Owners Insurance Company v. Peoples Services Inc et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Karon O Bowdre on 1/2/13. (SAC )
2013 Jan-02 PM 01:34
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
OWNERS INSURANCE COMPANY,
PEOPLES SERVICES, INC., TIM
PRUITT, and JERRI LYNN PRUITT,
This declaratory judgment action comes before the court on Defendant Tim Pruitt and
Jerri Lynn Pruitt’s Motion to Dismiss (doc. 9) and Defendant Peoples Services, Inc.’s Motion to
Dismiss under the Wilton/Brillhart doctrine (doc. 13). The parties have fully briefed the motions.
For the reasons stated below, the court will GRANT the motion to dismiss and will DISMISS
WITHOUT PREJUDICE Owners Insurance Company’s claims against Peoples and the Pruitts.
I. STATEMENT OF FACTS
On February 2, 2007, the Pruitts filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court for Talladega County,
Alabama, against its co-defendant in this suit, Peoples, and several other defendants (hereinafter
referred to as the “Pruitt action”). The Honorable William E. Hollingsworth, III presides over the
case, which is ongoing. The Pruitts alleged that Mr. Pruitt suffered personal injuries from
exposure to “waste sand” that Peoples had dumped at his worksite. Owners insured Peoples
through a general commercial line of insurance during the time in question and has defended
Peoples in the Pruitt action since the time of its filing.
Peoples claims that on August 22, 2012, Owners sent it a letter notifying it for the first
time that Owners was defending Peoples in the Pruitt action subject to a reservation of rights and
that it “reserves the right to intervene in the underlying action filed by the Pruitts or to file a
separate declaratory judgment action concerning these coverage issues. You should consult with
your own personal attorney regarding any coverage issues.” (Doc. 13-3, at 4). Owners claims
that it notified Peoples that it was “undertaking defense of this action under a reservation of
rights” in a letter dated March 29, 2007. (Doc. 15-1, at 2).
On August 27, 2012, Owners filed the complaint in this court seeking a declaration of
whether Owners had a duty to defend and indemnify Peoples in the Pruitt action. (Doc. 1). On
October 1, 2012, Peoples filed a complaint in Talladega Circuit Court seeking a declaratory
judgment that the policy issued by Owners covers the claims against Peoples in the Pruitt action.
(“Complaint,” Doc. 13-2) (hereinafter referred to as the “Peoples action”). The Honorable
William E. Hollingsworth, III presides over this case as well.
On September 28, 2012, the Pruitts filed a Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim
upon which relief can be granted, failure to add indispensable parties, and lack of jurisdiction.
(Doc. 9). On October 1, 2012, Peoples filed a Motion to Dismiss under the Wilton/ Brillhart
doctrine, and the Pruitts adopted these arguments. (Doc. 13; Doc. 19). The parties have fully
briefed both motions, but the court only considers the Wilton/ Brillhart argument because the
complaint is due to be dismissed under that doctrine.
II. LEGAL DISCUSSION
Peoples and the Pruitts argue that the case should be dismissed under the Wilton/Brillhart
doctrine. That doctrine derives its name from two Supreme Court cases, Wilton v. Seven Falls
Co., 515 U.S. 277 (1995), and Brillhart v. Excess Ins. Co. of Am., 316 U.S. 491 (1942). In
Wilton, the Supreme Court explained that district courts have “substantial latitude in deciding
whether to stay or dismiss a declaratory judgment suit in light of pending state proceedings.”
Wilton, 515 U.S. at 286. The Supreme Court also noted that “[i]n the declaratory judgment
context, the normal principle that federal courts should adjudicate claims within their jurisdiction
yields to considerations of practicality and wise judgment.” Id. The Supreme Court further
admonished in Brillhart that, when determining whether to stay or dismiss a declaratory
judgment action, district courts must consider “whether the claims of all the parties in interest
[could] satisfactorily be adjudicated in [the declaratory action], whether necessary parties have
been joined, [and] whether such parties are amenable to process in [the declaratory action].”
