Fernandez et al v. City Of New York et al
OPINION AND ORDER: Defendant's motion to stay the proceedings pursuant to Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976), is DENIED. The temporary stay on discovery imposed on June 14, 2017, ECF No. 50, is VACAT ED. The Clerk of Court is respectfully requested to terminate Dkt. No. 31. Motions terminated: 31 MOTION to Stay pursuant to Colorado River abstention, filed by City Of New York. (Signed by Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn on 7/7/2017) (ap)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
GERTRUDYS FERNANDEZ, et al.,
-againstCITY OF NEW YORK, et al.,
SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge:
On April 4, 2017, Plaintiff brought this case, alleging violations of decedent Christian
Haley’s constitutional rights as guaranteed by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. On May 12, 2017, the City of
New York moved to stay all proceedings pursuant to the doctrine of Colorado River Water
Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976), which allows federal courts to abstain
from exercising jurisdiction in exceptional circumstances to promote the wise administration of
judicial resources. ECF No. 31. In sum, Defendants argue that the matter should be stayed
pending resolution of a parallel lawsuit of Plaintiff’s state-law claims proceeding through
discovery in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Bronx.
On May 31, 2017, the remaining Defendants joined in this motion. ECF No. 43. On June
9, 2017, the Honorable Gregory H. Woods referred this case to my docket for general pretrial
supervision, including the question of whether a stay under Colorado River was appropriate.
ECF No. 48. On June 14, 2017, I entered a temporary stay of discovery pending the adjudication
of the stay application. ECF No. 50. After considering the parties’ submissions, I find that the
Defendants have failed to demonstrate the “exceptional circumstances” necessary to displace the
“the virtually unflagging obligation of the federal courts to exercise the jurisdiction given them.”
Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817. Accordingly, Defendants’ motion for a stay is DENIED and the
temporary stay of discovery entered on June 14, 2017, is VACATED. The Court shall order the
parties to appear before it for an initial pretrial conference via separate order.
The following facts are alleged in the complaint. Plaintiff is the administrator of the
estate of Christian Haley, who was incarcerated within the New York City Department of
Correction system. ECF No. 1, Compl. at ¶ 7. On or about July 1, 2014, Haley was medically
cleared for transfer from the North Infirmary Command (“NIC”) on Rikers Island to the Vernon
C. Bain Center and was transferred to this facility on July 3, 2014. Id. at ¶¶ 29–30, 33. Haley’s
grievance to be transferred back to the NIC was denied. Id. at ¶¶ 34–35.
On October 23, 2014, a fight occurred between inmates, during which Haley suffered a
“cardiac event.” Id. at ¶¶ 40–45. Haley died approximately an hour later. Id. at ¶ 48. Plaintiff
alleges that Haley was placed on a floor without a defibrillator, was not provided proper medical
attention, and would have survived had he been properly treated. Id. at ¶¶ 46–50.
On January 15, 2016, Plaintiff brought suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New
York, County of Bronx, Gertrudys Fernandez v. City of New York, Index No. 20303/2016E. In
that suit, Plaintiff asserts state law claims for wrongful death, intentional and negligent infliction
of emotional distress, medical malpractice, and negligence and negligent hiring and retention.
ECF No. 32-1, State Compl. at ¶¶ 30–47. On April 4, 2017, Plaintiffs brought this case, alleging
violations of decedent Christian Haley’s constitutional rights as guaranteed by 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Plaintiff does not contest that, although the causes of action differ, the facts underlying the two
cases are virtually identical, and that the parties are substantially the same.
The Colorado River doctrine governs whether a federal court should abstain from
exercising jurisdiction over a case because of the existence of a parallel state court proceeding.
424 U.S. at 817–19. The general rule is that “the pendency of an action in the state court is no
bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court having jurisdiction,” and that
federal courts have a “virtually unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given
them.” Id. at 817. Nevertheless, under certain “exceptional circumstances,” a federal court may
dismiss a federal suit for “reasons of wise judicial administration.” Id. at 817–18.
An analysis of whether a court should abstain under Colorado River begins with a
determination of whether the concurrent federal and state proceedings are “parallel” in nature.
See Dittmer v. Cty. of Suffolk, 146 F.3d 113, 118 (2d Cir. 1998) (“[A] finding that the
concurrent proceedings are ‘parallel’ is a necessary prerequisite to abstention under Colorado
River.”). “Suits are parallel when substantially the same parties are contemporaneously litigating
substantially the same issue in another forum.” Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v. Hudson RiverBlack River Regulating Dist., 673 F.3d 84, 100 (2d Cir. 2012) (citations omitted).
