Res Judicata Bars Multiple CHINS Petitions on the Same Allegations; V.B. v. Indiana Department of Child Services (In re Eq.W.)

In most areas of the law, you cannot relitigate a case that you’ve lost. But there was some question regarding whether this legal principle should apply to CHINS proceedings. That question is conclusively resolved in this case—and it puts the burden on DCS to prove its allegations in the first instance.

Mother and Father had five children, and DCS filed a petition alleging that these children were CHINS. After a hearing, the trial court found that DCS failed to present sufficient evidence to meet the preponderance of evidence standard required for a CHINS determination. Mother moved to dismiss the CHINS petition with prejudice, but the trial court dismissed it without prejudice instead.

The next day, DCS filed a new CHINS petition based on the same allegations. After a hearing on this second petition, the trial court found that the children were CHINS. The mother appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On transfer, the Court first had to answer the following question: “does the unique nature of a CHINS proceeding allow for stringent application of claim preclusion to bar the State from taking multiple bites at the same apple?” After all, if CHINS proceedings are designed to protect children, should that be the primary factor guiding this question? But while the Court found this to be “a colorable argument,” it was not persuaded.

[T]he nature of a CHINS proceeding is such that a trial court must consider a broad range of evidence to ensure the State has met its burden in proving its case, including “consider[ing] the family’s condition not just when the case was filed, but also when it is heard.” But we also think that this procedure is ripe for potential abuse by the State. The dispute before us today emphasizes this point.

Here, DCS filed its first petition alleging the Children were CHINS on June 27, 2017. Distilled to its essential material facts, the petition was based on Mother and Father’s … substance abuse … . Because DCS’s motion to present telephonic testimony of Parents’ drug screen results was denied and because DCS apparently presented no other evidence to the court, the first petition was dismissed for the State’s failure to meet its burden of proof. The very next day, DCS filed its second petition that 8 contained no additional allegations that would have occurred after the October 25, 2017, fact-finding hearing on the first petition.

To us, this case screams out as an obvious “second bite at the apple.” The fact of the matter is that DCS failed to present sufficient evidence to meet its burden of proof on the first go–round. … While we understand the pressures placed on DCS to protect the safety and wellbeing of children in our state, we can in no way endorse the procedural tactics employed in this case to essentially string out the CHINS proceeding until enough evidence was collected, all the while keeping the children separated from their parents. There is simply too much at stake to condone these actions.

Thus, the Court held that res judicata bars the relitigation of CHINS allegations that were or could have been decided in an initial CHINS proceeding. “[T]o to escape the preclusive effect of res judicata in a CHINS proceeding, the State’s subsequent petition must include new allegations of material fact separate from what was available to DCS to use at the original fact-finding hearing.”

But despite winning the battle, Mother lost this particular war because she did not raise the issue of res judicata in the trial court.

[T]he issue must be raised by a party to the proceeding so as to bring it to the court’s attention for review. Once the issue is raised and proven, a court does not have discretion to ignore the doctrine of res judicata.

And in CHINS proceedings, “the best practice for the moving party is to move for dismissal on res judicata grounds at the earliest opportunity.” Thus, the Mother waived the issue for appeal, and the trial court’s failure to consider res judicata was not fundamental error.

Justices Slaughter and Massa only concurred in part because they felt the majority’s opinion makes “misstatements of governing law, some of which cannot be reconciled with our trial rules.” They would draw a bright-line between the concepts of issue and claim preclusion (“these two forms of preclusion are not separate branches but separate trees”). They would not apply these doctrines here because the trial court dismissed the initial CHINS petition without prejudice. And they would require parents in CHINS proceedings to assert the affirmative defense of res judicata in a responsive pleading.

Perhaps the Court is correct in implying that Rule 8(C)’s requirements of a responsive pleading do not reflect the reality of CHINS practice on the ground in our trial courts. But as long as the trial rules apply to all civil suits, we should enforce the rules as written and not sanction the short-cut practices that today’s decision ratifies.

Lessons:

  1. Collateral estoppel usually prohibits the litigation of claims or issues that were or could have been raised before a prior final judgment.
  2. Collateral estoppel applies in CHINS proceedings in a modified form—it bars the relitigation of whether a child is a CHINS unless the subsequent CHINS petition includes new allegations of material fact separate from what was available to DCS to use at the original fact-finding hearing.
  3. A party who wishes to dismiss a CHINS petition on res judicata grounds should raise the issue in a motion at the earliest opportunity.

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