Brillhart, 316 U.S. at 495.
The Supreme Court explained that the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2001, et
seq., is “understood to confer on federal courts unique and substantial discretion in deciding
whether to declare the rights of litigants.” Wilton, 515 U.S. at 286. The Supreme Court has
“repeatedly characterized the Declaratory Judgment Act as an enabling Act, which confers a
discretion on the courts rather than an absolute right upon the litigants.” Wilton, 515 U.S. at 287.
The Declaratory Judgment Act “only gives the federal courts competence to make a declaration
of rights; it does not impose a duty to do so.” Ameritas Variable Life Ins. Co. v. Roach, 411 F.3d
1328, 1330 (11th Cir. 2005).
The Declaratory Judgment Act was never intended to be used as a tactical device in
furtherance of an insurer’s attempt to forum shop. See United Ins. Co. of Am. v. Harris, 939 F.
Supp. 1527, 1535 (M.D. Ala. 1996) (condemning an insurer’s filing of a declaratory action to cut
off an insured’s right to a state forum as “procedural fencing” and dismissing the insurer’s
complaint without prejudice). A district court has discretion to “decline to entertain a declaratory
judgment action on the merits when a pending proceeding in another court will fully and finally
resolve the controversy between the parties.” Ven-Fuel, Inc. v. Dep’t of the Treasury, 673 F.2d
1194, 1195 (11th Cir. 1982).
In Ameritas, the Eleventh Circuit announced nine guideposts to inform a district court’s
decision whether to entertain a declaratory judgment action when a proceeding in another court
will fully resolve the controversy between the parties. These factors are as follows:
the strength of the state’s interest in having the issues raised in the federal
declaratory action decided in the state courts;
whether the judgment in the federal declaratory action would settle the
whether the federal declaratory action would serve a useful purpose in clarifying
the legal relations at issue;
whether the declaratory remedy is being used merely for the purpose of
“procedural fencing” – that is, to provide an arena for a race for res judicata or to
achieve a federal hearing in a case not otherwise removable;
whether the use of a declaratory judgment action would increase the friction
between our federal and state courts and improperly encroach on state jurisdiction;
whether there is an alternative remedy that is better or more effective;
whether the underlying factual issues are important to an informed resolution of
whether the state trial court is in a better position to evaluate those factual issues
than is the federal court; and
whether there is a close nexus between the underlying factual and legal issues and
state law and/or public policy, or whether federal common or statutory law
dictates a resolution of the declaratory judgment action.
Ameritas, 411 F.3d at 1331. This list is not exhaustive nor is any one factor controlling; “these
are merely guideposts in furtherance of the Supreme Court’s admonitions in Brillhart and
The court has considered all of the Ameritas guideposts and finds that the reasons to defer
to the state court proceeding outweigh those for hearing the declaratory judgment action in
federal court separate from the two pending state court actions. Several different factors support
the conclusion that Talladega County’s Circuit Court is the better venue for the parties to litigate
this controversy, despite the fact the Peoples’ action was the later-filed of the declaratory
judgment actions. Specifically, as to the Ameritas factors the court finds as follows:
Strength of the state’s interest in having the issues decided in state court
Alabama law governs the coverage dispute between Owners and Peoples; however,
federal courts frequently decide cases involving state law, such as the issues involved in this
case. Thus, this factor does not weigh heavily either way.
Whether the judgment in the federal declaratory action would settle the
A decision in this case would certainly resolve the controversy as between Owners and
Peoples. However, it would not resolve the underlying claims made by the Pruitts against
Peoples in the Pruitt action. Here, the Pruitt action, which involves the factual disputes under
which the insurance coverage issue arises, has been litigated in Talladega Circuit Court since
2007. The Peoples action was also filed in Talladega Circuit Court and is in front of the same
judge as the Pruitt action. (Doc. 13, at 7). Judge Hancock dismissed a similar declaratory
judgment action partly because, “[t]he complete controversy [stood] only in the state court.”
