United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
McGriff Seibels & Williams, Inc. (“MSW”)
alleges that Defendants Paul Sparks, Darren Sonderman, David
McMahan, John Tanner, and J. Gregory McCollister breached the
terms of their employment agreements with MSW by soliciting
MSW clients and employees and using confidential information
while planning to leave MSW and beginning work with an MSW
asserts claims for breach of contract, tortious interference
with business relations, breach of fiduciary duty, and
conspiracy to interfere with business relations. MSW seeks a
declaration that Defendants’ employment agreements are
valid and enforceable. MSW also asks the court to enter a
preliminary injunction, enjoining Defendants from engaging in
conduct that MSW contends constitutes a breach of Defendants
employment agreements with MSW and tortious interference with
its business relations. (Doc. 12).
response to MSW’s motion for a preliminary injunction,
Defendants urge the court defer to abstain from exercising
jurisdiction and stay this case pursuant to the first-filed
rule and the Colorado River and
Brillhart/Wilton abstention doctrines. (Doc. 30 at
8–14). The court issues this memorandum opinion to
address Defendants’ abstention arguments.
explained below, the court DENIES
Defendants’ request to abstain. First,
Defendants’ argument concerning the first-filed rule is
moot because the federal forum which exercised jurisdiction
over similar actions has remanded those cases to state court.
Second, Defendants have not met their burden of establishing
that appropriate circumstances warrant abstention under the
Colorado River and Brillhart/Wilton
RELEVANT PROCEDURAL HISTORY
19, 2019, Mr. Sparks filed a verified complaint for
declaratory and injunctive relief against MSW in the Superior
Court of Cobbs County Georgia. (Doc. 16 at 2-16). On July 25,
2019, Mr. Sonderman filed a verified complaint for
declaratory and injunctive relief against MSW in the Superior
Court of Cobbs County Georgia. (Doc. 16-2 at 2-20). Both Mr.
Sparks’s and Mr. Sonderman’s state court
complaints ask the court to declare that the restrictive
covenants contained in their MSW employment agreements are
unenforceable under Georgia law. (See generally Doc.
16-1; Doc. 16-2).
26, 2019, MSW removed Mr. Sparks’s and Mr.
Sonderman’s state court actions to the United States
District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. (Doc. 1
in Case # 1:19-cv-3405-MHC (N.D.Ga.); Doc. 1 in Case #
1:19-cv-3406-MHC (N.D.Ga.)). Later that same day, MSW filed
its original complaint in this court naming Mr. Sparks, Mr.
Sonderman, Mr. Tanner, and Mr. McMahan as Defendants. (Doc.
August 2, 2019, Mr. McCollister filed a verified complaint
for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in the
Superior Court of Cobb County Georgia. (Doc. 16-3 at
2–44). On August 13, 2019, MSW filed an amended
verified complaint in this action, asserting the same claims
for relief but adding Mr. McCollister as a Defendant. (Doc.
11). MSW also filed a motion for a temporary restraining
order and preliminary injunction. (Doc. 12). The next day,
the Superior Court of Cobb County held a hearing on Mr.
McCollister’s request for emergency injunctive relief,
and this court held a hearing on MSW’s request for a
temporary restraining order in this action. (Doc. 15; Doc.
16-5 at 2).
August 15, 2019, this court granted in part and denied in
part MSW’s request for temporary injunctive relief.
(Doc. 21). The court enjoined Mr. Sparks, Mr. Sonderman, and
Mr. McCollister from soliciting MSW clients or prospective
clients as identified in a list that MSW counsel provided to
counsel for Defendants; soliciting MSW employees; and
interfering with MSW’s business relationships. (Doc. 21
later, the Superior Court of Cobb County Georgia issued an
order granting Mr. McCollister’s application for a
temporary restraining order. (Doc. 22-1 at 2–18). The
Georgia state court found that Mr. McCollister had
demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of his
claim because the restrictive covenants in Mr.
McCollister’s employment agreement are unenforceable
under Georgia law. (Doc. 22-1 at 18). The Georgia state court
temporarily enjoined MSW from attempting to enforce the
restrictive covenants pending a hearing on Mr.
McCollister’s request for a preliminary injunction.
(Doc. 22-1 at 18).
August 22, 2019, the Northern District of Georgia remanded
Mr. Sparks’s and Mr. Sonderman’s cases to the
Superior Court of Cobb County Georgia. (Doc. 17 in Case #
advance two abstention arguments. First, Defendants contend
that this action cannot proceed in this court because the
first-filed rule requires that this case be dismissed,
stayed, transferred, or consolidated with Mr. Sparks’s
and Mr. Sonderman’s cases which had been pending in the
Northern District of Georgia. Second, Defendants maintain
that under the Colorado River and
Brillhart/Wilton doctrines, this court should
abstain from exercising its jurisdiction pending resolution
of Mr. McCollister’s Georgia state court action. The
court address both arguments in turn.
ask the court to defer to the earlier filed federal cases in
the Northern District of Georgia. (Doc. 30 at 6–7).
“Where two actions involving overlapping issues and
parties are pending in two federal courts, there is a strong
presumption across the federal circuits that favors the forum
of the first-filed suit under the first-filed rule.”
Manuel v. Convergys Corp., 430 F.3d 1132, 1135 (11th
Cir. 2005). “The first-filed rule not only determines
which court may decide the merits of substantially similar
cases, but also generally establishes which court may decide
whether the second filed suit must be dismissed, stayed, or
transferred and consolidated.” Collegiate Licensing
Co. v. Am. Cas. Co. of Reading, Pa., 713 F.3d 71, 78
(11th Cir. 2013); see also Mann Mfg., Inc. v. Hortex,
Inc., 439 F.2d 403, 408 (5th Cir. 1971) (“Once the
likelihood of substantial overlap between the two suits ha[s]
been demonstrated, it [i]s no longer up to the [second-filed]
court  to resolve the question of whether both should be
allowed to proceed.”). Therefore, had the court