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United States v. Moser

    Brief Fact Summary.

    A court applied res judicata to find for Moser (Plaintiff) in a suit against the United States (Defendant) based upon an earlier judgment on the same facts despite recognizing that the earlier judgment was based upon an incorrect understanding of the law.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When a mixed question of law and fact is decided in an earlier action based upon an incorrect understanding of the law, res judicata still prevents relitigation of that issue in subsequent actions.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff and Jasper were both cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy during the Civil War. Following the war, both went on to serve as career officers in the Navy. Soon after the Civil War, Congress passed a law that granted any officer in the Navy who served during the Civil War retirement pay at three-quarters the sea pay of the next higher grade. When Plaintiff retired, he sued the United States to receive his benefits under this statute. Plaintiff succeeded in his suit on the first installment. Jasper then filed a similar action, but failed in his suit as the United States introduced a statute that stated that Naval cadets were not considered veterans of the Civil War. This statute had not been introduced in Plaintiff’s action. although it clearly would have been dispositive of Plaintiff’s action. Plaintiff then brought three subsequent actions on the next three installments and the court applied res judicata and found for Plaintiff, even though the first judgment was based upon an erroneous understanding of the law. The government appealed.

    Issue.

    When the original action is decided based upon an incorrect understanding of the law, does res judicata still bar relitigation of the question of law and fact in subsequent actions?

    Held.

    (Sutherland, J.) Yes. When a mixed question of law and fact is decided in an earlier action based upon an incorrect understanding of the law, res judicata still prevents relitigation of that issue in subsequent actions. When two successive claims are separate, but similar, the court must determine whether the question of fact is identical. A question of law will not have the effect of res judicata, but a mixed question of law and fact is capable of having res judicata applied. The question in this case of whether Plaintiff is a Civil War veteran is such a mixed question of law and fact. The judgment in the first case was based upon a determination of fact and law. It’s the same question raised in each successive installment claim and so the court must apply res judicata and enter judgment for Plaintiff. Affirmed.

    Discussion.

    In United States v. Stone & Downer Co., 274 U.S. 25 (1927), two importers imported the same kind of goods. Importer A prevailed in litigation to classify the goods as duty-free, while Importer B paid a substantial duty. The Supreme Court held that the litigation involving Importer A was not preclusive in Importer B’s case because the first case involved a factual determination, not a legal determination. Res judicata may not apply when the question presented is purely factual because evidence regarding factual issues can differ substantially even when litigating the status of the same type of goods. The court must evaluate the true issue involved in the two actions in order to determine whether res judicata applies.


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