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Willis v. RMLS Hop OKC, LLC

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division II

January 31, 2018

ANDRE WILLIS, Plaintiff/Appellant,
RMLS HOP OKC, LLC, an Arizona limited liability company, Defendant/Appellee.

          Mandate Issued: 03/01/2018


          Tom M. Cummings, T.M. CUMMINGS, INC., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant

          Amy Sherry Fischer, Carri A. Remillard, FOLIART, HUFF, OTTAWAY & BOTTOM, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee


         ¶1 The plaintiff, Andre Willis (Willis), appeals an Order dismissing his action with prejudice filed against the defendant, RMLS Hop OKC, LLC (RMLS). This appeal proceeds under the provisions of Okla.Sup.Ct.R. 1.36, 12 O.S.Supp. 2017, Ch. 15, app. 1.


         ¶2 The pertinent facts are not disputed. Willis claimed that he sustained a work-related injury on August 14, 2013, while employed by RMLS and he filed a workers' compensation action. RMLS discharged him on May 14, 2014.

         ¶3 On July 11, 2014, Willis sued RMLS in District Court for retaliatory discharge. By that time the new law, Administrative Workers' Compensation Act (AWCA), became effective as Title 85A. Title 85A changed the retaliatory discharge remedy scheme from an action in District Court to an administrative action. 85A O.S.Supp. 2017, § 7. However, it appears that Willis alleged that he could proceed under the prior law because the date of his injury preceded the enactment of the AWCA.

         ¶4 The District Court dismissed the action filed by Willis with prejudice. The court ruled that exclusive jurisdiction rested with the Workers' Compensation Commission under Title 85A. This ruling was equivalent to a ruling that the court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction.

         ¶5 Willis did not appeal. Instead, he filed his action with the Commission. On September 2, 2015, the Commission's administrative law judge entered an Order determining that jurisdiction rested with the District Court because the date of injury controlled and that date preceded the enactment of the AWCA.

         ¶6 On May 2, 2017, Willis filed the action here under review as a retaliatory discharge action under Title 85. He maintained that this was a different action and that he had originally proceeded under Title 85A and he now proceeded under Title 85.

         ¶7 On August 23, 2017, the trial court entered its ruling dismissing Willis' second law suit and applying claim preclusion to his action.

         ¶8 On September 12, 2017, the Oklahoma Supreme Court decided Young v. Station 27, Inc., 2017 OK 68, 404 P.3d 829. The Young Court ruled that the date of injury controlled over whether the AWCA or prior law applied to retaliatory discharge actions. The appellate Record does not indicate that Willis filed any post-judgment motions to bring the Young decision to the attention of the trial court.

         ¶9 RMLS moved to dismiss the second action. [1] RMLS maintained that the new action was barred under both issue preclusion and claim preclusion doctrines. RMLS argued that the jurisdictional issue was decided, not appealed, and became final in that case between the parties. RMLS also argued that the claims in each case were the same, that is, retaliatory discharge, so that claim preclusion barred the current action.

         ¶10 The trial court dismissed the action. The trial court ruled that both actions concerned the same claim, that is, retaliatory discharge. Therefore, the trial court ruled that the current action was barred by claim preclusion.

         ¶11 Willis appeals.


         ¶12 The petition sets out facts and background such that the review may be of the dismissal on the claim preclusion ground without treating the proceedings as a summary judgment.

In reviewing a nisi prius disposition by dismissal, this court examines the issues de novo. Motions to dismiss are generally viewed with disfavor. The purpose of a motion to dismiss is to test the law that governs the claim in litigation, not the underlying facts. A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted will not be sustained unless it should appear without doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim for relief. When considering a defendant's quest for dismissal, the court must take as true all of the challenged pleading's allegations together with all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from them. A plaintiff is required neither to identify a specific theory of recovery nor to set out the correct remedy or relief to which he may be entitled. If relief is possible under any set of facts which can be established and is consistent with the allegations, a motion to dismiss should be denied. A petition can generally be dismissed only for lack of any cognizable legal theory to support the claim or for insufficient facts under a cognizable legal theory. This recapitulation of the standards that govern when a case is decided on a motion to dismiss guides our review in this case.

Darrow v. Integris Health, Inc., 2008 OK 1, ¶ 7, 176 P.3d 1204, 1208-09 (citations omitted).

         ¶13 Questions of law are reviewed de novo, and appellate courts exercise plenary, independent, and non-deferential authority. Welch v. Crow, 2009 OK 20, ¶ 10, 206 P.3d 599, 603.


         ¶14 There are three questions here. The first asks whether Willis has one claim, or two as he argued. If there are two distinct actions, then claim preclusion is not available. Miller v. Miller, 1998 OK 24, ¶ 24, 956 P.2d 887, 897. The second asks whether, assuming there is but a single claim, that claim has been precluded by the original decision which, as it turned out, was erroneous because of Young v. Station 27, Inc. The third question asks, What is the legal consequence of the fact that Young was decided after the trial court entered its Order now on appeal?

         ¶15 For the following reasons, this Court holds that: (1) Willis has a single claim; and (2) The doctrine of claim preclusion does not bar this claim based upon the final, not appealed, first District Court decision. This second holding leads to the necessity to examine whether the doctrine of issue preclusion operates to bar Willis' claim. [2] See National Diversified Business Services, Inc. v. Corporate Financial Opportunities, Inc., 1997 OK 36, ¶ 10, 946 P.2d 662, 666. After this examination, this Court concludes that Willis' action is not precluded by the doctrine of issue preclusion.

         A. Willis Has a Single Claim

         ¶16 The Oklahoma Supreme Court instructed in Miller, 1998 OK 24 ¶ 23, 956 P.2d at 896-97, that the "wrongful act" or "transaction" defines the cause of action.

Under the principle of claim preclusion, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties from relitigating not only the adjudicated claim, but also any theories or issues that were actually decided, or could have been decided, in that action. The doctrine of claim preclusion is designed to prevent piecemeal litigation through the splitting of a single claim into separate lawsuits. When claim preclusion is asserted, the court must analyze the claim involved in the prior action to ascertain whether it is in fact the same as ...

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