Argonaut Great Central Insurance Company v. Andrews et al
ORDER granting in part the 15 Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction. This action is dismissed without prejudice. To the extent defendants seek dismissal with prejudice, the motion is denied. Signed by Chief Judge William H. Steele on 2/19/15. (tgw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ARGONAUT GREAT CENTRAL
INSURANCE COMPANY, etc.,
ALICE ANDREWS, et al.,
) CIVIL ACTION 14-0506-WS-C
This matter is before the Court on the defendants’ motion to dismiss. (Doc.
15). The parties have filed briefs and evidentiary materials in support of their
respective positions, (Docs. 15, 20, 21, 28), and the motion is ripe for resolution.
A bit of background is in order. In June 2010, the defendants herein (“the
Andrews plaintiffs”) sued South Alabama Utilities (“SAU”) in state court in a
dispute over water quality (“the Andrews lawsuit”). The parties settled in April
2014, and a consent judgment was entered on October 3, 2014. (Doc. 15 at 2;
Doc. 15-1 at 31).
The plaintiff herein (“Argonaut”) insured SAU but denied coverage for the
Andrews lawsuit. In November 2010, SAU sued Argonaut in state court for a
declaration that Argonaut owed it defense and indemnity (“the coverage lawsuit”).
In May 2013, the state court ruled that Argonaut owed SAU a defense. On
October 14, 2014, the state court granted the Andrews plaintiffs’ motion to
intervene in the coverage lawsuit. The Andrews plaintiffs filed their complaint in
intervention on October 22, 2014. SAU and the Andrews plaintiffs filed a motion
for summary judgment in December 2014, which motion was set for oral
argument in February 2015. (Doc. 15 at 2-3; Doc. 15-1 at 12-18, 32; Doc. 28 at
Argonaut filed this action on October 30, 2014, seeking a declaration that it
does not owe any duty to the Andrews plaintiffs, including that of satisfying the
consent judgment in the Andrews lawsuit. (Doc. 1 at 9). While the Andrews
plaintiffs are named as defendants herein, SAU (Argonaut’s insured), is not. The
relief Argonaut seeks in this action against the Andrews plaintiffs is the mirror
image of the relief the Andrews plaintiffs – and SAU – seek in the coverage
Because the parties are completely diverse and the amount in controversy
exceeds $75,000, the Court has subject matter jurisdiction. However, 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
Insurance Co. v. Roach, 411 F.3d 1328, 1330 (11th Cir. 2005). In particular, “[i]n
its discretion, a district court may decline to entertain a declaratory judgment
action on the merits when a pending proceeding in another court will fully resolve
the controversy between the parties.” Ven-Fuel, Inc. v. Department of the
Treasury, 673 F.2d 1194, 1195 (11th Cir. 1982).
The Eleventh Circuit has identified a number of factors for a court to
consider when weighing whether to exercise its discretion to hear a state-law
action “in the face of parallel litigation in the state courts.” Ameritas, 411 F.3d at
1331 (internal quotes omitted). Argonaut denies that the coverage lawsuit is
parallel litigation, on the grounds that the Andrews plaintiffs intervened before the
30-day period provided in Alabama’s direct action statute had expired. (Doc. 20
at 7-9, 11).1 Argonaut concludes that the Andrews plaintiffs therefore “did not
If the judgment debtor is insured, “and if the judgment is not satisfied within 30
days after the date when it is entered, the judgment creditor may proceed against the
defendant and the insurer to reach and apply the insurance money to the satisfaction of
the judgment.” Ala. Code § 27-23-2. The consent judgment in the Andrews lawsuit was
entered on October 3, 2014. The Andrews plaintiffs moved to intervene in the coverage
have standing” to intervene and that the state court “had no subject matter
jurisdiction to grant” intervention. (Id. at 8). “As the trial court had no subject
matter jurisdiction over the Defendants’ claims against Argonaut in the State
Court case, Defendants have no claims properly pending against Argonaut in the
State Court case.” (Id. at 9).
The unstated, unsupported premise of Argonaut’s argument is that any error
in the timing of the Andrews plaintiffs’ intervention was not cured by the passage
of time such that they became proper plaintiffs on November 3, 2014. The single
case on which Argonaut relies, (Doc. 20 at 8-9), does not remotely address that
issue. More importantly, Argonaut has already moved to undo the Andrews
plaintiffs’ intervention on the same grounds, and the state court has denied its
motion. (Doc. 20-9 at 2-5; Doc. 28-1 at 2). Therefore, regardless of whether
Argonaut believes the state court to be in error, the Andrews plaintiffs are in fact
parties to the coverage lawsuit.
In a further effort to avoid characterization as parallel litigation, Argonaut
scrambles to identify distinctions between the two lawsuits: (1) SAU is not a party
to this action; (2) Burkholder Insurance, which SAU sued in the coverage lawsuit,
is not a party to this action; (3) SAU sued Argonaut for breach of contract and bad
faith, which claims are absent here; and (4) the coverage lawsuit deals
“exclusively” with duty to defend, leaving this as the only action addressing duty
to indemnify. (Doc. 20 at 11-12).
