Karlberg v. Otten (Division 1, April 2, 2012), should be an easy case about res judicata, but it gets a bit complicated when the Court of Appeals attempts to analogize and distinguish previous opinions regarding the doctrine. In the end, we get this jurisprudential nugget: “The first action determined a line, not just a point.” Accordingly, res judicata applies? Is the Court of Appeals adopting its own version of the point-line-plane postulate? It is all a bit unclear.
But first, the facts: Karlberg and Otten are neighbors with a boundary dispute. Karlberg sued Otten seeking to quiet title to a strip of land between the two properties. While perhaps ninety feet of land were potentially in dispute, Karlberg sought to quiet title only up to forty-five feet. Otten answered the complaint, denied Karlberg’s claim to the land, and counterclaimed against Karlberg for trespass damages and an injunction to compel removal of Karlberg’s encroachments.
Less than a month before trial — and long after the close of discovery following numerous delays — Otten sought to amend his counterclaim to include a claim that he had acquired the disputed area through adverse possession. The trial court said it was too late and denied the motion to amend. Otten then filed a separate action as plaintiff against Karlberg, seeking to quiet title based on Otten’s claim of adverse possession.
After a bench trial, the court concluded that Karlberg had established title to the full ninety feet. But because Karlberg’s complaint only sought to quiet title with respect to the forty-five feet of land, the trial court entered judgment in Karlberg’s favor for the forty-five-foot strip and that strip only. Karlberg stated that he was not seeking the entire ninety feet because, among other reasons, he wanted to maintain “peace in the neighborhood.”
As part of his plan to keep peace in the neighborhood, Karlberg promptly brought another action against Otten following his initial victory. The second suit claimed a right to the additional forty-five feet (which would then give him the full ninety feet). Karlberg immediately moved for summary judgment in the second action, arguing that based on the trial court’s initial findings and conclusions, he was entitled to the additional land as a matter of law.
On to the appeal. Otten argued that his motion to amend should have been granted. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that it was within the trial court’s discretion to deny the motion as untimely. Moreover, the Court of Appeals held that Otten’s claim of adverse possession was not tried by “consent of the parties” pursuant to CR 15(b) because Karlberg repeatedly objected to inclusion of evidence related to Otten’s claim.
Here’s where it gets a bit tricky for Otten. His third argument on appeal was that the counterclaim in his initial (and timely!) answer, which asserted title to the disputed property, was sufficient to support any claim of title, including a claim of title by adverse possession. In other words, Otten argued that he should not have been required to move to amend at all — that his initial generic claim of title was sufficient to raise the issue of adverse possession.
The Court of Appeals refused to address this contention because (the Court asserted) Otten did not raise it below. Otten therefore waived the argument. In my view, that is a harsh waiver. After the trial court denied his motion to amend, it is difficult to expect Otten to assert that he should still be able to argue adverse possession, despite the trial court’s ruling. Such an argument would surely draw the ire of the trial court, which is especially dangerous in a bench trial. And in what way should the argument have been raised below? A motion seeking to confirm that no further motion practice was required to raise the issue of adverse possession? It could be argued that Otten did in fact raise the issue below. His continuing efforts to offer evidence of adverse possession at trial (in spite of Karlberg’s objections) could certainly be seen as raising the argument that the claim of adverse possession should go forward without future motion practice and without amendment. But the Court of Appeals disagreed.
Okay, on to the res judicata part or, as I like to call it, the good stuff. The question before the Court of Appeals is whether the trial court’s resolution in Karlberg’s favor (up to forty-five feet) in the first action bars Karlberg’s second action for the remaining forty-five feet. The answer is easy, since as the Court notes, “res judicata prohibits the relitigation of claims and issues that were litigated, or could have been litigated, in a prior action.” (emphasis added). Accordingly, Karlberg’s second claim should be barred. He clearly could have sought the additional forty-five feet in the first action; he just chose not to.
However, in the briefing, Karlberg relied on Washington Nickel v. Martin, 13 Wn. App. 180 (1975), which throws everything into disarray. Washington Nickel involved a boundary-line dispute based on the location of a corner. The trial court dismissed the case. But the Court of Appeals held that, while there were questions about the boundary line, the trial court’s findings regarding the location of the corner should be sustained. However, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case, hoping that resolution of the corner issue would finally resolve the dispute. “Anticipating a second suit, however, [the Court of Appeals] held that the judgment of dismissal was res judicata only as to the location of the corner.” Karlberg relied on this case to argue that because the Washington Nickel plaintiff was permitted to “go back to court to begin a new action that would finally determine the boundary line,” so too should Karlberg be permitted to finish the job he started. Here is how the Court of Appeals addresses Karlberg’s treatment of Washington Nickel:
His attempted analogy is not persuasive. In Wash. Nickel, the first action determined only the location of the corner point where the legal description would begin. Here, the first action ended with a judgment containing a complete legal description of the 45 foot wide strip that Karlberg had acquired. The first action determined a line, not just a point.
But the first action could have determined the boundary line. Indeed, it sought to determine the boundary line. Only the Court of Appeals’s strange pseudo-affirmance and partial dismissal made the case only about the corner point. And the Court of Appeals in Washington Nickel went out of its way to limit the res judicata effect of its opinion. Accordingly, if the Court of Appeals wanted to distinguish Washington Nickel, it could have easily relied on the procedural posture of that case, or of the court’s ability to limit the preclusive effects of its own rulings. Instead, it went with the point-line distinction, which I find unconvincing.
In any event, justice was served. The Court of Appeals stated its holding as follows:
Where judgment in the first action determines the boundary line between two adjoining properties, the judgment is preclusive of future attempts to move the boundary line in one direction or another.
Res judicata barred Karlberg’s second suit against Otten. Res judicata also barred Otten’s suit against Karlberg, based on the same reasoning, since the counterclaim was a compulsory counterclaim under CR 13(a).