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Inc. v. United Industries, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

October 10, 2017

3A COMPOSITES USA, INC., a Missouri Corporation PLAINTIFF
v.
UNITED INDUSTRIES, INC., an Arkansas Corporation; and WESLEY PAULIN DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Currently before the Court are the Renewed Motion for Reconsideration of Court's Order Dismissing 3A's Claim for Tortious Interference (Doc. 81) and Brief in Support (Doc. 82) filed by Plaintiff 3A Composites USA, Inc. (“3A”); the Response (Doc. 83) and Brief (Doc. 84) filed by Defendants United Industries, Inc. (“United”) and Wesley Paulin; and the parties' respective supplemental letter briefs (Docs. 86, 87). 3A's Motion is DENIED.

         I. DISCUSSION

         As the Court has previously explained:

This is the second lawsuit in this Court between these parties. In the previous lawsuit, 3A brought claims against the Defendants for trade-secret misappropriation, breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, and deceptive trade practices, all of which revolved around United's efforts to duplicate 3A's method of producing a product called “thick foam.” Eventually, the Court awarded the Defendants summary judgment on 3A's claims for tortious interference and deceptive trade practices, but permitted 3A's claims for breach of contract and trade-secret misappropriation to proceed to trial.

(Doc. 79, p. 2). Being an award of summary judgment on the merits, the Court dismissed 3A's tortious-interference and deceptive-trade-practices claims with prejudice. See 3A Composites USA, Inc. v. United Indus., Inc., 2015 WL 5437119, at *8 (W.D. Ark. Sep. 15, 2015) (“Plaintiff 3A Composites USA, Inc. may proceed on its claims for breach of contract and violations of the Arkansas Trade Secrets Act, but all of its other claims are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.” (emphasis in original)). 3A then filed a motion for the Court to reconsider its summary judgment ruling on the tortious interference claim, which the Court denied. See 3A Composites USA, Inc. v. United Indus., Inc., 2015 WL 11120888 (W.D. Ark. Nov. 4, 2015). Then, “on the eve of trial the parties stipulated to a dismissal without prejudice of 3A's remaining claims, subject to various conditions, which the Court granted.” (Doc. 79, p. 3).

         A couple of months later, 3A filed the instant lawsuit, “reasserting its old claims for breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, and trade-secret misappropriation, but expanding the factual predicate to include not only attempted duplication of 3A's thick foam product but also attempted duplication of another 3A product called ‘Gatorfoam.'” Id. After discovery concluded, the Court granted summary judgment to the Defendants on all of 3A's claims, to the extent those claims were premised on the new Gatorfoam allegations. See Doc. 55.

         The Motion presently before the Court seeks to renew 3A's motion, filed in the previous case, to reconsider the Court's award of summary judgment to the Defendants on 3A's thick-foam claim for tortious interference. The Court has several problems or concerns with this.

         The first problem is that the Court believes 3A's thick-foam claim for tortious interference is barred by the doctrine of res judicata, such that this Court would not be permitted to reconsider its award of summary judgment on that claim even if it were otherwise inclined to do so. Under that doctrine, “a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.” Carlisle Power Transmission Prods., Inc. v. United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Indus. and Serv. Workers Int'l Union, Local Union No. 662, 725 F.3d 864, 867 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980)). “For res judicata to apply, there must be: (1) a final judgment on the merits that is, (2) based on proper jurisdiction, (3) between the same parties or their privies, and (4) based on the same claims or causes of action.” Id. 3A's tortious interference claim from the previous case obviously satisfies the second, third, and fourth res judicata factors; the same claim was brought by and against the same parties in this same Court as before. But the first factor presents a more puzzling issue here.

         At the pretrial conference held on September 27, 2017, the Court invited the parties to provide informal letter briefs on this issue, which they have since done. The Court has filed 3A's letter on the docket at Doc. 86, and the Defendants' letter at Doc. 87. In its letter, 3A argues that there was no final judgment on the merits in the prior case, because its contract and trade-secret claims were dismissed without prejudice for the expressly-contemplated purpose of refiling them in this Court. Thus, 3A contends, it could not have appealed the Court's award of summary judgment to the Defendants on its tortious interference claim without running afoul of “the well-entrenched policy which bars a plaintiff from splitting its claims against a defendant.” Missouri ex rel. Nixon v. Coeur D'Alene Tribe, 164 F.3d 1102, 1106 (8th Cir. 1999).

         3A is certainly correct that this policy against claim-splitting exists. And pursuant to that policy, 3A would have risked converting the dismissal of its contract and trade-secret claims from one without prejudice to one with prejudice if it had appealed this Court's earlier summary-judgment ruling directly from that voluntary nonsuit. See Minn. Pet Breeders, Inc. v. Schell & Kampeter, Inc., 41 F.3d 1242, 1245 (8th Cir. 1994). But Eighth Circuit precedent is clear on the point that “[a] dismissal without prejudice can be an appealable final order” under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, so long as there is “some clear and unequivocal manifestation by the trial court of its belief that the decision made, so far as the court is concerned, is the end of the case.” Great Rivers Co-op. of S.E. Iowa v. Farmland Indus., Inc., 198 F.3d 685, 689 (8th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). The final order of dismissal in the prior 3A case dismissed all of the remaining claims without prejudice. The trial was cancelled. The docket was marked to reflect that the case was closed. All of these things clearly indicate the Court's belief that the case was at an end.

         There are several things that one could argue indicated the opposite belief. The final order of dismissal explicitly discussed the possibility that the action would be refiled in a new case. It ordered further motion practice to occur on the issue of attorney fees. And no separate document formally styled as a “Judgment” was ever filed.

         But although it is certainly true that the Court and all the parties anticipated that 3A would refile the claims it had voluntarily dismissed without prejudice in a new case along with some new claims, there was no indication that anyone, least of all the Court, had any expectation that 3A would refile any of its old claims that had previously been dismissed with prejudice. As for attorney fees, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure expressly contemplate post-judgment motion practice on that issue, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(2)(B)(i), so the Court does not believe the pendency of that issue provided a reasonable basis, of its own force, for anyone to question whether they were at “the end of the case” for purposes of appeal.

         The absence of a separate document entitled “Judgment” is a thornier matter. Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(a) defines a “Judgment” as including “a decree and any order from which an appeal lies.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 58(a) requires-with some exceptions not applicable here-that “[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document.” Per Rule 54(a), that separate document “should not include recitals of pleadings, a master's report, or a record of ...


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