It is true that SAU is not a party to this action, but Argonaut has not
explained how this works to its advantage.2 As the Court has noted, “ [i]n this
context, suits are parallel if substantially the same parties litigate substantially the
same issues in different forums.” Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty
lawsuit in June 2014, the motion was granted on October 14, 2014, and the complaint in
intervention was filed on October 22, 2014.
Nor has Argonaut explained why it did not name its insured as a defendant
herein, despite SAU’s continuing interest in payment under the policy. See infra note 3.
Insurance Co. v. King, 2012 WL 280656 at *4 (S.D. Ala. 2012) (emphasis added,
internal quotes omitted). Especially since SAU and the Andrews plaintiffs share a
common interest in the policy proceeds,3 the two actions involve substantially the
same parties despite the absence of SAU.
That the state suit is broader than this one, in that it includes claims against
Argonaut for compensatory and punitive damages and claims against a third party,
is likewise immaterial to whether the two actions are parallel. In Ameritas, the
insurer’s federal lawsuit, as here, sought only a declaration of rights and
obligations under its policy, while in the state lawsuit the insured sued the insurer
for breach of contract and negligence and an agent and his employer for
negligence. Despite these distinctions, the Eleventh Circuit described the
insured’s lawsuit as “a parallel state court action.” 411 F.3d at 1329-30.
If it were correct that the coverage lawsuit involves only the duty to defend,
the two actions probably could not be considered parallel. But both SAU’s
complaint and the Andrews plaintiffs’ complaint in intervention expressly assert a
duty to indemnify/pay amounts due under the settlement agreement. (Doc. 15-1 at
8, 23-25). Argonaut elsewhere admits as much. (Doc. 20 at 13).
In sum, the coverage lawsuit constitutes parallel state litigation, triggering
application of the Ameritas factors. With little more than its ipse dixit, Argonaut
posits that the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth Ameritas factors either
weigh in its favor or are neutral, such that the Court should exercise its discretion
in favor of hearing this action. (Doc. 20 at 12-13). The Court disagrees.
The second Ameritas factor is “whether the judgment in the federal
declaratory action would settle the controversy.” 411 F.3d at 1331. As noted,
By the terms of the settlement, SAU shares in any recovery of the insurance
proceeds, since it has paid a portion of the settlement amount out of its own pocket and
has incurred expenses due to the denial of coverage. (Doc. 21 at 2). Contrary to
Argonaut’s assertion, (Doc. 20 at 2), the consent judgment (which incorporated the
settlement agreement) does not limit the source of payment on the judgment to proceeds
of Argonaut’s policy; only the “yet unpaid portion” of that amount is so limited. (Doc.
20-3 at 2).
Argonaut did not name SAU as a party to this lawsuit, even though SAU has a
patent interest in the policy proceeds. Thus, this action cannot bind SAU, and the
coverage lawsuit will have to proceed to its conclusion – not only as to the
ancillary issues but also as to the very issue presented herein – regardless of what
happens here. Argonaut wisely does not suggest that this factor favors it or is
neutral. On the contrary, this factor triggers application of the principle that
“[g]ratuitious interference with the orderly and comprehensive disposition of a
state court litigation should be avoided.” Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Co. of
America, 316 U.S. 491, 495 (1942). It is up to Argonaut to show that application
of the other Ameritas factors removes the epithet, “gratuitous,” so as to justify
interference with an existing, more comprehensive state lawsuit. Argonaut has not
come close to doing so.
As for the first Ameritas factor, Argonaut concedes that only questions of
Alabama law, involving an Alabama insured and an Alabama judgment creditor,
are presented in either lawsuit, but it nevertheless denies that Alabama has “any
interest” in resolving those issues. (Doc. 20 at 12). That is a dubious proposition,
as two rulings by this Court attest. See, e.g., Travelers Casualty and Surety Co. of
America, Inc. v. East Beach Development, LLC, 2007 WL 3407049 at *7 (S.D.
Ala. 2007) (Alabama had a “significant interest” in having its courts resolve statelaw issues concerning events occurring in Alabama); Canal Insurance Co. v.
Morgan, 2007 WL 174387 at *3 (S.D. Ala. 2007) (same). Moreover, the state
court has already invested time and effort in the coverage lawsuit, having resolved
the issue whether Argonaut has a duty to defend (it does) and having the issue
whether Argonaut has a duty to indemnify/pay the settlement amount teed up for
resolution on motion for summary judgment this very month. (Doc. 15 at 2-3;
Doc. 28 at 1). In addition to considerations of efficiency, the state has an interest
in finishing the work it has begun and advanced almost to conclusion. The first
Ameritas factor weighs against Argonaut.
As for the third Ameritas factor, Argonaut argues that proceeding in this
action would “serve a useful purpose” by “settl[ing] all claims and clarify[ing] all
of the issues” the Andrews plaintiffs raise in the coverage lawsuit. (Doc. 20 at 12).
