Court of Appeals Upholds Enforcement of Pennsylvania Judgment Against Ralph Nader

On May 10, 2012, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Nader v. Serody, No. 09-CV-906, slip op. (D.C. May 10, 2012) in which it upheld a judgment of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia enforcing a Pennsylvania judgment entered against former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, his running mate, and their campaign organization.

By way of background, the Pennsylvania judgment awarded litigation costs to a group of voters who successfully challenged Nader’s nominating papers for the 2004 presidential election in Pennsylvania. The voters then initiated an action in the Superior Court to enforce the Pennsylvania judgment which resulted in the attachment of Nader’s assets in certain bank accounts. Nader moved for relief against enforcement pursuant to Sup. Ct. Civ. R. 60(b) contending that the Pennsylvania judgment was unlawfully procured; specifically, he alleged the existence of “newly discovered evidence” regarding certain “undisclosed ties and campaign contributions to members of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania who voted to affirm” the judgment awarding litigation costs and the underlying judgment sustaining the challenge to his nominating papers. Slip op. at 4. He also moved pursuant to Sup. Ct. Civ. R. 41(b) to dismiss the enforcement action on the grounds that the action failed to comply with Sup. Ct. Civ. R. 62(a). The Superior Court denied both motions and Nader appealed. In denying the motions, the Superior Court took judicial notice that, after Nader had filed the Rule 60(b) motion, he unsuccessfully petitioned the trial court in Pennsylvania “to open the record or set aside its judgment directing him to pay litigation costs” on the grounds of alleged criminal misconduct relating to the challenge to his nominating papers. Slip op. at 4-5.

On appeal, the Court recognized that the enforcement action was subject to the District of Columbia’s Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, D.C. Code § 15-351 et seq. (2001) (the “Act”) “which sets out the procedures and standards for enforcement of foreign judgments in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.” Slip op. at 7. The Court stated that the Act’s provisions “must be read in harmony with the constitutional mandate to accord full faith and credit to the judgments of sister states.” Id. at 8. Accordingly, “the rights and defenses preserved by the Act are only those which the debtor may constitutionally raise.” Id. (emphasis in original; internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). The Court stated that “[w]e join the consensus of courts in jurisdictions that have adopted the [Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act] and have held that a foreign judgment does not have to be accepted for enforcement in the receiving jurisdiction if the court rendering the judgment lacked jurisdiction or if the foreign judgment resulted from proceedings lacking in essential due process safeguards or was procured by fraud on the court.” Id. at 10. A collateral challenge to a judgment, however, may be precluded by the doctrine of res judicata because the constitutional mandate of full faith and credit “‘generally requires every State to give a judgment at least the res judicata effect which the judgment would be accorded in the State which rendered it.'” Id. at 14 (quoting Durfee v. Duke, 375 U.S. 106, 109 (1963)).

Applying the foregoing principles, the Court of Appeals ruled that res judicata precluded all of the arguments raised in Nader’s Rule 60(b) motion because the motion “challenged the validity of a judgment on the basis of claims that were either fully litigated — and rejected — in the Pennsylvania courts, or that could have been brought in those courts.” Id. at 13. That litigation included the litigation leading to the judgment for litigation costs and Nader’s subsequent unsuccessful petition requesting the Pennsylvania trial court to open the record or set aside the judgment for litigation costs. The Court recognized that a foreign judgment may be challenged on the grounds of fraud but concluded that the doctrine of res judicata precluded the arguments in Nader’s Rule 60(b) motion. Accordingly, the Court did not address the merits of those arguments. With respect to Nader’s Rule 41(b) motion, the Court ruled that Nader’s arguments therein were either moot, facially incorrect, or defeated by the Court’s ruling on the Rule 60(b) motion. The Court therefore upheld enforcement of the Pennsylvania judgment.