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Gillis v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

July 17, 2019

BRENDA COLEMAN GILLIS, Appellant,
v.
WELLS FARGO HOME MORTGAGE d/b/a America's Servicing Company, et al., Appellees.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (AFFIRMING THE BANKRUPTCY COURT)

          Henry E. Hudson Senior United States District Judge

         This bankruptcy matter is before the Court on an appeal filed by Brenda Gillis (pro se "Appellant") pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a). Appellant appeals the Bankruptcy Court's December 14, 2018 Order (the "Order") that dismissed her Complaint with prejudice because it was a mere reiteration of a previously adjudicated matter. (See ECF No. 17-1; see also ECF No. 18 at 15, 17-18.) Pursuant to Fed.R.Bankr.P. 8009, both Appellant and Appellees have designated portions of the record they believe to be pertinent to this appeal, and the matter has been fully briefed. The Court also recognizes that pro se complaints are to be liberally construed, and the Court has done so in its review of this appeal. Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 413 n.3 (4th Cir. 2006).

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 17, 2018, the Bankruptcy Court entered an order against Appellant, overruling her objection to Appellee Specialized Loan Servicing's ("Specialized Loan") Proof of Claim 2. Appellant then appealed that decision to this Court on October 19, 2018.[1] In addition, and based upon that same Bankruptcy Court Order, Appellant also filed a secondary suit in the Bankruptcy Court-that secondary suit is the source of the current appeal.

         The Bankruptcy Court dismissed Appellant's secondary suit with prejudice on December 14, 2018. The Bankruptcy Court concluded that "for the reasons stated by the Court at the hearing conducted on December 12, 2018; and good and sufficient cause appearing therefor, it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED THAT: [ ] The Motions are hereby GRANTED. [ ]The Complaint filed by Plaintiff Brenda Coleman Gillis shall be and hereby is dismissed with prejudice." (ECF No. 17-1 at 2.) Appellant now appeals the dismissal of her secondary suit to this Court.

         Even though Appellant has filed three briefs in this appeal, it is unclear what challenges Appellant raises against the Bankruptcy Court's factual findings and its ultimate conclusion that her secondary suit was rightly precluded under res judicata. (See ECF No. 18 at 15, 17-18.) Appellant filed her first brief on February 1, 2019 prior to the designation of the record ("February 1 Brief').[2] (See ECF No. 3.) In this brief, Appellant outlined ten unsupported "statements of fact." A subsequent brief was filed on May 10, 2019 ("May 10 Brief), in which Appellant claimed there were issues regarding the filing of objections to her Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Plan. (See ECF No. 19.) She then filed "Appellant's BRIEF Amendment #2" (the "Amended Brief) on May 20, 2019. (See ECF No. 20.) In the Amended Brief, Appellant stated she is "requesting an extension to file her Brief. The reasons are the hiccups and roadblocks that this Pro Se Appellant is receiving from the Appellee(s)." She further stated that her brief was "ninety-five percent complete - but ONCE, [she] receive[s] [her] answers from Ms. Brogan - [she] can proceed to turn in [her] completed Brief(s)." (Id. at 2.) However, this filing, like the others, fails to establish how the Bankruptcy Court's dismissal of Appellant's secondary suit was in error.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         On appeal, a district court must accept a bankruptcy court's findings of fact unless those findings are clearly erroneous. In re Highland Constr. Mgmt. Servs., LP, 569 B.R. 673, 680 (E.D. Va. 2017) (quoting Riley v. Robey, 25 Fed.Appx. 149, 152 (4th Cir. 2002)). Conclusions of law, such as res judicata, are reviewed de novo by a district court. See Providence Hall Assocs. Ltd P'ship v. Wells Fargo Bank N.A., 816 F.3d 273, 276 (4th Cir. 2016).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Appellees Wells Fargo Home Mortgage ("Wells Fargo"), Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems ("MERS"), and Specialized Loan Servicing correctly raise the issue of res judicata in their briefs.[3] "Under the doctrine of res judicata, or claim preclusion, '[a] final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.'" Pueschel v. United States, 369 F.3d 345, 354 (4th Cir. 2004) (quoting Federated Dep't Stores, Inc. v. Moitie, 452 U.S. 394, 398 (1981); also citing Brown v. Felsen, 442 U.S. 127, 131 (1973); Meekins v. United Transp. Union, 946 F.2d 1054, 1057 (4th Cir. 1991)). Three factors must be present for a court to make a finding of res judicata: "(1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit; (2) an identity of the cause of action in both the earlier and the later suit; and (3) an identity of parties or their privies in the two suits." Clodfelter v. Sudan, 720 F.3d 199, 210 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Pueschel, 369 F.3d at 354-55). The Fourth Circuit takes a "transactional approach" to determine whether causes of action are identical. Id. "As long as the second suit 'arises out of the same transaction or series of transactions as the claim resolved by the prior judgment,' the first suit will have preclusive effect." Id. (quoting Ohio Valley Envtl. Coal v. Aracoma Coal Co., 556 F.3d 177, 210 (4th Cir. 2009)).

         All three factors are present here. Regarding the first res judicata factor, the Bankruptcy Court entered a final judgment on the merits in the prior suit on October 17, 2018.[4] Regarding the second factor, Appellant fails to identify how the present case differs from the prior claim objection proceeding. (See ECF Nos. 3, 19, 20.) In fact, an examination of Appellant's three appellate briefs reveals no significant distinction between her previous case and the current one.

         The statements of facts found in her February 1 Brief are related to the claim objection proceedings that the Bankruptcy Court already addressed (See ECF No. 3). Furthermore, in her February 1 Brief, Appellant expressly stated in bold and underlined font that the basis for this suit is the same. (See id at 10 ("[t]he evidence contained in this brief- is a duplication of what Appellant and her spouse have been indicating to ALL the named defendants the entire time.")). Also in line with Appellees' argument, Appellant references the previously adjudicated claim objection proceedings as the basis for her May 10 Brief, and Appellant explicitly directs the Court to reference documents from the record of that previously adjudicated bankruptcy case. (See, e.g., ECF No. 19 at 6 ("Refer to U.S. Bankruptcy Case 18-33270-KLP Document 85 Filed 02/09/2019.")). The May 10 Brief gives no other independent basis for her appeal. Finally, Appellant's Amended Brief offers no assistance and simply requests additional time to file another brief. (See ECF No. 20.) In short, at no point in any of these three briefs does Appellant assert a basis for her secondary suit, and this appeal, that is independent of the previously adjudicated claim objection proceeding.

         Moreover, during the December 12, 2019 bankruptcy proceeding, in response to the Bankruptcy Court's questioning, Appellant explicitly admitted that she was raising the same issues as in her previous claim objection suit. (See ECF No. 18 at 15.)

THE COURT: But my point is is [sic] that this was all dealt with in the claim objection proceeding, and should continue to be dealt with in the claim objection proceeding, not through a new complaint that makes the same ...

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