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‘Res Judicata’: Caciani v. Town of Webster

U.S. District Court, WDNY

‘Res Judicata’

Sanctions

Caciani v. Town of Webster
09-cv-6519L
Judge Larimer

Background: The plaintiff, an owner of a helicopter, constructed a landing pad on his property. The plaintiff commenced an action alleging that his First and 14 Amendment rights were violated by the defendant. Specifically, the plaintiff claims that the Town of Webster  ordinance prohibiting any private aircraft from taking off or landing anywhere within Webster was unconstitutional. The district court had previously ordered summary judgment against the plaintiff concluding that the claims were meritless. Specifically, the district court found that the ordinance was facially valid and that the plaintiff failed to present evidence supporting an equal protection claim under any of the theories he had relied upon.
Subsequently, the plaintiff commenced a second action with an amended complaint that alleged much of the same facts in his first complaint. The plaintiff had, however, asserted additional facts such as the town’s assistant public works commissioner had threatened two elderly neighbors of plaintiff to coerce them into attending a town meeting to complain about the plaintiff. The plaintiff also alleged that the assistant commissioner had induced the couple to write a disparaging editorial in the newspaper about the plaintiff.
The amended complaint, ultimately, asserted a cause of action for the violation of First Amendment rights challenging the validity of the town’s ordinance, as well as a retaliation claim. He also asserts a cause of action for disparate treatment as a result of the plaintiff’s Italian-American heritage. And finally, the plaintiff asserted a claim for defamation.
The defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint contending that all of the plaintiff’s claims were barred by res judicata.

Ruling: The court found that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by res judicata. The court found it undisputed that the prior summary judgment order dismissing the complaint constituted a final judgment on the merits. The parties to the action were also the same, including the assistant commissioner who was not named in the original lawsuit. The court held that the assistant commissioner was acting as an official for the town who was named. Therefore, he was included as “a party” to the original suit.
The court further concluded that the plaintiff’s second lawsuit via the amended complaint was plainly based on the same nucleus of operative facts. The court noted that the allegations asserted were the exact same from the plaintiff’s first bite at the apple. The court held that a plaintiff cannot avoid res judicata by adding some new allegations or recasting the repeated allegations as “background evidence”. Moreover, the new allegations were but instances of the same conduct challenged in the plaintiff’s original lawsuit.
With respect to the plaintiff’s allegations regarding retaliation, the court found them to be meritless. The plaintiff had argued that the town used an increase in tax assessments to harass and retaliate against him for his lawsuit. The court found that the Tax Injunction Act barred such claims as the TIA represents a principle of comity to prevent citizens from challenging the validity of state tax systems in federal courts.
The court concluded that the plaintiff’s second case, filed eight days after the dismissal of his first complaint, was a prime example of why the doctrine of res judicata exists. The court suggested that the two complaints virtual identity was so egregious that it may warrant sanctions. The plaintiff, as well as his attorney, were warned from pursuing the claim any further.

Christina A. Agola for the plaintiff; Adam W. Perry, Joshua Isaac Feinstein and Cynthia Giganti Ludwig of Hodgson Russ LLP for the defendant