Tudor Ins. Co. v. Smith, 2012 WL 4344535, *3 (N.D. Ala. 2012) (citing Ameritas, 411 F.3d at
The Pruitt and Peoples actions must proceed as separate state court actions and cannot be
consolidated into one action. Despite the inability to consolidate the cases, the state court judge
could possibly coordinate the cases, as discussed below. Because either the state or the federal
court could adequately adjudicate this particular controversy, this favor weighs neither for or
Whether the federal declaratory action would serve a useful purpose in clarifying
the legal relations at issue
The declaratory action would clarify the relation between Owners and Peoples, but the
Peoples action for declaratory judgment in state court would also clarify the legal relations at
issue in this case. The court does not agree with Owners’ argument that “physical proximity
does not make one court more efficient than another in deciding a legal issue.” (Doc. 15, at 4).
Having two pending cases in state court awaiting the outcome of a federal court case is far less
desirable than having one state court case awaiting the outcome of another state court case
adjudicated by the same jurist who could conceivably coordinate relevant discovery and other
related aspects of the two cases in ways that the federal court could not. In that way, physical
proximity and judicial comity argue for the dismissal of this case in favor of the Peoples action.
Whether the declaratory remedy is being used merely for the purpose of
Peoples argues that Owners’ waiting five years after defending Peoples in the Pruitt
action to file this action was a form of procedural fencing. Owners contends that it “cannot gain
any advantage over the underlying state court litigation by filing its declaratory action in federal
court” and that Peoples’ filing of the state court declaratory judgment action was “transparent
forum shopping.” (Doc. 15, at 4-5). Owners is correct that it could have filed a declaratory
judgment at any time during or after the state court litigation of the Pruitt action. However, the
filing of this action could be viewed as a delaying tactic. The court does not have enough
information to determine whether Owners filed this action as a form of procedural fencing. Even
if Owners did file this action to gain an upper hand over Peoples, this factor alone is not enough
to persuade the court to retain the action.
Whether the declaratory judgment action would increase friction between federal
and state courts
The overlapping issues in this case and the two pending state court actions invite conflict
and friction between the two tribunals. The result of allowing this declaratory judgment action to
continue concurrently with the state court actions would be an untenable race between the two
courts, “with the loser straining against the yoke of the winner’s decision and potentially facing
the unenviable catch 22 of acceding to the other courts’ ruling with which it disagrees or,
alternatively, diverging from the other court’s ruling and reaching an inconsistent result.”
Westchester Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Romar House, No. 08-0455-WS-M, 2008 WL 5412937, at
*5 (S.D. Ala. Dec. 29, 2008). This factor favors abstention in deference to the state court where
all claims can be resolved consistently, efficiently, and in this case, in front of the same judge
who after five years of litigation in this matter must be far more familiar with the case than this
Whether an alternative remedy is better and more effective
Although this conflict would be adjudicated in two state court actions if the court granted
the motion to dimiss, the court posits that two actions in the same state court in front of the same
judge are “better and more effective” than one case state court and another in federal court, that
could just as easily have been decided in state court. See Ameritas, 411 F.3d at 1331.
Owners aptly states that the “state court action would not be ‘better or more effective’
than the analysis provided by this court.” (Doc. 15, at 5). The court agrees and also posits that the
reverse is true: this court’s analysis would not be better than the analysis provided by the
Talladega Circuit Court. Its analysis may be more effective, however, because of the judge’s
familiarity with the case. Judicial efficiency, thus, warrants dismissal without prejudice of
Owners’ declaratory judgment action.
