Tennessee Supreme Court Lowers the Bar on Collateral EstoppelIn Bowen ex rel. John Doe v. Arnold, the Tennessee Supreme Court abandoned the traditional mutuality requirement for both offensive and defensive collateral estoppel, removing one traditional hurdle for parties seeking to assert the doctrine.

The plaintiff brought the lawsuit on behalf of her young son after he was molested while participating in a mentorship program sponsored by the Boys and Girls Club of Middle Tennessee in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tennessee. A jury convicted the child’s mentor, William Arnold, of three counts of rape of a child. The plaintiff brought a civil suit against Mr. Arnold and the sponsoring organizations.

Following Mr. Arnold’s criminal conviction, the plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment against Mr. Arnold asserting that he was collaterally estopped from relitigating in the civil suit “whether he raped and sexually battered” the child. Mr. Arnold argued, among other things, that he should not be estopped from relitigating that issue because plaintiff had not satisfied the strict mutuality requirement of collateral estoppel. Under this requirement, a party can only assert collateral estoppel if they were a party to the first action or in privity with the party in the first action. Mr. Arnold argued that because the plaintiff was not a party to the criminal suit and was not in privity with the state of Tennessee, the strict mutuality requirement prevented the application of collateral estoppel in this case.

The trial court disagreed with Mr. Arnold. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment and concluded that the plaintiff was in privity with the state of Tennessee. The trial court also granted Mr. Arnold permission to seek an interlocutory appeal. The Court of Appeals, however, declined his application. Mr. Arnold subsequently filed an application to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The court granted the application in order to “determine whether the mutuality requirement should be abolished or modified in Tennessee.”

After examining the history of the doctrine as well as decisions from other jurisdictions, including two United States Supreme Court cases rejecting the mutuality requirement for both offensive and defensive collateral estoppel, the court joined the majority of jurisdictions in rejecting the strict mutuality requirement because “the traditional mutuality requirement has outlived its usefulness and should be abandoned.”

Going forward, the court concluded that when considering whether to apply offensive or defense collateral estoppel in a particular case, Tennessee judges should follow the general approach adopted by section 29 of the Restatement (Second) of Judgments. Section 29 generally precludes parties from relitigating previously decided issues as long as the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the first action or some other circumstance justifies providing the party with a second opportunity to relitigate the issue. Applying these factors to the case at bar, the court held that Mr. Arnold should be collaterally estopped from relitigating the underlying criminal conduct.

By abolishing the mutuality requirement, the court made it significantly easier for parties seeking to assert collateral estoppel against other parties. Under the flexible restatement approach that is now the law in Tennessee, courts will have considerable discretion in determining whether non-mutual collateral estoppel should apply in a particular case. Parties seeking to assert collateral estoppel against another will now only have to show that the party had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in a prior proceeding.