If the suits are found to be parallel, a federal court must consider six factors in
determining whether to abstain. These are “(1) the assumption of jurisdiction by either court over
any res or property; (2) the inconvenience of the federal forum; (3) the avoidance of piecemeal
litigation; (4) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained; (5) whether state or federal law
supplies the rule of decision; and (6) whether the state court proceeding will adequately protect
the rights of the party seeking to invoke federal jurisdiction.” Vill. of Westfield v. Welch’s, 170
F.3d 116, 121 (2d Cir. 1999). “The decision whether to dismiss a federal action because of
parallel state-court litigation does not rest on a mechanical checklist, but on a careful balancing
of the important factors as they apply in a given case, with the balance heavily weighted in favor
of the exercise of jurisdiction.” Moses H. Cone Mem’l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S.
1, 16 (1983). Any factors that are neutral should properly be considered as favoring the retention
of jurisdiction because a court’s task is “not to find some substantial reason for the exercise of
federal jurisdiction . . . rather, the task is to ascertain whether there exist ‘exceptional’
circumstances, the ‘clearest of justifications,’ that can suffice under Colorado River to justify the
surrender of that jurisdiction.” Id. at 25–26.
Applying the Colorado River Factors
There can be no doubt that the state and federal lawsuits are parallel; though they involve
different causes of action, they are litigated by substantially the same parties and seek money
damages arising out of the same operative facts. Accordingly, the Court proceeds to consider the
six factors in determining whether Colorado River abstention is appropriate.
The first and second factors unquestionably cut against abstention. This action does not
involve jurisdiction over a contested res or property, and the two courts are equally convenient
forums for all parties and counsel.
The Supreme Court has identified the third factor—embodied in “the clear federal policy
. . . [of] avoidance of piecemeal litigation” as “by far the most important factor in [its] decision
to approve [Colorado River abstention].” Moses H. Cone Mem’l Hosp., 460 U.S. at 16; see also
Arkwright-Boston Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. City of New York, 762 F.2d 205, 211 (2d Cir. 1985)
(“Maintaining virtually identical suits [arising out of the same set of facts] in two forums . . .
would waste judicial resources and invite duplicative effort . . . [A]voidance of piecemeal
litigation is best served by leaving these suits in the state court.”). Accordingly, Defendants
argue that permitting both cases to go forward may lead to duplicative discovery, conflicting
decisions on discovery issues and the merits, and the possibility of forum shopping. In their reply
memorandum of law, Defendants point out various instances in which Plaintiff sought identical
discovery in both the state and federal cases and argue that allowing both cases to proceed would
impermissibly permit her “two bites at the apple.” ECF No. 52 at 8.
The issues that Defendants raise, however, are present in virtually every parallel suit, and
would counsel abstention in any suit that involved the same parties and subject matter. This
would obviate Colorado River’s admonition that abstention is heavily disfavored absent
“exceptional circumstances.” Indeed, though Defendants argue that the risk that collateral
estoppel or res judicata will be invoked counsels abstention, the Court of Appeals has
emphasized that “the primary context in which we have affirmed Colorado River abstention in
order to avoid piecemeal adjudication has involved lawsuits that posed a risk of inconsistent
outcomes not preventable by principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel.” Woodford v.
Cmty. Action Agency of Greene Cty., Inc., 239 F.3d 517, 524 (2d Cir. 2001) (emphasis added);
see also Abe v. N.Y. Univ., No. 14-CV-9323 (RJS), 2016 WL 1275661, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Mar.
30, 2016) (“The mere existence of parallel federal and state suits does not, without more, warrant
absention, particularly where the nature of the parallel actions is such that the principles of res
judicata and collateral estoppel should be effective to prevent inconsistent outcomes.”)
Therefore, because “any case involving parallel proceedings presents a risk of duplicative
litigation or a rush to judgment, the existence of those risks can weigh only modestly in favor of
dismissal; otherwise dismissals pursuant to Colorado River would be the rule, not the exception,
in cases involving parallel proceedings in state and federal court.” Dalzell Mgmt. Co. v.
Bardonia Plaza, LLC, 923 F. Supp. 2d 590, 600 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (citation omitted). “There is no
bar against parallel in personam actions proceeding in two or more courts. ‘Each court is free to
proceed in its own way and in its own time . . . [w]henever a judgment is rendered in one of the
courts and pleaded in the other, the effect of that judgment is to be determined by application of
the principles of res adjudicata.’” Woodford, 239 F.3d at 525 (citing Kline v. Burke
Construction Co., 260 U.S. 226, 230 (1922)).