(7) Whether underlying factual issues are important to a resolution of the case and (8)
Whether the state court is in a better position to evaluate those factual issues than is the
These two factors converge in this case. Here, although the Peoples action is a separate
case from the underlying Pruitt action, both cases are in Talladega Circuit Court in front of the
same judge. Even assuming no “underlying factual issues” from the Pruitt action are necessary to
the determination of Peoples’ insurance coverage and indemnification, the state court is still in a
better position to hear the Peoples declaratory judgment action because it is so familiar with the
facts in the Pruitt action.
(9) whether a close nexus arises between the issues and state law/public policy, or
whether federal law dictates resolution of the declaratory judgment action
No Alabama state law or public policy bears a close nexus to the issues, except that
Alabama law governs. Federal courts regularly apply state law with relative ease. As the
Eleventh Circuit stated in Ameritas, the Declaratory Judgment Act only gives federal court the
ability to hear declaratory actions, but “it does not impose a duty to do so.” Ameritas, 411 F.3d
at 1330. Thus, this factor is neutral.
This case is distinguishable from those cases where the federal plaintiff was not a party to
the action in state court. See e.g., Specialty Underwriters Alliance v. Peebles McManus, LLC,
643 F. Supp. 2d 1298 (M.D. Ala. 2009) (denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss under the
Wilton/ Brillhart doctrine because the underlying state court case “involve[d] different issues and
different parties”). Here, Peoples filed an almost identical complaint for declaratory judgment in
the same court where the underlying action is currently being litigated. A “parallel state action”
exists in this instance just as it did in Brillhart, Wilton, and Ameritas, even though it was filed
after the federal complaint. See id. at 1301. The Eleventh Circuit, however, has specifically
stated “That the action in state court was filed after the federal complaint . . . is of no moment,”
Triple S Ref. Corp. v. Mount Canaan Full Gospel Church, 254 F. App’x 762, 763 (11th Cir.
This case is akin to Cincinnati Specialty Underwriters Ins. Co. v. M&M, LLC, 2011 WL
154314 (M.D. Ala. 2011). In that case the Glovers brought state law claims against M&M in
state court for damage to their home from M&M’s faulty construction. Four months later,
Cincinnati Insurance, M&M’s insurance carrier, filed a declaratory judgment action in federal
court seeking a declaration that the Glovers’ claims did not fall within the commercial general
liability policy issued to M&M. Two months later, M&M filed a third party complaint against
Cincinnati Insurance in the original state court action seeking, in part, a declaratory judgment on
M&M’s coverage and indemnification under its insurance policy for the original state court
Judge Watkins dismissed the case under the Wilton/ Brillhart doctrine because the
coverage issue was “squarely before the state court,” and the pending state court action weighed
“heavily in favor of dismissal of this [federal] action.” Id. *3. Although the Peoples action is not
a part of the underlying Pruitt action in this case, as was the case with the third-party complaint
filed in M&M, both the Pruitt and Peoples actions are in Talladega Circuit Court in front of the
same judge and could possibly be coordinated. The biggest factor that weighs in favor of
abstention is that the state court can control and coordinate the timing of discovery and mediation
of both cases without the federal court’s intrusion or delay of such matters. Thus, the court sees
no reason to depart from the reasoning in M&M and will grant the motion to dismiss.
The court is convinced that in this case the Ameritas guideposts support dismissal without
prejudice of Owners’ declaratory judgment action. Owners can pursue the same remedy in state
court where Peoples has filed a declaratory judgment action and where the Pruitt case is being
adjudicated. The issue of coverage will be determined in a declaratory judgment action
regardless of whether this federal case continues because of the Peoples action in Talladega
Circuit Court. In fact, if the court goes forward with this action, it may hinder the adjudication
and determination of the coverage issue and the underlying factual litigation in the state court
below. For these reasons, the court will GRANT the Motion to Dismiss, DISMISS WITHOUT
PREJUDICE Owners’ complaint for declaratory relief, and will enter a separate order to that
DONE and ORDERED this 2nd day of January, 2013.
KARON OWEN BOWDRE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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