Taylor v. Sturgell

RESPONDENT:Robert A. Sturgell, Acting Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration, et al.
LOCATION:U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay

DOCKET NO.: 07-371
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 553 US 880 (2008)
GRANTED: Jan 11, 2008
ARGUED: Apr 16, 2008
DECIDED: Jun 12, 2008

Adina H. Rosenbaum – on behalf of the Petitioner
Catherine E. Stetson – on behalf of the Respondent
Douglas Hallward-Driemeier – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Greg Herrick, the owner of one of two F-45s, a rare 1930s vintage airplane, in existence filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking the plans and specifications for the craft from the Federal Aviation Administration. After the FAA refused to turn over the plans as “protected trade secrets,” Herrick filed suit against the FAA to recover the plans. The district court found for the FAA, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Subsequently, roughly a month later, Brent Taylor, represented by Herrick’s attorney, filed another FOIA request seeking the plans. When the request was again denied, Taylor also filed suit in federal court in the District of Columbia.

The district court determined that Taylor had been “virtually represented” by Herrick in the first suit and therefore could not pursue the second suit in federal court. This judgment was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In seeking Supreme Court review, Taylor argued the D.C. Circuit’s finding that Taylor and Herrick enjoyed a close enough relationship for virtual representation to apply conflicted with several other circuits requiring a much closer nexus to block the second claim. Opposing certiorari, Fairchild Corp. (the airplane manufacturer) arguing on behalf of the FAA, claimed that Taylor had overstated the circuit splits. It also pointed out that, because Taylor and Herrick were collaborating on the plane restoration and were represented by the same attorney, the logical conclusion was that they were attempting to relitigate the same issue.


Does the dismissal of a claim based on a Freedom of Information Act request preclude a second individual, based on the concept of “virtual representation,” from bringing a similar claim when both claims involve the same project and the parties to each suit are represented by the same attorney?

Media for Taylor v. Sturgell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 16, 2008 in Taylor v. Sturgell

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 12, 2008 in Taylor v. Sturgell

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in case 07-371, Taylor versus Sturgell.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

A basic tenet of our system of justice is that anyone who states a claim on which relief can be granted is entitled to his or her own day in court.

Therefore, a judgment in a lawsuit generally does not bind the person without a party to the suit.

The question presented in this case, is there a virtual representation exception to this general rule.

Petitioner Brent Taylor filed suit under the freedom of Information Act, seeking certain documents from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Greg Herrick(ph) Taylor’s friend had previously brought an unsuccessful suit seeking the same records.

The two men have no formal legal relationship and there was no evidence that Taylor controlled finance, participated in or even knew about Herrick’s earlier suit.

Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that Taylor’s suit was precluded by the judgment against Herrick.

In the Court of Appeals’ view, Herrick had virtually represented Taylor in the prior adjudications.

Under the multifactor test announced by the D.C. Circuit, Herrick qualified as Taylor’s virtual representative because Herrick’s incentive to litigate was at least as strong as Taylor’s.

The two men sought release of the same documents were close associates and hired the same lawyer.

We disapproved the doctrine of preclusion by a virtual representation.

And therefore, vacate the D.C. Circuit’s judgment.

As our decision is confirmed, there are several exceptions to the rule against non-party preclusion.

But the doctrine of virtual representation adopted by the D.C. Circuit is broader and cloudier than any of the exceptions we have approved.

Our opinion explains why we find the doctrine an unwarranted departure from the general rule that every person is entitled to his or her own day in court.

It was a result reached by the D.C. Circuit nevertheless justifiable under one of the established grounds for nonparty preclusion.

Most of those grounds have no application here, but one might cover this case.

Preclusion would be appropriate if Taylor, in pursuing his own suit, is acting not independently, but as Herrick’s agent.

We remand to give the courts below an opportunity to address that yet unresolved issue.

The Court’s opinion is unanimous.