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Lee Ann Hojberg, As Special Administrator For the Estate of Kenneth Hojberg v. the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society

April 13, 2012

LEE ANN HOJBERG, AS SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR FOR THE ESTATE OF KENNETH HOJBERG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN GOOD SAMARITAN SOCIETY, INDIVIDUALLY AND D/B/A GOOD SAMARITAN SOCIETY ALBERT LEA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Karen E. Schreier Chief Judge

ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS

Defendant, The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society (Good Samaritan), moves the court to suspend the dispositive motions deadline and to allow further briefing on the issue of res judicata. Docket 17. Good Samaritan also moves the court to dismiss plaintiff's claims with prejudice because a Minnesota judgment bars this court from relitigating the issues due to res judicata. Docket 21. Plaintiff, Lee Ann Hojberg, as special administrator for the estate of Kenneth Hojberg, resists these motions. Docket 18 & Docket 23. Hojberg claims that res judicata is inappropriate in this case because the Minnesota and South Dakota causes of action involve different parties and different types of claims. For the following reasons, Good Samaritan's motion to dismiss is granted.

BACKGROUND

Between January and May of 2008, four teenage nursing assistants who worked at the Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea, Minnesota, engaged in systematic abuse of a number of elderly adult residents of Good Samaritan's facility. Docket 1 at 2. One of the victims of this abuse was Kenneth Hojberg. Kenneth's power of attorney brought a personal injury claim on his behalf in Minnesota state court on January 20, 2010. Docket 22-2. Three other victims of the abuse were included in that action. Three of the four victims died during the course of litigation. The claim of the fourth plaintiff was arbitrated. The causes of death are unrelated to the abuse. Docket 23 at 1-2.

After the decedents' deaths, Good Samaritan moved for summary judgment as to each of the deceased plaintiffs because it alleged that the cause of action abated under Minnesota law. The Minnesota court allowed the estates to voluntarily dismiss their claims without prejudice in Minnesota so the claims could be brought in South Dakota. The court reasoned that plaintiffs "had sought the voluntary dismissals early in the litigation and that [Good Samaritan] would not be prejudiced merely by having to defend the same claims in South Dakota federal court." Butts ex rel. Iverson v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Soc'y, 802 N.W.2d 839, 840 (Minn. Ct. App. 2011). Lee Ann Hojberg then filed this cause of action on behalf of Kenneth's estate on November 8, 2010. Docket 1. In August of 2011, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's dismissal of the Minnesota Butts decision and held that Good Samaritan was entitled to summary judgment and dismissal with prejudice. Butts, 802 N.W.2d at 843-44. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied further review in October of 2011. Docket 22-5. The judgment and dismissal became final on November 28, 2011, when the case was dismissed with prejudice. Docket 22-6 at 1.

Meanwhile, four different actions involving the victims of the nursing abuse were pending in front of this court. In June of 2010, Good Samaritan moved to dismiss one of those cases, claiming that Minnesota, rather than South Dakota, law applied to the action. Minnesota law provided that a personal injury cause of action abates with the death of the claimant. This court denied Good Samaritan's motion on December 28, 2010, and applied South Dakota's then-existing choice-of-law rule to conclude that South Dakota had "the most significant relationship" to the claim. Jacobs ex rel. Jacobs v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Soc'y, Civ. No. 10-4035, 2010 WL 5439767, at *4-6 (D.S.D. Dec. 28, 2010).

While briefing continued in the Hojberg matter, the court granted summary judgment to Good Samaritan in two of the other cases that were before the court. See Butts v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Soc'y, Civ. No. 10-4063, ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2012 WL 426692 (D.S.D. Feb. 9, 2012); Jacobs ex rel. Estate of Jacobs v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Soc'y, Civ. No. 10-4035, ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2012 WL 346670 (D.S.D. Feb. 2, 2012). In the South Dakota Butts case the court concluded that the action could not proceed because, for several reasons, the Minnesota Butts decision was res judicata. Butts, 2012 WL 426692, at *2-3. The court determined that res judicata applied because both actions included the same parties or their privies, the same set of underlying facts, there was a judgment on the merits in Minnesota, and the parties had a full and fair opportunity to litigate their claims. Id. at *3-5. Good Samaritan now moves for the court to accept briefing on the issue of res judicata and to dismiss this action.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review for a motion to dismiss filed under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) or 12(c) is the same. Westcott v. City of Omaha, 901 F.2d 1486, 1488 (8th Cir. 1990). Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(6)*fn1 provides that dismissal is appropriate for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]" Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The court will assume that all facts alleged in the complaint are true "no matter how skeptical the court may be." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1959 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The court construes "the complaint liberally in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Eckert v. Titan Tire Corp., 514 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted).

To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must " 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' " Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1960 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The complaint must also contain factual allegations that raise the "right to relief above the speculative level . . . ." Parkhurst v. Tabor, 569 F.3d 861, 865 (8th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). The court will, however, "reject conclusory allegations of law and unwarranted inferences." Silver v. H&R Block, Inc., 105 F.3d 394, 397 (8th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). If "the allegations show on the face of the complaint that there is some insuperable bar to relief, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is [still] appropriate." Benton v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 524 F.3d 866, 870 (8th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted).

DISCUSSION

Good Samaritan argues that res judicata bars plaintiff's claims because both the Minnesota and South Dakota causes of action involve the same parties or their privies and the same operative facts, there was a final judgment on the merits, and plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to litigate her claim in Minnesota. For these reasons, Good Samaritan states that the Minnesota and South Dakota claims are the same cause of action and cannot be relitigated. Hojberg claims that res judicata is not applicable because both the parties and the types of claims are distinct in each case. In the alternative, Hojberg argues that the court should apply the exception to res judicata because its application would contravene public policy.

Through the Full Faith and Credit Clause, "Congress has specifically required all federal courts to give preclusive effect to the state-court judgments whenever the courts of the State from which the judgments emerged would do so[.]" Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 96 (1980). The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has concluded that res judicata is a substantive issue in a diversity case and is controlled by state law. Hillary v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 123 F.3d 1041, 1043 (8th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). "In determining which state's res judicata law applies, 'it is fundamental that the res judicata effect of the first forum's judgment is governed by the first forum's law, not by the law of the second forum.' " Id. (citations omitted).

Because the first Butts cause of action was decided in Minnesota, Minnesota law will apply to the res judicata ...


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