Wright et al v. Walden University, LLC et al
ORDER granting (25) Motion to Dismiss/General in case 0:16-cv-04037-DSD-DTS; granting (11) Motion to Dismiss/General in case 0:16-cv-04402-DSD-DTS(Written Opinion) Signed by Senior Judge David S. Doty on 4/21/2017. Associated Cases: 0:16-cv-04037-DSD-DTS, 0:16-cv-04402-DSD-DTS(DLO)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Civil No. 16-4037(DSD/DTS)
Civil No. 16-4402(DSD/DTS)
Jennifer Wright, et al.,
Walden University, LLC, et al.,
Walden University, LLC, et al.,
Paul A. Lesko, Esq. and Peiffer Rosea Wolf Abdullah Carr &
Kane, APLC, 18 LaFayette Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63104, counsel
for plaintiffs Jennifer Wright, et al.
Robert K. Shelquist, Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP, 100
Washington Avenue South, Suite 2200, Minneapolis, MN 55401,
counsel for defendant Aaroon Bleess.
Charles F. Knapp, Esq. and Sean R. Somermeyer, Esq. and Faegre
Baker Daniels, LLP, 90 South 7th Street, Suite 2200,
Minneapolis, Mn, counsel for defendants.
This matter is before the court upon the motions to dismiss
or, in the alternative, to stay the action by defendants Walden
University, LLC and Laureate International Universities.
a review of the file, record, and proceedings herein, and for the
following reasons, the court grants the motions.
The Wright Action
Walden University is a for-profit, online university that
offers a variety of bachelor, masters, and doctorate degrees.1 No.
16-cv-4037, Compl. ¶¶ 29-30.
Plaintiffs Jennifer Wright, Kelli
Callahan, Janet Harrison, Pete Holubz, and Kelly Gardiner were
doctoral students at Walden.2
Id. ¶¶ 18-22.
Plaintiffs claim that
Walden represented to them and other prospective students that the
doctoral program dissertation process would take 13-18 months and
allegedly knew, however, that it took substantially longer to
complete the doctoral program but withheld this information from
students. Id. ¶ 7. As a result, plaintiffs claim they spent
substantially more time and money on the doctoral program than
misrepresentations, plaintiffs filed this class action lawsuit on
December 1, 2016, asserting claims of unjust enrichment, breach of
contract, and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair
Laureate is a Delaware corporation that is the parent
company of Walden. Id. ¶ 24.
Wright is a citizen of California who attended Walden from
2009 through 2015; Callahan is a citizen of Washington who attended
Walden from 2009 to present; Harrison is a citizen of Georgia who
attended Walden from 2008 to present; Holubz is a citizen of
Georgia who attended Walden from 2010 to present; and Gardiner is
a citizen of Michigan who attended Walden from 2006 to August 2016.
Id. ¶¶ 18-22.
dealing against Walden and fraud in the inducement and violation
the Minnesota Deceptive Trade Practices Act against both Walden and
Plaintiffs also asserted common law claims under the
states of their respective residencies as an alternative state-wide
The Thornhill Action
Wright action, counsel for plaintiffs in the Wright action filed a
class action lawsuit in the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of
plaintiff LaTonya Thornhill.3 See No. 2:16-cv-962 (S.D. Ohio), ECF
The complaint in Thornhill is nearly identical to the
complaint filed in Wright: Thornhill asserts claims of breach of
contract, unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach
of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing against Walden;
fraud in the inducement and violation of the Minnesota Uniform
Deceptive Trade Practices Act against both Walden and Laureate; and
Ohio common law claims brought alternatively as an Ohio state-wide
sublcass. Further, the claims are based on the same allegations in
the Wright complaint, namely, that Walden misrepresented the amount
of time it would take to complete the doctorate program.
Thornhill is a citizen of Ohio who attended Walden from
2011 to 2015.
III. The Bleess Action
On December 29, 2016, plaintiff Aaron Bleess filed a class
action lawsuit, nearly identical to the complaints filed in Wright
and Thornhill, against Walden and Laureate based on the same
See No. 16-4402, ECF No. 1.
alleges claims of breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of
good faith and fair dealing, and unjust enrichment against Walden
and fraudulent inducement, violation of the Minnesota Uniform
Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and violation of the Minnesota
Consumer Fraud Act against both Walden and Laureate.
move to dismiss, or in the alternative, to stay both the Wright and
On April 5, 2017, while the motions were pending,
centralization of the above and other related actions.
jurisdiction, the first court in which jurisdiction attaches has
priority to consider the case.” Orthmann v. Apple River Campground
Inc., 765 F.2d 119, 121 (8th Cir. 1985).
The first-filed rule is
not “rigid, mechanical, or inflexible” and the court applies it to
serve the interests of justice.
The rule exists “[t]o
Bleess is a citizen of Minnesota who attended Walden from
2009 to present. He is represented by different counsel than the
plaintiffs in Wright and Thornhill.
conserve judicial resources and avoid conflicting rulings.”
Airlines, Inc. v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 989 F.2d 1002, 1006 (8th Cir.
Absent compelling circumstances, “the first-filed rule
gives priority, for purposes of choosing among possible venues when
parallel litigation has been instituted in separate courts, to the
litigation exists when “substantially the same parties litigate
substantially the same issues in different forums.” Lexington Ins.
