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Jacks v. Chance

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

April 18, 2018




         This case is before the court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Stay. (Doc. # 5). In this motion, Defendant requests that the court dismiss this action without prejudice or stay it pending resolution of a parallel state-court action, pursuant to the Colorado River Doctrine. The parties have fully briefed the motion (Docs. # 7, 8), and it is under submission. After careful review, Defendant's motion is due to be denied.

         I. Background

         This motion relates to two parallel lawsuits filed, one here and the other in state court. In September 2016, Plaintiff's vehicle was struck by a tractor trailer operated by Defendant. (Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 9-12). James Benz was a passenger in Plaintiff's vehicle. (Doc. # 7-1 at 3). In November 2017, Benz filed suit against Defendant in the Circuit Court for Shelby County, Alabama. (Id. at 1-6). Benz raised claims of negligence, wantonness, underinsured/uninsured motorist coverage, and negligent entrustment, hiring, training, and supervision in his state-court complaint. (Id. at 3-5).

         In February 2018, Plaintiff filed this action against Defendant in this court. (Doc. # 1). Plaintiff has brought his action in this court asserting that the court has diversity jurisdiction because (1) he is a resident of Alabama, and Defendant is a resident of Georgia, and (2) the amount in dispute exceeds $75, 000. (Id. at ¶¶ 1-2, 7). In his Complaint, Plaintiff raises claims of negligence and wantonness. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-20).

         II. The Colorado River Doctrine

         Under the Colorado River Doctrine of “exceptional circumstances, ” a federal district court may “dismiss or stay an action when there is an ongoing parallel action in state court.” Moorer v. Demopolis Waterworks & Sewer Bd., 374 F.3d 994, 997 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting LaDuke v. Burlington N. R.R. Co., 879 F.2d 1556, 1558 (7th Cir. 1989)). The principles of that Doctrine “rest on considerations of wise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation.” Ambrosia Coal & Constr. Co. v. Pages Morales, 368 F.3d 1320, 1328 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976)).

         “Generally, as between state and federal courts, the rule is that the pendency of an action in the state court is no bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court having jurisdiction.” Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817 (internal quotation omitted). “Federal courts have a ‘virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them.'” Ambrosia Coal, 368 F.3d at 1328 (quoting Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817). However, a federal court may defer to a parallel state proceeding under “limited” and “exceptional” circumstances. Moorer, 374 F.3d at 997 (citing Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817-18).

         There is no bright-line test for determining when an existing, concurrent state case warrants federal court abstention in a parallel federal case. Ambrosia Coal, 368 F.3d at 1328. Nonetheless, the Eleventh Circuit has indicated that a district court may consider the following factors in determining whether exceptional circumstances exist:

(1) the order in which the courts assumed jurisdiction over property; (2) the relative inconvenience of the fora; (3) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained and the relative progress of the two actions; (4) the desire to avoid piecemeal litigation; (5) whether federal law provides the rule of decision; and (6) whether the state court will adequately protect the rights of all parties.

Moorer 374 F.3d at 997 (quoting TranSouth Fin. Corp. v. Bell, 149 F.3d 1292, 1294-95 (11th Cir. 1998)). Of course, “[t]he decision whether to dismiss [or stay] ‘does not rest on a mechanical checklist, but on a careful balancing of the important factors as they apply in a given case, with the balance heavily weighted in favor of the exercise of jurisdiction.'” Id. (quoting Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Co., 460 U.S. 1, 16 (1983)). The weight attributed to each factor varies on a case-by-case basis, and depends on the particularities of that case. Id. A single factor alone can be the sole reason for abstention. Id. After performing the analysis, if a federal court determines the Colorado River Doctrine applies and that it should defer to a parallel state-court proceeding, the court must stay, and not dismiss, the federal case. Moorer, 374 F.3d at 998 (citations omitted). Thus, here, the court asks two questions: (1) whether there is a state-court proceeding that is sufficiently parallel to this action; and (2) if so, applying the factors discussed above, do exceptional circumstances exist that counsel toward staying this action.

         III. Analysis

         In order for the Colorado River Doctrine to apply, there must be a state case parallel to the federal one. Jackson-Platts v. Gen. Elec. Capital Corp., 727 F.3d 1127, 1140 (11th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). The federal and state proceedings do not have to contain the same parties, issues, and requests for relief to be identical. Ambrosia Coal, 368 F.3d at 1329-30. “The crucial question is whether the ‘similarity between the two cases is sufficient to justify the conclusion that the state court litigation will be an adequate vehicle for the complete and prompt resolution of the issue between the parties.'” Sini v. Citibank, N.A., 990 F.Supp.2d 1370, 1376 (S.D. Fla. 2014) (quoting Brown v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Fla., Inc., No. 11-80390-CIV, 2011 WL 11532078, at *8 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 8, 2011)). A district court may appropriately undertake the Colorado River analysis when the “federal and state proceedings involve substantially the same parties and substantially the same issues.” Ambrosia Coal, 368 F.3d at 1330. Here, Plaintiff's action and Benz's action arise from the same accident, the actions have been brought against the same defendant, and the actions both raise negligence and wantonness claims. Thus, the court readily concludes that the two actions involve substantially the same parties and issues, making them parallel actions under the Colorado River Doctrine.

         Having said that, the court finds that none of the Colorado River factors compel abstention. Defendant concedes that the first, second, fifth, and sixth factors discussed in Moorer do not weigh in favor of abstention. (Doc. # 5 at 5, 8-9). The only factors relied upon by Defendant to justify abstention are (1) the state court's prior acquisition of jurisdiction and (2) the prejudice Defendant would face from piecemeal litigation. (Id. at 6-8). In response, Plaintiff argues that the sixth factor (i.e., the state court's ability to protect the rights of all parties) weighs against abstention because he likely will need to obtain discovery materials from Georgia ...

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