Monday, July 28, 2008, 3:42 PM

Split Fourth Circuit: N.C. Courts Wouldn't Give Collateral Estoppel Effect To N.C. Default Judgment Arising From Discovery Sanction

Today the Fourth Circuit split over an unresolved issue of N.C. law: whether a state default judgment, entered as a penalty for a party's failure to comply with a N.C. court's discovery order, has collateral estoppel effect in subsequent litigation (in this case, litigation in bankruptcy court). Federal courts must give the same preclusive effect to a state court judgment as the forum that rendered the judgment would give it. The bankruptcy court and district court had concluded that the N.C. courts would give collateral estoppel effect to this default judgment; the Fourth Circuit majority disagreed. Judge Motz authored the decision, joined by Judge Michael. Chief Judge Williams dissented. The case is Sartin v. Macik.

The gist of the majority's ruling: N.C. default judgments don't have collateral estoppel effect because the issues determined by a default judgment aren't "actually litigated" -- one of the prerequisites for collateral estoppel. (But default judgments do have preclusive effect for purposes of res judicata .) The majority said, "We recognize that good policy reasons would seem to support a holding that gives collateral estoppel effect to at least some default judgments. Judgments like the present one, which result from the deliberate abuse of the judicial process, seem to merit preclusive effect. Were we deciding this case as a matter of federal common law, such considerations might well be dispositive." But the court had to apply N.C. law--i.e., had to predict how the N.C. Supreme Court would resolve this unresolved issue as a matter of state law.

On that score, the majority noted with some frustration that N.C. has not adopted a process for federal courts to certify unresolved questions of state law to the N.C. Supreme Court.

Chief Judge Williams disagreed with the majority's account of N.C. law and with the majority's reading of the pertinent section of the Restatement of Judgments. "[A] fair reading of North Carolina law," she wrote, "suggests that a party who begins litigating an issue but ultimately forestalls its resolution on the merits by refusing to comply with discovery orders is collaterally estopped from relitigating that same issue." She also thought that the N.C. Supreme Court would be moved by policy policy reasons and might find persuasive the fact that every federal circuit court to address the question has held that a default judgment entered as a sanction for refusal to comply with discovery orders has preclusive effect.

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