Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion from Nov. 23

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Macgowan v. Town of Castle Rock, et al.        

Michael Macgowan Jr. wanted to put a digital billboard up next to an interstate highway within Castle Rock’s town limits. In 2018, he applied for zoning variances to accommodate his plans. The town denied his request under a provision of the town’s code prohibiting off-premises advertising. Macgowan sued the town and its former mayor asserting violations of his rights under the First, Fifth and 14th amendments. The district court dismissed the claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. 

In February 2021, Macgowan again requested a variance for his proposed digital billboard, which the town denied on the same grounds as his previous request. He then sued the town again for violations of his First, Fifth and 14th amendment rights. In addition to the town, Macgowan sued the current mayor and the town’s building director.

The mayor and town’s building director moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. They asserted, among other things, that the doctrine of claim preclusion prevented Macgowan from litigating the same constitutional claims that had previously been dismissed. A magistrate judge agreed and recommended dismissal, and the district court upheld that recommendation over Macgowan’s objection. This appeal followed.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the dismissal de novo, finding it agreed with the district court that the circumstances of this case satisfy all three elements of claim preclusion. With respect to the first two elements, the 10th Circuit noted Macgowan didn’t attempt to dispute there was a final judgment on the previous claim and that the defendants are either identical to or in privity with the defendants in the prior case. The 10th Circuit went on to note that, as to the third element, Macgowan appeared to argue there is no identity of the cause of action in both lawsuits. The court said it adopted the “transactional approach” to defining a “cause of action” under its 1997 decision in Nwosun v. Gen. Mills Rests., Inc. 

The appeals court also referenced its 2006 ruling in Hatch v. Boulder Town Council, explaining that what constitutes “the same transaction” must be “determined pragmatically, giving weight to such considerations as whether the facts are related in time, space, origin, or motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the parties’ expectations or business understanding or usage.”

The 10th Circuit found Macgowan’s lawsuit involves the same causes of action as his previously dismissed lawsuit. In each case, the court noted, Macgowan submitted essentially an identical request to the town about his proposed digital billboard and received an identical response. In both cases, Macgowan also raised the same claims. 

Macgowan argued his second lawsuit isn’t the same cause of action because he identified a specific town ordinance he hadn’t identified in the first lawsuit. But the 10th Circuit ruled a more specific citation of authority in support of the same claims is insufficient to avoid claim preclusion. It affirmed the dismissal.

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