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Stapler v. Boling

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

June 21, 2018

STAPLER
v.
BOLING et al. WITCHER et al.
v.
BOLING et al.

          MCFADDEN, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         These appeals challenge a trial court order denying motions to dismiss professional negligence and other claims brought against Evan Stapler, and abusive litigation claims brought against Jack Witcher and Witcher, Inc. Because the claims filed against Stapler were barred by the doctrine of res judicata and the abusive litigation claims brought against Witcher and Witcher, Inc. failed to comply with mandatory notice provisions for such claims, we reverse.

A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted should not be sustained unless (1) the allegations of the complaint disclose with certainty that the claimant would not be entitled to relief under any state of provable facts asserted in support thereof; and (2) the movant establishes that the claimant could not possibly introduce evidence within the framework of the complaint sufficient to warrant a grant of the relief sought. In deciding a motion to dismiss, all pleadings are to be construed most favorably to the party who filed them, and all doubts regarding such pleadings must be resolved in the filing party's favor. On appeal, we review a trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion to dismiss de novo.

         Best Jewelry Mfg. Co. v. Reed Elsevier Inc., 334 Ga.App. 826, 826-827 (780 S.E.2d 689) (2015) (citations omitted).

         So construed, the pleadings show that Anna Smith gave birth to M. I. S. on October 9, 2013. A few weeks later, Smith informally transferred custody and care of M. I. S. to the child's maternal grandmother, Judy Boling. Smith named attorney Evan Stapler and his wife as the child's godparents. Stapler had represented both Smith and Boling in prior legal matters, including Smith's divorce action, Boling's adoption of two of Smith's other children, and a custody matter concerning M. I. S.

         On June 8, 2015, Stapler and his wife, with the assistance of attorney Witcher, filed a petition to adopt M. I. S. The trial court issued an ex parte order granting temporary custody of M. I. S. to the Staplers. Smith and Boling both opposed the adoption petition. Boling filed a motion to vacate the ex parte temporary custody order and to dismiss the petition for adoption, claiming that Stapler had breached various duties and state bar rules. A hearing was held on July 8, 2015, and two days later, on July 10, 2015, the trial court issued an order vacating the temporary custody order and dismissing the adoption petition. The court's order further provided that the Staplers must pay $2, 500 in attorney fees in resolution of all claims and counterclaims in the case:

The Petitioners shall cause to [be paid] over to counsel for Respondent . . . an award in attorney's fee, per agreement between the parties, of the sum of $2, 500.00, [i]nstanter, in resolution of the claims and counterclaims in this case, and in full settlement of any and all other post-judgment motions which could or might have been brought as a result of this action.

         The Staplers promptly made the $2, 500 payment. There were no further proceedings in the adoption action and the court's final order of July 10, 2015 was not appealed.

         Over a year later, on November 15, 2016, Smith and Boling filed a complaint, which they later amended, against Stapler, Witcher, and Witcher, Inc. The complaint asserted various causes of action against Stapler arising out of his attempt to adopt M. I. S., including claims for professional negligence, negligence, and breach of fiduciary duties. The complaint further alleged that Witcher had participated in a civil conspiracy with Stapler, based on his conduct in representing the Staplers in the adoption action. Stapler and the Witcher defendants each moved to dismiss the claims against them. The trial court denied the motions, but granted certificates of immediate review. This court granted applications for interlocutory review and these appeals followed, with Stapler appealing in Case No. A18A0374 and the Witcher defendants appealing in Case No. A18A0375.

         Case No. A18A0374

         1. Res judicata.

         Stapler contends that the claims brought against him are barred by the doctrine of res judicata. We agree.

OCGA ยง 9-12-40 represents a codification of the common law doctrine of res judicata, and provides: "A judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction shall be conclusive between the same parties and their privies as to all matters put in issue or which under the rules of law might have been put in issue in the cause wherein the judgment was rendered until the judgment is reversed or set aside." The purpose of the doctrine is to prevent the re-litigation of claims which have already been adjudicated, or which could have been adjudicated, between identical parties or their privies in identical causes of action. These prerequisites must be satisfied before res judicata acts as a bar to subsequent ...

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