Published on:

Collateral Estoppel Explained

The doctrine of collateral estoppel prevents courts from entering findings of facts or conclusions of law contrary to previous litigation. The issues must be the same. The issue must be raised and litigated. The issues must be material and relevant to the disposition of the prior action, and determination of the issues must be necessary and essential to the resulting judgment. Read on to see what happens when the trial court enters an order contrary to the previous findings of facts and the conclusions of law.

Marvin Simms v. Deborah Simms, 673 S.E.2d 753, 195 N.C. App. 780 (N.C. App. 2009)

(a) Facts: In Simms, Plaintiff Father Marvin Simms and Defendant Mother Deborah Simms were married June 6, 1987, separated in 2003, and were subsequently divorced. The couple had two children, one of whom was under the age of eighteen. In 2004 both parties filed actions for domestic violence against the other party. The trial court judge determined that both parties had “failed to prove grounds for issuance of a domestic violence protective order.”


In May of 2004, the district court entered a temporary consent order where the father had physical custody and the mother was allowed scheduled visitation. Deborah Simms filed a motion to modify the custody order after moving to New Jersey. In 2007 the district court entered an order for child support, alimony, and a separate custody order awarding the mother and father joint legal custody and primary physical custody to Deborah Simms.


Marvin Simms argued he was entitled to a rehearing on custody as the trial court was collaterally estopped from relitigation of the same facts and finding that he had committed acts of domestic violence, which was a factor the court was required to consider in determining custody.


(b) Issue: Was the trial court collaterally estopped from finding that the father had committed acts of domestic violence since the issue was raised and actually litigated in his favor during a prior judicial action?


(c) Holding: Yes, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred by relitigating the domestic violence issue finding that Marvin Simms had committed acts of domestic violence and awarding custody of the minor child to Deborah Simms.


(d) Rationale: The North Carolina Supreme Court, in Thomas M. McInnis & Assoc., Inc. v. Hall, 349 S.E.2d 552, 557 (N.C. 1986), held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes a court from relitigating issues that were actually litigated and necessary in determining the outcome of the prior action in another suit involving a different cause of action between the parties. The North Carolina Supreme Court further held collateral estoppel promotes judicial economy and prevents parties from carrying the burden and expense of relitigating previously decided issues. (Id. at 556).


The North Carolina Supreme Court held in King v. Grindstaff, 200 S.e2d 799, 806 (N.C. 1973), that collateral estoppel applies when the following circumstances are present: (a) the issue must be the same as the issues in the previous action; (b) the issues must have been raised and actually litigated in the prior litigation; (c) the issues must have been relevant and material as to the disposition of the prior action; and (d) the determination of the issues in the previous case was

essential and necessary to the judgment. When collateral estoppel is applicable, the doctrine precludes the court from issuing any findings of fact or conclusion of law contrary to the previous disposition. State v. Summers, 528 S.E.2d 17, 20 (N.C. 2000).


This Court held that the trial court in Doyle v. Doyle, 626 S.E.2d 845, 850 (N.C. App. 2006), was precluded from making findings of fact in a custody order that were contrary to the previous domestic violence protective order under the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Doyle, like this case, involved custody and domestic violence. The trial court in Doyle, during custody proceedings, issued findings contrary to the factual determinations made during the domestic violence action, and this Court held that collateral estoppel renders previous findings of facts binding on subsequent custody proceedings regarding those events. (Id.).


In this matter, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the issues presented in the custody case were the same issues raised in the domestic violence hearing. Because the issue was “actually litigated,” “material and relevant” to the action, and was “necessary and essential” to the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to support a domestic violence protective order, the trial court is barred from making findings in the custody matter contrary to the domestic violence action. Simms, 673 S.E.2d at 756. The court set aside the custody order, and the case remanded for rehearing to comply with the N.C. General Assembly requirement that courts consider domestic violence in custody determinations. (Id.).