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E.I.B. v. J.R.B.

Decided: August 5, 1992.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hunterdon County.

Shebell, Skillman and D'Annunzio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Skillman, J.A.D.


The issue presented by this appeal is whether an unsuccessful paternity action brought by a mother on her child's behalf bars a subsequent action brought in the name of the child herself.

L.J. gave birth to E.I.B. on December 15, 1975. Shortly thereafter, L.J. filed a complaint pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:16-2 and 3, alleging that J.R.B. is E.I.B.'s father and seeking child support. The case was ultimately tried before a jury, which returned a verdict in J.R.B.'s favor finding that he is not E.I.B.'s father. L.J. appealed to this court, which affirmed. L.J. v. J.B., 150 N.J. Super. 373, 375 A.2d 1202 (App.Div.1977). The Supreme Court denied L.J.'s petition for certification. 75 N.J. 24, 379 A.2d 255 (1977).

On June 12, 1991, this suit was brought on E.I.B.'s behalf pursuant to the New Jersey Parentage Act, N.J.S.A. 9:17-38 to -59, by her grandmother, I.J., again alleging that J.R.B. is her father and seeking both retroactive and prospective support. J.R.B. moved to dismiss on the ground that the present action is barred by the jury verdict in the prior action under principles of res judicata. In an oral opinion, the trial court denied the motion on the grounds that the Parentage Act created a different cause of action than N.J.S.A. 9:16-2 and 3, and that E.I.B. and her mother were not "in privity for the purposes of res judicata on the prior action." The court also appointed a non-family member as guardian ad litem for E.I.B.

We granted J.R.B.'s motion for leave to appeal from the order denying his motion to dismiss and now reverse.

"The application of res judicata doctrine requires substantially similar or identical causes of action and issues, parties, and relief sought." Culver v. Insurance Co. of N. Amer., 115 N.J. 451, 460,

559 A.2d 400 (1989). E.I.B. argues that the Legislature created "a new cause of action in favor of the child" when it enacted the Parentage Act, and consequently that the judgment against L.J. on her claim under N.J.S.A. 9:16-2 and 3 is not res judicata with respect to E.I.B.'s claim. We find it unnecessary to decide whether the cause of action established under the Parentage Act is substantially similar to the cause of action formerly provided under N.J.S.A. 9:16-2 and 3, because we conclude that E.I.B.'s complaint would be barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel in any event.

"The doctrine of collateral estoppel is a branch of the broader law of res judicata that bars relitigation of any issue actually determined in a prior action between the same parties and their privies involving a different claim or cause of action." Allesandra v. Gross, 187 N.J. Super. 96, 103, 453 A.2d 904 (App.Div.1982). For the doctrine to apply, it must be shown that "(1) the issue decided in the prior adjudication was identical with the one presented in the subsequent action, (2) the prior action was a judgment on the merits, and (3) the party against whom it was asserted had been a party or in privity with a party to the earlier adjudication." State v. Gonzalez, 75 N.J. 181, 189, 380 A.2d 1128 (1977). In addition, "the factual issue must actually have been litigated and determined" and the resolution of that factual issue must have been "necessary to support the judgment rendered in the prior action." Allesandra v. Gross, supra, 187 N.J. Super. at 105, 453 A.2d 904.

It is undisputed the issue of paternity decided in J.R.B.'s favor in 1976 is identical to the issue now raised by E.I.B., that that issue was actually litigated and determined in J.R.B.'s favor in the earlier action and that the resolution of that issue was essential to the judgment. It also is undisputed that E.I.B. was not a named party in the earlier action. Therefore, the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel to bar the present action turns on whether E.I.B. was "in privity" with L.J. in the earlier action.

Privity generally involves a party to earlier litigation so identified in interest with a party to later litigation that they represent the same legal right. One circumstance in which there is privity is where one party is designated by statute to act as another party's representative. Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 41(1)(d) (1980); see E.E.O.C. v. United States Steel Corp., 921 F. 2d 489, 493-94 (3d Cir.1990); see also Moore v. Hafeeza, 212 N.J. Super. 399, 403-05, 515 A.2d 271 (Ch.Div.1986). Therefore, the determination whether E.I.B. was in privity with L.J. requires an analysis of the nature of the action brought by L.J. and the interests she represented therein.

The prior action against J.R.B. was brought pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:16-2, which provided that "[a] child born out of wedlock shall be entitled to support and education from its father and mother to the same extent as if born in lawful wedlock," and N.J.S.A. 9:16-3, which provided in relevant part that "[p]roceedings to enforce the obligations imposed by section 9:16-2 of this Title may be maintained by one parent against the other, or by the person having physical custody of the child." Thus, an action under N.J.S.A. 9:16-3 was a representative action brought by a parent or guardian on the child's behalf. B. v. O., 50 N.J. 93, 97, 232 A.2d 401 (1967). Moreover, a child could not ...

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