Co. v. Integrity Land Title Co., 721 F.3d 958, 968 (8th Cir.
Defendants argue that Wright and Bleess should be dismissed
because Thornhill, which was filed first, is substantially similar.
Plaintiffs contend that the cases are different because each of
them is from a different state than the plaintiff in Thornhill.
But this is irrelevant.
When deciding whether two proposed class
actions are substantially similar, the court does not look at the
residency or identity of the named plaintiffs but how the classes
See Martin v. Cargill, Inc., 295 F.R.D. 380, 388 (D.
Minn. 2013) (“To be sure, the named plaintiffs ... differ from the
named Plaintiffs here.
Yet, they purport to act on behalf of
overlapping, nationwide classes ....”); see also Askin v. Quaker
Although Lexington addressed the power of federal courts to
stay actions pending parallel state litigation, the court believes
the same reasoning applies to two federal suits in different
Oats Co., No. 11-111, 2012 WL 517491, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 15,
2012) (“[R]ecent cases ... make clear that the class members are
the proper focus of the [fist-filed] inquiry.”).
Plaintiffs do not dispute that the class members in Wright and
Bleess overlap with the class members in Thornhill.6
dismiss Wright and Bleess would result in a judgment that binds the
same class members in the Thornhill case. Further, the court would
risk binding class members to inconsistent judgments. See Catanese
v. Unilever, 774 F. Supp. 2d 684, 688 (D.N.J. 2011) (“This Court
cannot allow a parallel action to proceed which involves putative
absent class members from an earlier-filed class action.
situation would cause substantial duplication of effort and, worse,
potentially inconsistent rulings.”); Fuller v. Abercrombie & Fitch
Stores, Inc., 370 F. Supp. 2d 686, 690 (E.D. Tenn. 2005) (“[I]f
both actions proceed, the same individuals could receive two opt-in
notices for the same claim but in different courts.”).
Plaintiffs next argue that Thornhill is not truly parallel
because a resolution of the claims in Thornhill would not resolve
all the claims asserted in their respective cases.
See Smith v.
S.E.C., 129 F.3d 356, 361 (6th Cir. 1997) (holding that suits are
Although the complaints define the classes slightly
different, these differences are immaterial, and plaintiffs do not
determined in the other”).
Specifically, the Wright plaintiffs
argue that their complaint asserts state law claims based on
alternative state-wide classes in California, Georgia, Michigan,
and Washington whereas Thornhill asserts state law claims based on
an alternative Ohio class.
Bleess argues that his complaint is
broader than Thornhill’s because it asserts the additional claim
that defendants violated the Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act.
But, as stated above, application of the first-filed rule only
requires “substantially the same parties litigat[ing] substantially
the same issues,” not precise overlap. Lexington, 721 F.3d at 968.
The existence of alternative or additional state law claims not
present in Thornhill is insufficient to require the court to
abstain from applying the first-filed rule.7
See Worthington v.
Bayer Healthcare, LLC, No. 11-2793, 2012 WL 1079716, at *6 (D.N.J.
Mar. 30, 2012) (“Finding an insubstantial overlap because ... the
claims are asserted under different state laws would defeat the
judicial efficiency rationale undergirding the first-filed rule.”);
Fuller, 370 F. Supp. 2d at 690 (“[T]he existence of an additional
Plaintiffs cite cases where courts did not apply the firstfiled rule because the actions were not truly parallel, but those
cases are not on point because they involved cases with other
material distinctions. See Martin v. Medicredit, Inc., No. 4:161138, 2016 WL 6696068, at *5 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 15, 2016) (finding
that two suits did not overlap where there were additional claims,
different defendants, and “significant disparities in the
definitions of the putative classes”); Everest Indem. Ins. Co. v.
Ro, 200 F. Supp. 3d 825, 834 (D. Minn. 2016) (refraining from
applying the first-filed rule where the allegations in one
complaint were broader and there was an additional defendant).
claim ... does not undermine the appropriateness of applying the
plaintiffs position “[t]here would be nothing to stop plaintiffs in
all 50 states from filing separate nationwide class actions based
upon their own state’s law.”8
Catanese, 774 F. Supp. 2d at 689.
Because the court finds that the parties and issues in Wright and
Bleess are substantially similar to those in Thornhill, the court
will dismiss those cases in order to promote judicial efficiency
and avoid the risk of inconsistent judgments.
Accordingly, based on the above, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
Defendants’ motion to dismiss or stay case no. 16-4402
[ECF No. 11] is granted;
Defendants’ motion to dismiss or stay case no. 16-4037
[ECF No. 25] is granted; and
Plaintiffs also argue that any overlap between Wright,
Bleess, and Thornhill, would be destroyed if defendants prevail on
their motion to strike the federal and state class actions in
But this argument weighs in favor of applying the
first-filed rule to avoid inconsistent judgments as to class
In any case, the question before the court is
whether the suits currently overlap, not whether they may
hypothetically cease to overlap in the future.
Case Nos. 16-4402 and 16-4037 are dismissed without
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY
Dated: April 21, 2017
s/David S. Doty
David S. Doty, Judge
United States District Court
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