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Pritt v. Henry

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

October 22, 2017

LYDIA KATHRYN PRITT, Plaintiff,
v.
HOLLY R. HENRY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THOMAS E. JOHNSTON, JUDGE

         Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Remand. (ECF No. 4.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS the motion and REMANDS this case to the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, West Virginia.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of a February 27, 2015, automobile accident involving the parties at an intersection in St. Albans, West Virginia. (ECF No. 5 at 1; ECF No. 6 at 2.) A third party, Ms. Amy Dawson, was a passenger in Defendant's vehicle and allegedly suffered injuries. (ECF No. 6 at 2.) The facts regarding who was at fault for the accident are in dispute but are not at issue here. (Id.; see also ECF No. 1-1 at 10-11.)

         Ms. Dawson filed a civil action against Plaintiff in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County on February 19, 2016. (ECF No. 5 at 1; ECF No. 6 at 2; see also ECF No. 5-1 (docket sheet for Civil Action No. 16-C-256).) Almost one year later, on January 23, 2017, Plaintiff filed a civil action against Defendant in the same court. (ECF No. 5 at 1; ECF No. 6 at 2; see also ECF No. 5-2 (docket sheet for Civil Action No. 17-C-108).) Plaintiff's state court complaint asserts negligence as the sole cause of action and requests the following relief: past and future pain and suffering, past and future medical bills, loss of enjoyment of life, pre- and post-judgment interest, attorney fees, and “[s]uch other damage as may become apparent in this litigation.” (See ECF No. 1-1 at 4-5.) Notably, the state court judge who was assigned to the two related actions in state court entered an Order of Consolidation, effective February 28, 2017, based on “judicial economy as well as the interests of avoiding two possibly inconsistent results (if the two suits were allowed to remain separate) . . . .” (ECF No. 5-3.)

         Defendant removed the case to this Court on May 12, 2017.[1] (ECF No. 1.) In the Notice of Removal, Defendant asserts that the basis for this Court's subject matter jurisdiction over this case is diversity pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (See Id. at 2.) Plaintiff filed the current Motion to Remand on June 12, 2017, arguing that this Court should abstain from accepting jurisdiction pursuant to Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976) [hereinafter Colo. River]. (See ECF No. 5 at 3.) Defendant responded to the motion on June 23, 2017, (ECF No. 6), and Plaintiff filed her reply on June 29, 2017, (ECF No. 7). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “It is a fundamental precept that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, constrained to exercise only authority conferred by Article III of the Constitution and affirmatively granted by federal statute.” In re Bulldog Trucking, 147 F.3d 347, 352 (4th Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citations omitted). “District courts . . . have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000 . . . and is between . . . citizens of different States . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). Further, “any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by . . . the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Because removal of civil cases from state to federal court infringes state sovereignty, federal courts strictly construe the removal statute and resolve all doubts in favor of remanding cases to state court. See Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 109 (1941); see also Hartley v. CSX Transp., Inc., 187 F.3d 422, 425 (4th Cir. 1999) (noting that the district courts must “resolve all doubts about the propriety of removal in favor of retained state jurisdiction”); Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994).

         The party asserting federal jurisdiction bears the burden of proof. Landmark Corp. v. Apogee Coal Co., 945 F.Supp. 932, 935 (S.D. W.Va. 1996). In evaluating a party's claim to federal jurisdiction, a court should look to the circumstances as they existed at the time the notice of removal was filed. See Dennison v. Carolina Payday Loans, Inc., 549 F.3d 941, 943 (4th Cir. 2008) (“[F]ederal jurisdiction . . . is fixed at the time the . . . notice of removal is filed.” (citation omitted)). Thus, in cases removed under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, there must be “complete diversity of citizenship between the parties on either side of the dispute . . . at the time of removal.” Sea Marsh Grp., Inc. v. S.C. Ventures, Inc., Nos. 94-1140, 96-1524, 1997 WL 173232, at *4 (4th Cir. Apr. 11, 1997) (per curiam) (unpublished opinion) (citing Rowland v. Patterson, 882 F.2d 97, 99 (4th Cir. 1989)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff relies on Colo. River to argue that this Court should “abstain from exercising jurisdiction in favor of concurrent and parallel state proceedings where doing so would serve the interests of ‘wise judicial administration, giving regard to the conservation of judicial resources.'” (ECF No. 5 at 3 (quoting Giles v. ICG, Inc., 789 F.Supp.2d 706, 712 (S.D. W.Va. 2001) (quoting Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 181)).) Plaintiff first argues that the consolidated state court proceedings are “undeniably parallel” to the instant action because the state court matters arise out of the same motor vehicle accident, address identical issues, and require a finding of fault for the accident. (See Id. at 4-5.) Plaintiff avers that the six Colo. River factors weigh in favor of remand. (See Id. at 5-8.) Finally, Plaintiff concludes that “[p]roceeding in two separate forums will likely lead to inconsistent results, increased litigation costs and inconvenience for the parties and witnesses.” (Id. at 8.)

         After noting that Plaintiff “does not challenge this Court's jurisdiction over this matter, ” Defendant argues that the Court should not employ the extraordinary action of abstention in this case. (See ECF No. 6 at 1.) Defendant disputes Plaintiff's argument that the state court case and this matter are parallel, stating that in the original action between Ms. Dawson and Plaintiff, “no allegations were asserted that Defendant Henry owed any duty to any of the parties to that litigation . . . .” (Id. at 2-3 (noting that the original state court case is limited in scope to relief for Ms. Dawson's injuries).) Further, Defendant argues that this case does not fall within the three traditional categories wherein abstention is appropriate. (See Id. at 3-4.) While Defendant does not rebut Plaintiff's arguments regarding the six Colo. River factors, Defendant avers that remanding this case back to state court will prejudice Defendant, an Ohio resident, who was already prejudiced by “Plaintiff's blatant attempt at service through publication . . . .” (See id.) Defendant attempts to distinguish this case from Colo. River, arguing that this case involves “simply no facts relevant to justify an exceptional circumstance finding thar [sic] necessitates this court to abandon its obligation to exercise jurisdiction.” (Id. at 4-5 (“This case does not involve property, the federal forum is not inconvenient, and as pointed out above, federal jurisdiction does not create piecemeal litigation.”).)

         In Plaintiff's reply, she contests Defendant's claim regarding the parallel nature of this case with the other state case, noting that they both arise out of the same accident and involve the same central issue of who is at fault. (See ECF No. 7 at 2.) Plaintiff further responds to Defendant's prejudice-based argument and calls it “disingenuous” because “Defendant's counsel apparently had no issue with dates contained within the [state court's] Scheduling Order when she signed it and agreed to be bound by the deadlines . . . .” (Id.) Additionally, Plaintiff argues that Defendant waived her right to removal by participating in the state court action and that complete diversity no longer existed after the consolidation of the two state court cases. (See Id. at 3-4 (noting that after consolidation, “[b]oth the Plaintiff, Amy Dawson, and the Defendant, Holly R. Henry, are residents of Ohio”).) Finally, Plaintiff argues that because the two state court actions are consolidated, it is improper to remove a subpart of the consolidated case. (Id. at 4.)

         “Abstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is the exception, not the rule.” Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 813. It is “an extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a District Court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it” and should be implemented “only in the exceptional circumstances where the order to the parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve an important countervailing interest.” Id. (quoting Cty. of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 188-89 (1950)). As noted by the Fourth Circuit, “[f]ederal courts have no more right to decline the exercise of ...


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