All this shows, however, is that this action is redundant with (though less
comprehensive than) the coverage lawsuit, which is no argument in favor of
exercising jurisdiction. See East Beach, 2007 WL 3407049 at *8 (where the state
court was “fully equipped to resolve these questions and provide this clarification
as well,” this factor did not favor exercising jurisdiction); Morgan, 2007 WL
174387 at *3 (same). Since this action serves no useful purpose in any relevant
sense, the third Ameritas factor weighs against Argonaut.
As for the fourth Ameritas factor, Argonaut accuses the Andrews plaintiffs
of “procedural fencing” by intervening in the coverage lawsuit before the 30-day
period of Section 27-23-2 expired. (Doc. 20 at 12-13). The force of this argument
is blunted by the state court’s rejection of Argonaut’s challenge to the timeliness
of the intervention, and it is eliminated by Argonaut’s unexplained decision not to
name SAU as a defendant herein, which decision (given Argonaut’s emphasis on
the point in its briefing) appears to have been made in an effort to persuade the
Court that this action is not parallel to the coverage lawsuit, so as to avoid
application of the Ameritas factors and thus improve the chances the Court would
exercise jurisdiction. The fourth Ameritas factor is at best neutral.
As for the fifth Ameritas factor, Argonaut concedes that proceeding herein
would “increase the friction between” federal and state courts if the Andrews
plaintiffs are “proper parties to the State Court action.” (Doc. 20 at 12). Since the
state court has resolved that issue against Argonaut, this factor weighs against
Argonaut. “For this Court to swoop in and take a slice (but only a slice) of that
dispute away from the state court via Travelers’ declaratory judgment action
would undoubtedly create friction and unnecessary encroachment on the statecourt proceedings.” East Beach, 2007 WL 3407049 at *8. While a ruling by the
Court could not bind SAU or the state court, “the possibilities of inconsistent
judgments from both forums promis[e] increased friction.” Gibson v. Jackson,
578 F.2d 1045, 1050 (5th Cir. 1978) (internal quotes omitted). The fifth Ameritas
factor weighs against Argonaut.
As for the sixth Ameritas factor, Argonaut denies that “there is an
alternative remedy that is better or more effective” because in either forum the
court must look to the policy and the claims made to resolve the coverage issue.
(Doc. 20 at 13). By Argonaut’s own argument, this factor is at best neutral.
Looking at the entirety of issues raised and parties involved, however, it is plain
that the state court is the superior forum because there, and only there, can the
entire controversy be resolved. As this Court has noted, “the concepts of ‘better or
more effective’ logically embrace efficiency considerations ….” Westchester
Surplus Lines Insurance Co. v. Romar House Association, Inc., 2008 WL 5412937
at *6 (S.D. Ala. 2008); see also Morgan, 2007 WL 174387 at *3 (“[T]he Clarke
County action can more effectively and efficiently decide the overlapping issues in
these cases because that action encompasses the parties’ entire dispute ….”). The
sixth Ameritas factor weighs against Argonaut.
As for the eighth Ameritas factor, Argonaut insists the state court “is in no
better position to evaluate the factual issues than the federal court.” (Doc. 20 at
13). Because the state court is already immersed in those issues, however, it is in
a better position to do so. Romar House, 2008 WL 5412937 at *6; East Beach,
2007 WL 3407049 at *10; Morgan, 2007 WL 174387 at *4 (“Rather than having
two courts duplicate effort in scrutinizing and assessing the underlying facts, a far
more sensible and efficient approach is for the state court that is already tasked
with examining those facts in the underlying case to apply those same facts to the
pending claims for declaratory relief.”). The eighth Ameritas factor weighs
Argonaut does not argue that the seventh or ninth Ameritas factors support
its position. (Doc. 20 at 12-13). The Court agrees with that assessment. See East
Beach, 2007 WL 3407049 at *11 (“Federal common or statutory law
unquestionably do[es] not dictate a federal resolution of every commercial dispute
affecting interstate commerce ….”); Morgan, 2007 WL 174387 at *4 (“This
[ninth] factor unambiguously weighs in favor of abstention [because] Canal’s
Complaint raises exclusively state law issues and implicates exclusively state law
public policies, with no reference whatsoever to federal common or statutory
In sum, the Ameritas factors overwhelmingly counsel against proceeding
with this action in the face of the coverage lawsuit. The Court therefore exercises
its discretion in favor of declining to hear this action.
For the reasons set forth above, the defendants’ motion to dismiss is
granted in part. This action is dismissed without prejudice. To the extent the
defendants seek dismissal with prejudice, (Doc. 15 at 1), their motion is denied.4
DONE and ORDERED this 19th day of February, 2015.
s/ WILLIAM H. STEELE
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dismissal with prejudice would constitute a ruling on the merits of the coverage
dispute, which is precisely what the defendants ask the Court to avoid and precisely what
the Court declines to provide.
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