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Jones v. Cannizzaro

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 28, 2019


         SECTION “H”



         Before the Court are Plaintiff's Partial Motion for Summary Judgment on Brady Violations (Doc. 72) and Motion in Limine (Doc. 74). For the following reasons, the Motions are GRANTED.


         Plaintiff Robert Jones brings claims against Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon A. Cannizzaro, Jr. (“OPDA”) in his official capacity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for damages caused by Jones's wrongful conviction and 23-year incarceration on charges connected to a crime spree. Plaintiff's conviction was vacated for Brady violations on October 8, 2014 by the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, and the charges against him were ultimately dismissed.

         Plaintiff now moves for summary judgment on the portion of his § 1983 claim that requires him to establish that the Defendant violated his Brady rights. Plaintiff argues that this issue was previously determined by the Fourth Circuit in his application for post-conviction relief, and therefore, the issue is res judicata. In addition, Plaintiff moves for an in limine ruling that (1) OPDA is precluded under the doctrine of collateral estoppel from relitigating certain federal court rulings in which courts found that the OPDA committed Brady violations, or in the alternative, that these rulings are admissible as proof of the Brady violations, and (2) that certain state court rulings are admissible as proof of the Brady violations by OPDA identified therein. Defendant opposes both of these motions.


         A. Motion for Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”[1] A genuine issue of fact exists only “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[2]

         In determining whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment, the Court views facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draws all reasonable inferences in his favor.[3] “If the moving party meets the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce evidence or designate specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial.”[4] Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.”[5] “In response to a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the non-movant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate the manner in which that evidence supports that party's claim, and such evidence must be sufficient to sustain a finding in favor of the non-movant on all issues as to which the non-movant would bear the burden of proof at trial.”[6] “We do not . . . in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.”[7] Additionally, “[t]he mere argued existence of a factual dispute will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion.”[8]

         B. Motion in Limine

         “The essential prerequisite of admissibility is relevance.”[9] Evidence is relevant if “it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence . . . and the fact is of consequence in determining the action.”[10] Whether a fact is of consequence is a question governed by the substantive law applicable to the case.[11] “A district court ‘may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of . . . unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, [or] misleading the jury.'”[12] Because Rule 403 “is an extraordinary measure [that] permits a trial court to exclude concededly probative evidence . . . it should be used sparingly.”[13]


         A. Motion for Summary Judgment

         In 2010, Louisiana's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal granted Plaintiff post-conviction relief, ruling that the OPDA had violated his Brady rights (the “Post-Conviction Case”). In so holding, the court stated:

[OPDA's] failure to produce evidence of: (1) the age estimate of the perpetrator; (2) the lack of any mention of gold teeth by the victims on the night of the robberies/kidnapping/rape; (3) the perpetrator's statement that he was taking [the rape victim] to his “neck of the woods;” and (4) Lester's crime spree and the police belief that Lester committed all of the crimes, added together, violated Brady in that all of this evidence was material, and its omission undermined confidence in the jury's verdict.

         The Louisiana Supreme Court denied writs, and Plaintiff was released from custody. The OPDA ultimately dismissed the charges against Plaintiff. Plaintiff now argues that the Fourth Circuit's ruling in the Post-Conviction Case has preclusive effect in this litigation under the doctrine of res judicata.

         When a federal court is asked to give res judicata effect to a state court judgment, it must give the same preclusive effect to the state court judgment as would be given by the courts of that state.[14] Under Louisiana Revised Statutes § 13:4231(3), “[A] valid and final judgment is conclusive between the same parties . . . in any subsequent action between them, with respect to any issue actually litigated and determined if its determination was essential to that judgment.” “[O]nce a court decides an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision precludes relitigation of the same issue in a different cause of action between the same parties.”[15] In order to show issue preclusion, a party must show: (1) a valid and final judgment, (2) identity of parties, (3) whether the issue at stake is identical to the one involved in the prior litigation, (4) whether the issue was actually litigated, and (5) whether the determination of the issues was necessary to the judgment in the prior litigation.[16] Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot satisfy two of these elements. Further, it argues that exceptional circumstances present here make the application of the doctrine of res judicata unjust.

         1. Identity of Parties

         First, Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot show that the parties in the Post-Conviction Case are identical to the parties here. In the Post-Conviction Case, Louisiana law required Plaintiff to name Burl Cain, the custodian of the prison in which he was incarcerated, as the defendant in that proceeding.[17] Here, the defendant is Leon A. Cannizzaro, Jr. in his official capacity as the OPDA. Plaintiff argues that these defendants are identical because the OPDA was in privity with Cain for purposes of the Post-Conviction Case.

         “Identity of parties exists whenever the same parties, their successors, or others appear, so long as they share the same ‘quality' as parties.”[18] “This requirement does not mean that the parties must have the same physical identity, but that the parties must appear in the same capacities in both suits. Identity of parties can also be satisfied when a privy of one of the parties is involved.”[19] Nonparties are deemed the ‘privies' of parties if “the nonparty controlled the prior litigation” or “the nonparty's interests were adequately represented by a party to the action who may be considered the ‘virtual representative' of the nonparty because the interests of the party and the nonparty are so closely aligned.”[20] Plaintiff argues that Cain and the OPDA were in privity under either of these theories. The OPDA, on the other hand, argues that it acted only in the capacity as attorney for the actual defendant, Cain, in the prior action. It argues that it controlled the litigation only as Cain's attorney and is not bound by that litigation when it now appears in its own interest.

