The Travelers Indemnity Company v. Sarchett et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER - IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of defendant Lisa Foskett to dismiss [Doc. # 29 ] is granted. A separate order of dismissal will be entered. Signed by District Judge Carol E. Jackson on 12/31/12. (KJS)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
THE TRAVELERS INDEMNITY CO.,
QUINTON SARCHETT, et al.,
Case No. 4:12-CV-1182 (CEJ)
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on the motion of defendant Lisa Foskett to
dismiss based on the Wilton/Brillhart abstention doctrine. Plaintiff has filed a response
in opposition to the motion and the issues are fully briefed.
This is an insurance coverage dispute. On August 6, 2009, Lisa Foskett filed suit
in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, alleging that Quinton Sarchett and Travis
Matlock, employees of Hanco Construction Company, negligently caused the death of
her husband. Foskett v. Sarchett, et al., No. 09SL-CC03411 (the underlying case).
Travelers Indemnity Company insured Hanco pursuant to a policy of general
commercial liability insurance. On July 2, 2012, Travelers filed this action against
Sarchett, Matlock, and Foskett, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201, seeking a declaration
that it has no duty under the policy to indemnify Sarchett and Matlock. On July 31,
2012, the St. Louis County court entered judgment in favor of Lisa Foskett in the
amount of $1,000,000.00 on her claim against Sarchett, and in favor of Matlock on her
claim against him. Foskett then filed an equitable garnishment action in state court,
Foskett v. Travelers and Sarchett, No. 12SL-CC03463, to collect the judgment, arguing
that the Travelers policy provides coverage for the judgment issued in the underlying
action. She now moves to dismiss the declaratory judgment action in this court.
“[F]ederal courts have a ‘virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the
jurisdiction given them.’” Royal Indem. Co. v. Apex Oil Co., 511 F.3d 788, 792 (8th
Cir. 2008) (quoting Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424
U.S. 800, 817 (1976) (alteration in original). Under the Colorado River standard, a
federal court should abstain from a case in which there are parallel state proceedings
for only “exceptional circumstances.” 424 U.S. at 813 (quoting County of Allegheny
v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 188–89 (1959)). However, federal courts have
more discretion to abstain in an action when a party seeks relief under the Declaratory
Judgment Act. Royal Indem., 511 F.3d at 792 (Declaratory Judgment Act provides
that a court “may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party
seeking such declaration.”) (emphasis in original); 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). 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
litigant.’” Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 287 (1995) (quoting Public Serv.
Comm’n of Utah v. Wycoff Co., 344 U.S. 237, 241 (1952)).
In Wilton, the Supreme Court confirmed the application of the discretionary
standard set forth in Brilhart v. Excess Ins. Co. of America, 316 U.S. 491 (1942), to
a declaratory judgment action where there is a pending parallel state court proceeding:
Over 50 years ago, in Brillhart . . ., this Court addressed circumstances virtually
identical to those present in the case before us today. An insurer, anticipating
a coercive suit, sought a declaration in federal court of nonliability on an
insurance policy. The District Court dismissed the action in favor of pending
state garnishment proceedings, to which the insurer had been added as a
defendant. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding an abuse of discretion, and
ordered the District Court to proceed to the merits. Reversing the Court of
Appeals and remanding to the District Court, this Court held that, “[a]lthough
the District Court had jurisdiction of the suit under the Federal Declaratory
Judgments Act, it was under no compulsion to exercise that jurisdiction.” The
Court explained that “[o]rdinarily it would be uneconomical as well as vexatious
for a federal court to proceed in a declaratory judgment suit where another suit
is pending in a state court presenting the same issues, not governed by federal
law, between the same parties.” The question for a district court presented with
a suit under the Declaratory Judgment Act, the Court found, is “whether the
questions in controversy between the parties to the federal suit, and which are
not foreclosed under the applicable substantive law, can better be settled in the
proceeding pending in the state court.”
Wilton, 515 U.S. at 282 (citations omitted) (alterations in original).
In order for a district court to abstain in a proceeding under the Declaratory
Judgment Act, the state court proceeding must present “the same issues, not governed
by federal law, between the same parties,” and the federal court must evaluate
“whether the claims of all parties in interest can satisfactorily be adjudicated in that
proceeding, whether necessary parties have been joined, [and] whether such parties
are amenable to process in that proceeding.” Royal Indem., 511 F.3d at 796 (quoting
Brillhart, 316 U.S. at 495). The court’s “key consideration . . . is to ascertain whether
the issues in controversy between the parties to the federal action . . . can be better
settled by the state court in light of the scope and nature of the pending state court
proceeding.” Evanston Ins. Co. v. Johns, 530 F.3d 710, 713 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting
Capitol Indem. Corp. v. Haverfield, 218 F.3d 872, 874 (8th Cir. 2000)).
