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Peterson v. Madson

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division

July 5, 2017

MARSHALL LAWRENCE PETERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAM MADSON, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          NANETTE K. LAUGHREY United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Marshall Lawrence Peterson sues 31 defendants for declaratory judgment, asking this Court to find void a judgment entered by the Circuit Court of Camden County, Missouri in 1995 (Count I). He also sues four additional defendants for declaratory judgment that an order by the Camden County Commission in 2005 is void (Count II), and asks that the four defendants be enjoined from violating the Missouri Administrative Procedure Act (Count III). Doc. 54 (First Amended Complaint).[1] Several sets of defendants have moved to dismiss or stay Count I of the First Amended Complaint, due to a case now pending in the Circuit Court of Camden County, Missouri. Docs. 58, 63, 64, and 66.[2] The motions to dismiss are granted and Count I is dismissed in its entirety.

         I. Background

         Henry McCasland developed the Purvis View subdivision in Camden County, Missouri around 1930. Peterson is a “subsequent grantee and possessor in title to” McCasland. Doc. 54, p. 4, para. 15. Peterson alleges that McCasland expressly granted and dedicated roadway easement rights to the lot owners, and their heirs, grantees, and assignees.

         In 1995, certain successors in title and subsequent grantees and assignees of McCasland, who then owned property in Purvis View subdivision, filed a petition in the Circuit Court of Camden County, Missouri against Henry and Clara McCasland to quiet title. The plaintiffs alleged that the subdivision plat did not include, but that Henry McCasland had owned, “a strip of land varying in length and width, between the platted subdivision and the 662 contour line of the Lake of the Ozarks.” Doc. 54-5, p. 2, para. 2. The plaintiffs further alleged that they and their predecessors in title had been in open, notorious, hostile, uninterrupted, and undisputed possession of the strip of land since 1931, and had made improvements upon it, including the building of seawalls. They asked for a declaration that they had title in fee simple to the strip of land. Notice of the suit was published in the newspaper. No one intervened in or contested the relief requested, and the Camden County Circuit Court granted the petition to quiet title in October 1995, holding that the plaintiffs adversely possessed the land and thereby divested title from the McCaslands.

         Peterson alleges that the strip of land that was the subject of the 1995 state-court judgment was clearly dedicated as a roadway on the Purvis View subdivision plat. He alleges that the plaintiffs in the 1995 state-court case tactically chose to name only the subdivision developer and to provide notice by newspaper publication; failed to join all of the Purvis View lot owners even though they were necessary and indispensable parties; and that he had no notice whatsoever of that suit. Peterson alleges that the state court exceeded its subject matter jurisdiction under Mo. Rev. Stat. sec. 516.090 (relating to claims of adverse possession) and the common law of adverse possession. He further alleges that a portion of the strip of land was owned in fee simple by Union Electric d/b/a AmerenUE at the time of the suit, and that judgment granting adverse possession against a utility company is prohibited. In Count I of the First Amended Complaint, Peterson asks the Court to declare that the 1995 judgment is void.

         Peterson further alleges in the First Amended Complaint that the Camden County Commission granted Sharlene King's petition to vacate a roadway in the Purvis View subdivision in 2004, extinguishing the public's right to use it. He alleges that the Commission's action violated the Missouri Administrative Procedures Act and has created a cloud on his title, and controversy among the property owners concerning ownership and easement rights. In Count II, Peterson asks this Court to declare the Camden County Commission's order void. In Count III, he alleges that the Camden County Commission's order violated his civil rights, and asks that the Commissioners be enjoined from failing to follow Mo. Rev. Stat. sec. 536.067 of the Missouri Administrative Procedures Act.

         In support of their motions to dismiss the First Amended Complaint, Defendants argue that counterclaims are now pending in parallel proceeding in state court, involving the same parties and issues as the case before this Court. Specifically, Peterson filed a lawsuit in Camden County Circuit Court in 2015 against the same 31 defendants whom he is suing in Count I of his First Amended Complaint before this Court. See Peterson v. Madson,, no. 15CM-CC00251, Cir. Ct. Camden County, Missouri. Doc. 58-1 and 58-44. As in his case currently before this Court, Peterson alleged in the 2015 state court case that the strip of land in the Purvis View Subdivision, along the contour line of the Lake of the Ozarks was clearly dedicated as a roadway on the subdivision plat; that the plaintiffs in the 1995 state-court case tactically chose not to join him and other necessary, indispensable parties, or to provide any proper notice; that he had no notice whatsoever of the 1995 suit; that the state court lacked jurisdiction; and that the 1995 state-court judgment was therefore void. He asked the state court for an order declaring the 1995 judgment void. Doc. 58-1, p. 4. Several of the defendants[3] in the 2015 state-court case also filed counterclaims against Peterson, including a counterclaim that was the mirror image of Peterson's complaint therein. Specifically, the defendants (or counterclaim plaintiffs) set out Peterson's allegations and their own allegations that the 1995 state-court judgment was valid pursuant to the terms of the subdivision plat, and asked the state court to declare that the 1995 state-court judgment was valid. Doc. 58-3, pp. 8-10 (Second Amended Counterclaim, Count I).

         Peterson voluntarily dismissed his petition in the 2015 Camden County case on 6/14/2016, stating that he would refile in the near future. Doc. 58-2. However, the defendants, or counterclaim plaintiffs, continued to pursue their counterclaims and on 5/25/017, the Camden County Circuit Court granted their motion for summary judgment on Count I, holding that the 1995 state-court judgment “is valid and enforceable.” Doc. 58-4, p. 1. The state court then set trial on any remaining issues for 7/14/2017.

         II. Discussion

         “[D]istrict courts possess discretion in determining whether and when to entertain an action under the Declaratory Judgment Act, even when the suit otherwise satisfies subject matter jurisdictional prerequisites.” Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 282 (1995); see also Royal Indem. Co. v. Apex Oil Co., 511 F.3d 788, 793 (8th Cir. 2008) (“[I]n a declaratory judgment action, a federal court has broad discretion to abstain from exercising jurisdiction[.]”). In determining whether to abstain,

[T]he district court must consider the scope and nature of the pending state court proceeding to ascertain whether the issues in controversy between the parties to the federal action, not foreclosed under applicable substantive law, can be better settled by the state court ..... If so, the district court must dismiss the federal action because 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.

Capitol Indemnity Corp. v. Haverfield, 218 F.3d 872 (8th Cir. 2000).

         The threshold question for determining whether the Court should abstain is whether there are parallel proceedings in state court that present an opportunity for the same issues to be addressed. “Suits are parallel if substantially the same parties litigate substantially the same issues in different forums.” Scottsdale Ins. Co. v. Detco Indus., Inc., 426 F.3d 994, 997 (8th Cir. 2005). Factors relevant to whether proceedings are parallel include “the scope of the pending state court proceeding and the nature of defenses open there.” Wilton, 515 U.S. at 282-83 (quotation omitted). Evaluating these factors “entails consideration of whether the claims of all parties in interest can ...


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