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SHEEHAN v. KOONZ

August 31, 1999

EILEEN SHEEHAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOSEPH H. KOONZ, JR., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sullivan, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On June 10, 1999, plaintiff filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia that names defendant and eleven additional parties, including nine attorneys who were partners in defendant's law firm at the time he represented plaintiff. The lawsuit alleges, inter alia, nine counts of fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, and conspiracy. On June 18, 1999, this Court issued an Order to Show Cause why this case should not be dismissed without prejudice in light of the recently filed lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Plaintiff responded by stating that the joinder of indispensable and necessary parties would destroy the diversity that provided this Court with subject matter jurisdiction. Moreover, plaintiff also stated that the discovery that has proceeded has been minimal and that no prejudice to either party would result from dismissal without prejudice of this case. Defendant opposes a stay or dismissal on the ground that plaintiff has not demonstrated the exceptional circumstances required by the Supreme Court in Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976) [hereinafter Colorado River], and Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 103 S.Ct. 927, 74 L.Ed.2d 765 (1983) [hereinafter Moses H. Cone]. Defendant's arguments are not persuasive.

DISCUSSION

I. Federal Jurisdiction

Acting pursuant to its power under Article III of the United States Constitution, Congress has mandated that federal district courts shall have original jurisdiction over civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds $75,000 and is between citizens of different states. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). As a general rule, federal district courts have a "virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them." Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817, 96 S.Ct. 1236. The Supreme Court has emphasized 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." Id. (citations omitted).

II. Abstention

Despite the district court's obligation to exercise jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has, however, articulated five exceptions where a court can abstain from jurisdiction: first, "in cases presenting a federal constitutional issue which might be mooted or presented in a different posture by a state court determination of pertinent state law," County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 189, 79 S.Ct. 1060, 3 L.Ed.2d 1163 (1959); see also Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941); second, in cases "where there have been presented difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result in the case then at bar," Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 814, 96 S.Ct. 1236; see also Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25, 79 S.Ct. 1070, 3 L.Ed.2d 1058 (1959); third, in cases whose resolution could lead to needless interference in complex state administrative procedures, see Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424 (1943); fourth, in cases where the federal court's resolution would interfere with the pending state criminal prosecutions, see Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971); and finally, in cases such as the one at bar, where resolution of a similar action pending between the parties in state court may effectively resolve the dispute between the parties. See Colorado River, 424 U.S. 800, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483.

III. Colorado River Abstention

In contrast to the other four types of abstention, Colorado River abstention is not based upon "considerations of proper constitutional adjudication and regard for federal-state relations," but on considerations of "wise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation." Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817, 96 S.Ct. 1236 (citations omitted). Given the district court's obligation to exercise its jurisdiction and the absence of these weightier considerations, the situations that are appropriate for dismissal "for reasons of wise judicial administration are considerably more limited than the circumstances appropriate for abstention." Id. at 818, 96 S.Ct. 1236. In determining whether a case is appropriate for Colorado River abstention, the court should not look for substantial reasons to exercise jurisdiction. Rather, "the task is to ascertain whether there exist `exceptional' circumstances, the `clearest of justifications,' that can suffice under Colorado River to justify the surrender of that jurisdiction." Moses H. Cone, 460 U.S. at 25-26, 103 S.Ct. 927; see also Hoai v. Sun Refining & Marketing Co., 866 F.2d 1515, 1518, 1520-21 (D.C.Cir. 1989) (discussing circumstances justifying stay or dismissal of federal cases because of concurrent state proceedings).

The Supreme Court has articulated six factors that a district court must consider in deciding whether the circumstances of a particular case are exceptional: (1) whether one court has first assumed jurisdiction over property; (2) the inconvenience of the federal forum; (3) the desirability of avoiding piecemeal litigation; (4) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent forums; see Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 818, 96 S.Ct. 1236; (5) the source of the law that will provide the rules of the decision; and (6) the adequacy of the state court proceeding to protect the rights of the parties. See Moses H. Cone, 460 U.S. at 24-26, 103 S.Ct. 927. A district court's analysis of the above factors should not be mechanical, but rather the district court should carefully balance the factors that apply to the given case, "with the balance heavily weighted in favor of the exercise of jurisdiction." Id. at 16, 103 S.Ct. 927. In addition, "[n]o one factor is necessarily determinative; a carefully considered judgment taking into account both the obligation to exercise jurisdiction and the combination of factors counselling against that exercise is required." Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 818-19, 96 S.Ct. 1236; see also Reiman v. Smith, 12 F.3d 222, 224 (D.C.Cir. 1993) (citing Johns v. Rozet, 770 F. Supp. 11 (D.D.C. 1991) as an example of a case that properly engaged in balancing the Colorado River factors)).

A. Jurisdiction Over Property and Convenience of the Fora

In applying the Colorado River factors to the facts of this case, the Court can deal with two of the factors expeditiously. Because this case does not involve jurisdiction over property, the first factor does not weigh in favor of or against abstention. Next, because both the state and federal claims ...


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