unsupported by the record despite the state’s passing suggestion to the contrary.

The last exception would have precluded Duckett from bringing his action “as a representative or agent” of McFadden, who was bound by the outcome in his previous litigation. The appellate court held that despite the fact that McFadden had drafted Duckett’s complaint, which was identical to McFadden’s, there was nothing in the record to suggest McFadden was using Duckett “as his foil,” or that he was anything other than Duckett’s “jailhouse lawyer.”

The Fourth Circuit said the record was clear that Duckett had signed his own complaint, paid the filing fee from his own prison account and later supplemented the complaint with his own language. Thus, “Taylor’s fifth exception does not apply to this case,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Accordingly, as a non-party to McFadden’s suit, Duckett is not barred by a judgment from that suit from pursuing his own similar claims in this action. The district court’s judgment ... is thus reversed.”

Following remand, the case resolved in November 2016. See: Duckett v. Fuller, 819 F.3d 740 (4th Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

Duckett v. Fuller