The principle of legal certainty finds yet another expression in the prohibition contained in procedural law on re-litigating a matter that has already been resolved by a valid court ruling in full force and effect. Therefore, no more than one lawsuit can be filed for the defense of the same individual right. This matter is raised on account of the need to sort out the limits of the legal force of a res judicata (final judgment) and analyze the possibilities for defense of the same individual right in light of different facts that give rise to said right or in case of different submissions to the court.
The rule of thumb is that the legal force of a res judicata is formed on the basis of the subject matter of the ruling, which must correspond to the subject matter of the submission and the disputed right. By its ruling the court determines the validity or invalidity of the disputed substantive right alleged or, respectively, denied by the claimant, through its identifying markers: legal facts that give rise to the right, its meaning and the persons vested in it. The legal force of a res judicata is also applicable by virtue of an explicit provision in the law to the claims of, and objections to, the right to reserve title and the right of set-off, where these are allowed by a court ruling.
Ruling on an objection to set-off, by force of its Interpretative Ruling No. 2/18.03.2022, the General Assembly of the Civil College (GACC) of the Supreme Court of Cassation (SCC) has decreed that, in the case of an unfounded objection to a set-off, the legal force of a res judicata of a court ruling determines the invalidity of the defendant’s claim, unless such claim is null and void due to unclaimability or non-compensability. In case of a granted objection to set-off of reciprocal claims, the legal force of a res judicata of the court ruling covers the extent of the defendant’s claim necessary for the set-off to be effected. In case of an outstanding balance, the court ruling determines by force of a res judicata the facts that gave rise to the claim, while in subsequent proceedings the defendant may seek payment of the outstanding balance.
Individual limitations of the legal force of a res judicata may manifest themselves either between the parties to the dispute, or between third-party assistants and the parties, as well as between the principal intervener and the original parties (claimant and defendant). Said ruling also has binding force for the universal successors to the parties to the legal dispute, as well as the private successors to whom the right has been transferred once the court ruling has taken effect.
The motivation of the court ruling, including the court’s position with regard to the preliminary questions referred and the factual determinations of the case, remain outside the purview of the res judicata.
The legal force of a res judicata in case of a filed incidental application will be formed on the basis of the ex-ante legal relationship. In all other cases the formulation of the procedural law will apply, that is, the motivation does not have the binding force of a res judicata. The motivation of the court ruling has binding legal force and effect solely between the principal and the assisting party.
A dispute may arise with regard to the court determination regarding the ex-ante legal relationships, as well as the factual determinations of the court contained in the motives of the court ruling and the extent to which these may become subject to subsequent court proceedings.
Where the ex-ante legal relationship has the nature of a legal fact with regard to the disputed right, then it will be covered by the prohibition on further adjudication of a legal dispute that has already been resolved by a court ruling. In paragraph 5 of Interpretative Ruling No. 7/31.07.2017 in Interpretative Case No. 7/2014 of the GACC of the SCC, regarding the grounds for overruling in case of contradictory rulings in respect of the same claim between the same parties on the same grounds, the court assumes that the identity of the subject matter of such valid court rulings can only be determined when not only complete objective and subjective identity can be established with respect to the subject matter and the parties to the cases, but when legal issues included in the subject matter of the case based upon which the legal force of a res judicata is formed have been resolved in a different manner.
Such a legal moot point is the validity of a contract based upon which the claimant states that the disputed right subject to litigation has arisen, e.g., the validity of a preliminary agreement, that has been declared final by virtue of a valid court ruling by which the court has ruled on a claim for damages arising from an unlawful possession of a property.
The Supreme Court of Cassation, however, has allowed as admissible subsequent proceedings on the nullity of a donation contract following a valid ruling whereby the court has turned down a claim seeking the invalidation of the donation. The admissibility of the second claim was supported with the argument that the invalidation of the donation was not a result of a flaw in the contract but was dictated by the law which provides that acts of gross ingratitude on the part of the recipient may give rise to a right of the donor to claim back the donated items, whereas the donated items can also be claimed back on different grounds, if formulated as submission to a court of law, nullity being one of them.
The prohibition on filing further submissions concerns the facts and the ex-ante legal relationships only when these are facts that give rise to the disputed right.
The same goes for the objections of the defendant that preclude or negate the relevant facts giving rise to the disputed right concerning the existence of the substantive legal relationship from which the disputed right derives, which objections the defendant has been able to raise in the course of proceedings. The existence of such a legal possibility precludes the possibility of raising objections in subsequent proceedings that would either preclude the existence of the disputed right or establish that right if it has been negated. Once the legally relevant fact that serves as the grounds for the submission is deemed to have occurred, this means that the objections seeking to preclude or negate the disputed right have been rejected and cannot be raised again in other proceedings on the same grounds.
When the defendant has omitted to make such objections within the statutory limitation period, he or she will not have the chance, in subsequent proceedings, already in the capacity of claimant, to assert, respectively challenge, rights based upon the omitted objections.
It is an interesting question whether the claimant is obliged, within the course of the proceedings, to exhaust all existing facts that may have the capacity to give rise to the disputed right. The answer to that question can be found in paragraph 5 of Interpretative Ruling No. 7/31.07.2017 in Interpretative Case No. 7/2014 of the GACC of the SCC.
Pursuant to the interpretative ruling referred to herein above, the prohibition on further adjudication on a matter that has been resolved by the legal force of a res judicata has the effect of preclusion of any fact and the rights arising from it where such fact was established prior to the passing of the court ruling, irrespective of whether they had been known to the party for which they gave rise to advantageous legal effects.
The interpretation thus given does not restrict the claimant from exhausting all possible submissions in defense of the same individual right asserted by him/her in a single claim. If a claim for performance is rejected, the claimant will have the right to file a claim for unlawful enrichment.
The same submission may be filed with the court solely if there are facts of legal relevance that may have occurred after the entry into force of the ruling on which the newly filed submission is based.
With respect to partial claims, Interpretative Ruling No. 3/22.04.2019 on Interpretative Case No. 3/2016 of the GACC of the SCC states that the ruling on a granted partial claim for a cash receivable has the legal force of a res judicata with respect to the facts giving rise to the disputed substantive individual right if in other proceedings there has been a submission filed in support of claiming the balance to the full amount of the cash receivable arising out of the same legal relationship. On account of the fact that the general legal facts giving rise to rights are the same both for the partial claim and for the claim regarding the balance of the cash receivable, it is inadmissible to dispute the grounds for the claim or its legal qualification in a subsequent tort case.
In conclusion, to defend a disputed substantive right the affected party may file one submission the subject of which will be said disputed right as shaped by the facts giving rise to it, the subject matter of the substantive legal relationship and the parties to it. In case of a modification of the submission to the court, as well as in the event of newly emerging facts that give rise to a right, on which the same claim may be based, while it is admissible to pursue further proceedings for the purpose of defense of the same individual right, the disputed right subject to such proceedings will be a different one.