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Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Co. v. Polk

United States District Court, Southern District of Mississippi, Southern Division

February 2, 2015




Before the Court is the Motion for Abstention [19] filed by Defendant Jameilya Polk. Plaintiff Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Company has filed a Response [26], and Polk has filed a Rebuttal [30]. Having considered the parties’ submissions, the record, and relevant legal authorities, the Court is of the opinion that the Motion [19] should be denied.


On May 8, 2013, Defendant Jameilya Polk (“Polk”) filed a complaint in the County Court of Jackson County, Mississippi, naming Defendant Focus Construction, LLC (“Focus”) and “Unknown Insurance Company ABC” as defendants (“the Underlying Litigation”). Mot. for Abstention 1-2 [19]. In the Underlying Litigation, Polk alleges that she contracted with Focus to construct Polk’s residence but that Focus was negligent in the construction of the residence. Polk advances claims for breach of warranty, breach of contract, negligence, and private nuisance against Focus and a claim for declaratory relief against “Unknown Insurance Company ABC.” Id. at 2. At some point after learning that Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Company (“Nationwide”) had issued an insurance policy (“the Policy”) to Focus, Polk claims she “expressed the need to amend her [c]omplaint to officially name Nationwide” as a defendant in the Underlying Litigation. Id. Polk claims that before she could do so, Nationwide filed the Complaint in this case seeking a declaration as to its obligations to Focus with respect to the claims Polk has asserted against Focus. Id. at 2-3; Complaint 3 [1].[1]

Polk now asks this Court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over Nationwide’s declaratory judgment action on grounds that abstention is appropriate in this case based on Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Company of America, 316 U.S. 491, 494-97 (1942). Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Abstention 2-5 [20]. Polk further posits that Nationwide’s request for injunctive relief is frivolous such that the Court should not consider the more stringent abstention analysis set forth in Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817-18 (1976). Id. at 5-6. Nationwide responds that it has asserted a valid request for injunctive relief in addition to declaratory relief, making the Colorado River analysis applicable to this case and, under this standard, abstention is not warranted. Mem. in Resp. to Mot. for Abstention 5-8 [27].[2]


A. The Proper Standard for Determining Whether Abstention Applies

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recognizes two distinct standards for determining whether a court should abstain from hearing a particular case. “When a district court is considering abstaining from exercising jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action, it must apply the standard derived from Brillhart[, ]” 316 U.S. at 494-97. New England Ins. Co. v. Barnett, 561 F.3d 392, 394 (5th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). “[W]hen an action involves coercive relief, [3] the district court must apply the abstention standard set forth in Colorado River[, ]” 424 U.S. at 817. Id. at 395-96. “[T]he only potential exception to this general rule arises when a party’s request for injunctive relief is either frivolous or is made solely to avoid application of the Brillhart standard.” Black Sea Inv., Ltd. v. United Heritage Corp., 204 F.3d 647, 652 (5th Cir. 2000) (citing PPG Industries, Inc. v. Continental Oil Co., 478 F.2d 674, 679 (5th Cir. 1973)). Because the abstention issue must be evaluated under different standards depending on whether the action includes a nonfrivolous request for coercive relief that is not made solely to avoid Brillhart, the Court must first determine whether this action involves such a request. Id. (“When a party seeks both injunctive and declaratory relief, the appropriateness of abstention must be assessed according to the doctrine of Colorado River[] . . . .”).

In its Complaint, Nationwide seeks both declaratory and injunctive relief. See Compl. 16-17 [1] (requesting that the Court “[e]njoin . . . Defendants from either initiating or prosecuting a suit or any other action, including any post-judgment remedial action or garnishment against [Nationwide], or one another, until such time as this Court declares the rights and duties of the parties requested above”). Polk recognizes that Nationwide requests injunctive relief, but Polk relies on a conclusory assertion that Nationwide’s motive behind including a claim for injunctive relief is simply to avoid the application of Brillhart. Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Abstention 5-6 [20]. There is no evidence in the record that Nationwide’s claim for injunctive relief was filed in an effort to avoid Brillhart. Because claims seeking to enjoin prospective state court proceedings are permissible, Polk has not demonstrated that Nationwide’s claim for injunctive relief is frivolous.[4]Nationwide’s request for injunctive relief is nonfrivolous and the Court finds that the Colorado River factors control the resolution of Polk’s Motion [19].

B. Abstention is Not Warranted Under the Colorado River Analysis

“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 (quoting McClellan v. Carland, 217 U.S. 268, 282 (1910)). Abstention under the Colorado River analysis represents an “extraordinary and narrow exception” to the “virtually unflagging obligation of the federal courts to exercise the jurisdiction given them.” Id. at 813, 817. “[A] district court may abstain from a case only under ‘exceptional circumstances.’” Stewart v. W. Heritage Ins. Co., 438 F.3d 488, 491 (5th Cir. 2006) (citing Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 813).

In deciding whether “exceptional circumstances” exist, the Supreme Court identified six relevant factors:

1) assumption by either court of jurisdiction over a res, 2) relative inconvenience of the forums, 3) avoidance of piecemeal litigation, 4) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent forums, 5) to what extent federal law provides the rules of decision on the merits, and 6) the adequacy of the state proceedings in protecting the rights of the party invoking federal jurisdiction.

Id. (citation omitted). When “assessing the propriety of abstention according to these factors, a federal court must keep in mind that ‘the balance [should be] heavily weighted in favor of the exercise of jurisdiction.’” Black Sea, 204 F.3d at 652 (citation omitted) (alteration in original). A balancing of each of ...

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