By Richard Harris
Law Clerk to Hon. Susan F. Hutchinson, Illinois Appellate Court, Second District
In McDonald v. Adamson, No, 15-1305, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a ruling from the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois that an inmate’s claims were barred by res judicata.
In 2010, Illinois state prison inmate Donald McDonald filed a complaint in the Illinois Court of Claims against the Illinois Department of Corrections. McDonald claimed that he had been denied his First Amendment free exercise rights as a practicing Muslim. He alleged that he was not permitted to attend Friday prayer services, that prison officials regularly stole prayer cassette tapes and prayer rugs, and that Christians were allowed to have more volunteers enter the prison than were Muslims. McDonald sought, among other things, a damages award of $5,000.
The Illinois Court of Claims conducted a hearing on McDonald’s complaint but failed to issue a decision for more than two years. In the interim, McDonald filed a similar complaint in the federal district court seeking injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In 2013, the Illinois Court of Claims issued an order rejecting the allegations in McDonald’s original complaint. The district court subsequently dismissed McDonald’s federal complaint, finding that the order from the Illinois Court of Claims rendered the federal complaint barred by res judicata.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the defendants’ concession that McDonald’s federal claim was not barred by res judicata. The court explained that Illinois law affords preclusive effect only to a final judgment rendered by a “court of competent jurisdiction.” Because the Illinois Court of Claims lacks jurisdiction to consider claims based upon a federal statute or the federal or state constitutions, it is not a “court of competent jurisdiction” under Illinois preclusion law. Thus, the adverse judgment in the Illinois Court of Claims did not bar McDonald’s federal complaint based upon the same facts.
The Seventh Circuit also declined to address the defendants’ collateral estoppel argument. The court acknowledged that res judicata and collateral estoppel are separate legal doctrines, but noted that the defendants bore the burden to raise collateral estoppel as an affirmative defense in the district court. Hence, the Seventh Circuit would not affirm a judgment based on an affirmative defense raised for the first time on appeal.
The Seventh Circuit noted in closing that, on remand, the district court would be free to grant McDonald leave to amend his complaint. The defendants would also have an opportunity to renew their motion to dismiss.