Here, Defendants have not made any argument that the principles of collateral estoppel
and res judicata would not apply to prevent inconsistent outcomes. This is not “the classic
example” of a case where “all of the potentially liable defendants are parties in one lawsuit, but
in the other lawsuit, one defendant seeks a declaration of nonliability and the other potentially
liable defendants are not parties.” Id. at 525; see also De Cisneros v. Younger, 871 F.2d 305, 308
(2d Cir. 1989) (finding abstention appropriate where defendant could “face liability in two
forums with the risk of inconsistent results, and the same state plaintiffs would be unable to be
joined in the pending federal action because their presence would defeat diversity jurisdiction”);
Jenkinson v. Baptiste-Bruno, No. 16-CV-4519 (AJP), 2016 WL 7377234, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Dec.
20, 2016) (abstaining on similar grounds).
Defendants rely on Arkwright-Boston Mfrs., 762 F.2d at 211, which warned of
“spawning an unseemly and destructive race to see which forum can resolve the same issues
first,” to suggest that the operation of collateral estoppel and res judicata itself could be a reason
for abstention. This case, however, is plainly distinguishable because it involved “hundreds of
claims and numerous parties,” which had all been consolidated for discovery and trial before a
single state court judge, and “implicate[d] significant local interests.” No extraordinary
complexities of this sort exist in this case.
Therefore, because the Defendants cannot point to any inconsistent results that would not
be addressed by the well-established doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata and/or
proper case management of discovery, the Court finds that the “avoidance of piecemeal
litigation” factor weighs against abstention.
The fourth factor concerns the order in which jurisdiction was obtained. In weighing this
factor, “priority should not be measured exclusively by which complaint was filed first, but
rather in terms of how much progress has been made in the two actions.” Moses H. Cone Mem’l
Hosp., 460 U.S. at 21. In this case, the state court complaint was filed in January 2016, and
Defendants represent that “there has been substantial document discovery taken in the State case,
as well as the noticing of some depositions.” ECF No. 33 at 12. The federal action, on the
contrary, is incipient, and not much activity has occurred besides the filing of the complaint and
the briefing of this motion. Accordingly, this factor weighs moderately towards abstention.
The fifth factor is whether state or federal law supplies the rule of decision in this matter.
“[T]he presence of federal law issues must always be a major consideration weighing against
surrender [of jurisdiction].” Moses H. Cone Mem’l Hosp., 460 U.S. at 25; see also De Cisneros,
871 F.2d at 308 (“When the applicable substantive law is federal, abstention is disfavored.”). In
this case, Plaintiff is proceeding solely on federal claims in this forum, invoking 42 U.S.C. §
1983 and constitutional violations. This is not a case of diversity jurisdiction, where no federal
question is implicated. See Arkwright-Boston Mfrs., 762 F.2d at 211 (case raising serious
questions of state law on diversity “tips the scale” towards abstention); Dore v. Wormley, 690 F.
Supp. 2d 176, 192 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (finding that this factor favored abstention where “there are
only issues of state law”); Goldentree Asset Mgmt., L.P. v. Longaberger Co., 448 F. Supp. 2d
589, 594 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (abstaining where both federal and state actions concerned an identical
state-law contract claim). Therefore, this factor weighs against abstention.
The sixth factor is whether the state court proceeding would adequately protect the rights
of the party seeking to invoke federal jurisdiction. Plaintiff has not made any colorable argument
as to why New York State courts would not adequately enforce federal constitutional rights.
Accordingly, this factor weighs in favor of abstention.
Balancing the Factors
In sum, the Court has concluded that four of the Colorado River factors weigh against
abstention, while two of them—the order in which jurisdiction was obtained and whether the
state court proceeding will adequately protect Plaintiff’s rights—weigh in favor of abstention.
On this record, guided by the “virtually unflagging obligation” to exercise jurisdiction, Colorado
River, 424 U.S. at 817, and by the admonition that the factors be “heavily weighted in favor of
the exercise of jurisdiction,” Niagara Power, 673 F.3d at 100, the Court finds that abstention is
To be sure, in fulfilling its case management responsibilities, the Court will not be blind
to the existence of the parallel state proceedings in ordering an appropriate civil case
management plan and setting a reasonable scope of discovery in line with Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 26. The parties shall, of course, be expected to collaborate in good faith to avoid
burdening each other and the Court with duplicative discovery.
Defendant’s motion to stay the proceedings pursuant to Colorado River Water
Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976), is DENIED. The temporary stay on
discovery imposed on June 14, 2017, ECF No. 50, is VACATED. The Clerk of Court is
respectfully requested to terminate Dkt. No. 31.
July 7, 2017
New York, New York
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