         This Court agrees with Plaintiff's characterization of the OPDA's participation in the Post-Conviction Case. Louisiana Criminal Code article 927 states that the custodian-here Burl Cain-should file an answer to post-conviction challenges “through the district attorney in the parish in which the defendant was convicted.” “Although the Code retains the fiction that the custodian is the opposing party, in cases of postconviction challenges, the prosecutor who sought and secured the challenged conviction is really the opposing party. Thus, the Code of Criminal Procedure articles clearly recognize his role as the attorney for the respondent custodian.”[21] That said, Defendant cannot seriously contend that it did not have control over the Post-Conviction Case. A person has control over litigation if he has “effective choice as to the legal theories and proofs to be advanced in behalf of the party to the action. He must also have control over the opportunity to obtain review.”[22] Defendant does not present any evidence indicating that Cain had the ability to make these choices. This Court finds that the OPDA was in privity with Cain in the Post-Conviction Case.

         Indeed, this is not the first court to have reached such a conclusion. In Johnson v. Bogalusa City, another section of this Court held that the fact that “the state court proceeding was nominally captioned against the warden of the facility where Plaintiff was held is irrelevant.”[23] It found that the district attorney “clearly controlled the prior litigation” and that its interests “were adequately represented by the warden.”[24] Accordingly, this Court finds that Plaintiff has satisfied the identity of parties element of res judicata.

         2. Identity of Issues

         Defendant next argues that the issues raised in the Post-Conviction Case are not identical to the issues presented here because Plaintiff raises additional Brady violations either not considered or rejected by the Fourth Circuit. It argues that the Fourth Circuit's ruling was far more limited than the arguments and evidence presented here, and the issues are therefore not identical. Plaintiff clarifies in response that he seeks a finding of res judicata only on those findings considered by the Fourth Circuit to conclude that the OPDA violated his Brady rights. Plaintiff intends to argue at trial that the OPDA also violated his Brady rights in additional ways not addressed by the Fourth Circuit. Accordingly, Plaintiff seeks res judicata only on those issues that are identical, and this element is satisfied. Plaintiff has therefore carried his burden to show that res judicata applies to preclude relitigation of the Brady violations found by the Fourth Circuit in the Post-Conviction Case.[25]

         3. Exceptional Circumstances

         Defendant also argues, however, that exceptional circumstances should prelude the application of res judicata in this case. Louisiana Revised Statutes § 13:4232 states that “[a] judgment does not bar another action by the plaintiff [w]hen exceptional circumstances justify relief from the res judicata effect of the judgment.” The Louisiana Supreme Court has stated that “[t]he ‘exceptional circumstances' exception generally applies to complex procedural situations in which litigants are deprived of the opportunity to present their claims due to unanticipated quirks in the system, to factual situations that could not be anticipated by the parties, or to decisions that are totally beyond the control of the parties.”[26] “[S]uch relief should be granted only in truly exceptional cases, otherwise the purpose of res judicata would be defeated.”[27]Defendant argues that exceptional circumstances are present here because of (1) the nature of the post-conviction habeas action and (2) the quality of the ruling in the Post-Conviction Case.

         First, Defendant argues that it is unfair to apply the doctrine of res judicata offensively against a defendant based on the outcome of a post-conviction proceeding because the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel are not applicable in habeas proceedings. Essentially, Defendant argues that because Plaintiff would not be bound by a prior habeas ruling, it should also not be bound. Defendant's argument, however, is fundamentally flawed. As Plaintiff correctly points out, both Louisiana and federal habeas law prohibit the filing of identical, successive claims for habeas relief.[28] A successive application for habeas relief is permitted only if the petitioner presents new or different claims that could not previously have been brought.[29]Defendant does not cite this Court to any case or law indicating that both parties are not equally bound by the Fourth Circuit's ruling in the Post-Conviction Case.[30]

         Second, Defendant argues that “there is reason to doubt the quality and extensiveness of the procedures followed” in the Post-Conviction Case.[31]Defendant does not, however, actually indicate any way in which the procedures followed by the Fourth Circuit were flawed. Instead, Defendant details two instances in which it believes the Fourth Circuit made erroneous factual findings. In this Court's view, this argument undercuts the policy behind the doctrine of res judicata-“to promote judicial efficiency and final resolution of disputes by preventing needless relitigation.”[32] Defendant asks this Court to relitigate the findings of the Fourth Circuit and disrupt the final resolution reached by that court. This Court declines to do so. Accordingly, Defendant has not shown that the exceptional circumstances exception to res judicata applies here. Plaintiff is therefore entitled to summary judgment on the element of his § 1983 claim requiring him to establish that OPDA violated his Brady rights to the extent of the findings and conclusions reached by the Fourth Circuit in his Post-Conviction Case.

         B. Motion in Limine

         Plaintiff next moves for an in limine ruling regarding the evidence he intends to introduce in support of his § 1983 failure to train claim against Defendant. To succeed on a failure-to-train § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must show the defendant's deliberate indifference through a pattern or policy of similar constitutional violations.[33] To show OPDA's pattern or policy of similar Brady violations, Plaintiff seeks to introduce 44 cases in which federal or state courts have found that the OPDA violated Brady. Plaintiff seeks a ruling that (1) OPDA is precluded under the doctrine of collateral estoppel from relitigating certain federal court rulings in which courts found that the OPDA committed Brady violations, or in the alternative, that these rulings are admissible as proof of the Brady violations, and (2) that certain state court rulings are admissible as proof of the Brady violations by OPDA identified therein.

         1. Collateral Estoppel of Federal Court Rulings

         Plaintiff identifies 12 separate federal court rulings in which a federal court has held that the OPDA violated Brady. He argues that the OPDA has already litigated these issues and lost and should therefore be barred from relitigating them here under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.[34] “When a federal court sitting in diversity is considering the collateral estoppel effect of a prior federal judgment, this Circuit applies federal common law.”[35] Plaintiff seeks to use the doctrine of non-mutual, offensive collateral estoppel to “estop a defendant from relitigating the issues which the defendant ...

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