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Strong v. Williams

Supreme Court of Alaska

December 14, 2018

JOHN STRONG, Appellant,

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3AN-15-08446 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Andrew Guidi, Judge.

          Kenneth P. Jacobus, Kenneth P. Jacobus, P.C., Anchorage, for Appellant.

          Samuel C. Severin, Assistant Municipal Attorney, and Rebecca A. Windt Pearson, Municipal Attorney, Anchorage, for Appellee, Municipality of Anchorage. Notice of nonparticipation filed by David W. Pease, Burr, Pease & Kurtz, Anchorage, for Appellees James Williams and Suzie Williams.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.


          CARNEY, Justice.


         A man sued his neighbors, alleging that an access road on their property caused flooding on his property. After he reached a settlement with the neighbors, the man stipulated to a dismissal of his claims with prejudice. Three years later the man again sued the neighbors as well as the Municipality of Anchorage, alleging that the flooding had continued and asserting new claims of nuisance, trespass, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract. The superior court granted summary judgment for the Municipality on the basis of either collateral estoppel or res judicata. The man appeals; we reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.


         A. Facts

         John Strong has owned property in Anchorage since 1974. He alleges that his house and property have regularly flooded since the neighboring landowners built an access road to their property in the 1980s. The Municipality became aware of the flooding by 1993.[1]

         James and Suzie Williams owned the property by 2010, when Strong initiated his first lawsuit related to the flooding. Strong sued them for trespass and nuisance and asked the court to order them to abate the flooding and award Strong compensatory and punitive damages.

         In March 2011 Strong signed a Release and Settlement Agreement releasing the Williamses from any and all claims related to Strong's property damage or the access road. He released the claims in exchange for $7, 500 and an agreement that the Williamses would upgrade the driveway according to agreed-upon specifications. The agreement stated that the parties intended to "release all individuals, firms, or corporations who could at any future date be possible defendants in any action arising out of the claims."

         Strong filed a stipulation to dismiss all claims with prejudice in July 2012. The superior court accepted the stipulation and dismissed the lawsuit.

         B. Proceedings

         In July 2015 Strong filed another complaint against the Williamses and added the Municipality of Anchorage. He again alleged that his property had frequently flooded since the access road was built in the 1980s. Strong contended that the Municipality had declared the road a nuisance but had never enforced an abatement order. He brought claims of nuisance, intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), trespass, and breach of contract against the Williamses and the Municipality. Strong asked the superior court to order the defendants to remove the access road and take steps to restore the flow of groundwater that it had obstructed. He also asked the court to award him compensatory damages for repairs, mental anguish, and the costs of addressing the flooding, as well as punitive damages and attorney's fees.

         The Municipality answered his complaint less than a month later, arguing that Strong's claims were barred by a number of doctrines, including res judicata and collateral estoppel. Strong admitted in response to discovery requests that he was seeking only equitable, not monetary, relief from the Municipality and was not claiming trespass or IIED against the Municipality.

         Nearly a year later the Municipality filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that collateral estoppel (or issue preclusion) barred Strong's claims.[2] The Municipality also contended that, because it was not a party to the earlier settlement between Strong and the Williamses, it could not be liable for any breach of contract claim. Strong opposed the motion and the superior court heard oral argument in December.

         The superior court orally ruled that "[c]ollateral estoppel applies with regard to claims based on everything that was settled to the same extent that it applies in favor of the Williams[es]" and that there could be no breach of contract claim against the Municipality because it was not a party to the settlement agreement. The court gave Strong 30 days to amend his complaint to state a viable claim against the Municipality; he did not file an amended complaint.

         On April 12, 2017 the superior court issued a written decision granting summary judgment to the Municipality. It relied on a different theory in its written decision than its oral decision to find that Strong's claims were precluded: it held that res judicata barred Strong's nuisance and trespass claims against the Municipality and that collateral estoppel barred Strong's IIED claim. The court also granted judgment to the Municipality on Strong's claim for breach of contract because the ...

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