By Carla Branch, Ryan Holtz and Lauren McCracken
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled today that the Alexandria Circuit Court erred in its decision to apply a 1972 Court ruling to the current Court case between the Old Dominion Boat Club and the City of Alexandria. The Court remanded the case to the Alexandria Circuit Court for further action.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the City’s appeal last fall. The Parties presented oral arguments in October and the Court handed down their ruling this morning.
ODBC filed suit in Alexandria Circuit Court in 2011 after the Alexandria City Council approved a Special Use Permit allowing Virtue Feed and Grain to build a deck for outdoor seating in Wales Alley. ODBC argued that this violated their right of access through the alley to their property. The Circuit Court agreed and the City appealed that ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.
“The Court is of opinion that there is reversible error in the judgment of the circuit court,” the justices wrote.
“At issue in this appeal is whether the circuit court erred in ruling that the 106 Union Ireland, LLC and 106 Union Dublin, LLC were barred by the doctrine of res judicata [also known as a claim preclusion] from constructing an outdoor dining patio in ‘Wales Alley.’ The circuit court ruled that res judicata applied based on a 1972 final decree from the Corporation Court of the City of Alexandria. Based on that conclusion, it found in favor of Old Dominion Boat Club on count two of ODBC’s complaint, decreeing that ODBC has a vested easement in a 30-foot right-of-way over Wales Alley, and count four, permanently enjoining the Union defendants and their successors from erecting any obstruction in Wales Alley. The circuit court dismissed the other three counts of ODBC’s complaint, including count five, which sought to enjoin the City from erecting any obstructions in Wales Alley or authorizing any change in the nature of the use of Wales Alley.
“On appeal, the City of Alexandria, Alexandria City Council, and 106 Union defendants argue that the circuit court erred in its application of the law of res judicata. ODBC assigns cross-error to the circuit court’s dismissal of count five of its complaint.
“The appellants argue that pursuant to the test set forth in Davis v. Marshall Homes (2003), the remedy sought in the current case is different than the one sought in the prior case. Additionally, they argue that neither the parties nor ‘the quality of the persons for or against whom the claim is made’ are identical. According to the appellants, the current case involves the City and City Council as parties and the City’s authorization of construction by Special Use Permit.
“‘The bar of res judicata precludes relitigation of the same cause of action, or any part thereof, which could have been litigated between the same parties and their privies.’ The 1972 case between ODBC and the 106 Union defendants’ predecessor, Dockside Sales, Inc., concerned a fence and wall that was built by Dockside and prevented ODBC from using the alley. By contrast, the current matter includes the City and City Council as parties and involves the City’s formal authorization by Special Use Permit pursuant to the Alexandria City Charter.
“Given the nature of the City’s involvement in the current case, it is evident that the current dispute ‘could [not] have been litigated’ in the 1972 case between ODBC and Dockside. The circuit court therefore erred in ruling that ODBC had established the identity of parties in both cases for the purposes of res judicata. ‘The failure to establish any one element is fatal to the plea of res judicata.’ The Court therefore need not address the circuit court’s analysis of the other elements required to prevail under the doctrine.
“Both appellants and appellees ask this Court, upon a finding of error in the circuit court’s applications of the doctrine of res judicata, to enter final judgment in their favor. Having reviewed the assignments of error and cross-errors, and the remaining issues in this case, the Court declines to do so.
“The judgment of the circuit court is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria for further proceedings consistent with this Order,” the justices wrote in the majority opinion.
Chris Spera responded to the Supreme Court’s decision on behalf of the Alexandria City Attorney. “We felt and the owners of the restaurant felt that the circuit court did not appropriately apply the 1972 decision. The majority of the justices agreed with us,” he said. “They did not decide the ultimate issue and that has been remanded to the circuit court where there will be further proceedings.”
Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser felt that the Supreme Court should have ruled on the ultimate issue and wrote a dissenting opinion to that effect:
“I disagree…with the majority’s refusal to address one of the remaining issues. 106 Union Dublin, LLC and 106 Union Ireland, LLC assign error to the circuit court’s failure to find that they were properly authorized to construct the dining deck in the Wales Alley. The circuit court concluded that Wales Alley had been dedicated to public use because of its long-term usage by the public as an alley. The court further concluded that the City of Alexandria had accepted Wales Alley as a public alley. Those two findings are not challenged on appeal. Although the City of Alexandria Charter gives the City authority to alter streets and alleys whenever such have been open and used by the public for ten years, the circuit court did not decide whether the City has the authority to deprive Old Dominion Boat Club of its easements in the absence of a dedication of that easement to the public by Old Dominion Boat Club and the City’s acceptance of that dedication. The court did not need to answer that question because it applied the doctrine of res judicata.
“Having reversed the judgment of the circuit court applying the bar of res judicata, this Court, unlike the circuit court, needs to address that remaining legal issue, which has been extensively briefed and argued before this Court. Nevertheless, without explanation, the majority declines to do so. Remanding this case to the circuit court without deciding that legal issue is a waste of judicial resources…” Kinser wrote.
Neither Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille nor Councilman Paul Smedberg had read the full Supreme Court opinion but both were generally pleased that the justices agreed with the City’s position. “I hope this begins to pave the way for us to focus on the real issues on the waterfront such as flood mitigation,” Smedberg said.
The case was heard in circuit court by visiting Judge John McGrath because the three circuit court judges recused themselves. “I would expect that the case would remain with Judge McGrath and that he would call all of the parties together and let us know how he wants to proceed,” Spera said. “He could ask for further oral arguments, additional briefs or he could decide that he has enough material to decide on the case.
“In his original opinion, he seemed to indicate that it would be interesting to look at whether the ODBC easement would survive Wales Alley becoming a public alley. Now he will have that opportunity,” Spera said.