This case involves the same parties as the state court proceeding: Travelers,
Sarchett, and Foskett.1 All parties are amenable to service of process in the state
court case and all necessary parties have been joined. Furthermore, both the state
and federal proceedings involve the same issue, i.e., whether Sarchett is an insured
Although Travelers named Matlock in this action, it has agreed to dismiss him
from this lawsuit.
under the terms of the Hanco policy, a matter to be determined solely by Missouri law.
A decision rendered in either action “will fully dispose of the claims presented” in the
other action. Capitol Indem. Corp. v. Schaefer Group, Inc., No. 4:08CV1248 (CDP),
2010 WL 2520607, at * 4 (E.D. Mo. June 15, 2010) (quoting Fru-Con Const. Corp. v.
Controlled Air, Inc., 574 F.3d 527, 535 (8th Cir. 2009)).
The requirements for
abstention are satisfied and the Court may properly exercise its discretion to abstain.
In Haverfield, the Eighth Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion
when it denied a motion to dismiss a federal action in favor of a parallel state court
proceeding. 218 F.3d at 875. In Haverfield, the insurer filed a federal declaratory
judgment action seeking a determination that an insured’s claim was excluded under
the policy. The state court entered judgment in the underlying negligence action while
the federal declaratory judgment action was pending. The prevailing party asserted
that the claim was covered by the insurance policy and filed an action in state court to
collect judgment from the insurance company. Id. at 874. The federal court declined
to abstain and the state court and federal court reached conflicting outcomes with
respect to coverage. Id. The Eighth Circuit held that the state court was in a better
position to adjudicate the matters, “and permitting this federal action to proceed was
unnecessarily duplicative and uneconomical.” Id. at 875.
In its opposition to Foskett’s motion, Travelers argues that abstention is
inappropriate here because there is no split of authority among the Missouri courts
regarding the coverage issues involved. Thus, unlike in Havefield, this Court is not
asked to predict what the Missouri Supreme Court would decide with respect to the
issues presented. The presence of a split of authority in the state court is certainly a
factor favoring abstention; its absence, however, does not preclude abstention.
Where, as here, the federal and state cases involve “the same parties, the same issue,
the same insurance policies, and the same arguments,” abstention is warranted.
Schaefer, 2010 WL 2520607 at*4 (quoting Haverfield, 218 F.3d at 875).
Travelers relies on Pharmacists Mutual Ins. Co. v. Courtney, 2003 WL 9500818
(W.D. Mo. 2003) to support its contention that abstention is unwarranted.
Courtney, the insurer sought a declaration that its policy did not provide coverage for
its insured, a pharmacist who pleaded guilty to charges that he diluted prescription
medications before dispensing them to patients. In its declaratory judgment action,
the insurer named all of Courtney’s customers. Id. at * 1. More than 350 state court
actions were pending against Courtney and one case had proceeded to trial, resulting
in a verdict against Courtney. The prevailing plaintiff filed a garnishment action against
the insurer. Many of the defendant customers filed motions to dismiss or abstain in
favor of the pending tort actions and garnishment action, based on the Wilton/Brilhart
decisions. The district court denied the motions. The court determined first that the
tort cases were not parallel actions. With respect to the pending garnishment action,
the court noted that it involved only one of the customers. By contrast, the federal
action had the potential to decide the rights of all of Courtney’s customers. Id. at 2-3.
Under this circumstance, the court concluded that abstention was unwarranted.
The instant is materially distinguishable from Pharmacists Mutual . In this case,
there are two lawsuits, not several hundred. Liability has been determined and all that
remains for decision is whether the judgment against Sarchett is covered under the
policy issued by Travelers. This is a question of state law and there is a pending state
court proceeding in which the question will be answered.
Travelers notes that this case was filed before the garnishment action and
asserts that this factor weighs against abstention. Where the two cases involve the
same parties, same issue, same insurance policy, and same arguments, the relative
timelines of the two cases is not a dispositive factor. Schaefer, 2010 WL 2520607
(citing Haverfield). Additionally, this case is still in the preliminary phase as a Rule 16
scheduling conference has not yet been set. Thus, the court finds that the timing of
the two actions is not a material consideration.
In conclusion, the Court finds that the issue of whether coverage exists under
the policy for Foskett’s damages would be better addressed by the state court in the
parallel garnishment action, where the claims of all parties can be satisfactorily
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of defendant Lisa Foskett to dismiss
[Doc. #29] is granted.
A separate order of dismissal will be entered.
CAROL E. JACKSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated this 31st day of December, 2012.
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