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Jones v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Southeastern Division

July 25, 2017

JOANNE JONES, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This matter is before the Court on plaintiffs' second motion to remand (#25). The matter is fully briefed and ready for disposition.

         Plaintiffs are the surviving relatives of a man who was killed as the result of a train accident in Butler County, Missouri. In 2012, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Butler County and Union Pacific Railroad Company for wrongful death and other claims in the Circuit Court of Butler County, Missouri (“2012 Case”). Plaintiffs settled with Butler County but proceeded to trial against Union Pacific. On the eve of trial, the court granted partial summary judgment to Union Pacific. Plaintiffs wanted to appeal the decision immediately, so they dismissed the remaining counts (Counts I and II) without prejudice and appealed the summary judgment to the Missouri Court of Appeals. In order to preserve the claims they had dismissed, and recognizing that they might not win on appeal and thus might not be able to add Counts I and II back to the 2012 Case, plaintiffs re-filed the two dismissed claims in a new action filed in Butler County (“2016 Case”). Plaintiffs did not, however, serve defendant Union Pacific with process as they waited for a result in the 2012 Case appeal.

         The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the Butler County trial court's grant of summary judgment on October 18, 2016. Plaintiffs thus sought to amend their 2012 Case petition to include the previously-dismissed claims. While that motion was pending, Union Pacific --- although not yet served with the petition in the 2016 Case --- learned of the 2016 Case, and its attorney entered an appearance and promptly removed the case to this Court citing this Court's diversity jurisdiction (#1).

         Plaintiffs do not contest that the Court has jurisdiction over the case. Rather, plaintiffs moved to remand this matter back to state court citing the “Colorado River Abstention” doctrine and the abatement doctrine (#12). This Court denied that motion because there was at that time no pending state court action that was substantially likely to “fully dispose of the claims presented in the federal court” (#19 at 3 (quoting Fru-Con Const. Corp. v. Controlled Air, Inc., 574 F.3d 527, 535 (8th Cir. 2009))). Defendant conceded that if plaintiffs were granted leave to file the First Amended Petition in the 2012 Case, then plaintiffs may revisit the abstention issue with the Court on a later motion. (#17 at 13; #19 at 4.)

         On May 19, 2017, the Circuit Court of Butler County granted plaintiffs' Motion to Amend the 2012 Case to add Counts I and II. Now that parallel proceedings exist in state and federal courts, plaintiffs argue that the Court should remand this matter to state court (#25).

         In general, federal courts have a “virtually unflagging obligation to exercise the jurisdiction given them.” Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976). In Colorado River, however, the Supreme Court recognized a district court's authority to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over parallel state and federal proceedings because of “considerations of ‘[w]ise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources, and comprehensive disposition of litigation.'” Id. In carving out this exception to a district court's usual obligation to exercise jurisdiction, the Supreme Court cautioned that “[o]nly the clearest of justifications will warrant” abstention. Id. at 819. Specifically, a district court may abstain if parallel state and federal actions exist and exceptional circumstances warrant abstention. See Id. at 817-819; Fru-Con Costr. Corp., 574 F.3d at 534.

The doctrine of abstention, under which a District Court may decline to exercise or postpone the exercise of its jurisdiction, is an extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a District Court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it. Abdication of the obligation to decide cases can be justified under this doctrine only in the exceptional circumstances where the order to the parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve an important countervailing interest.” Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 813 (quoting County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co.,

360 U.S. 185, 188-189 (1959)).

         The Eighth Circuit recognizes that determining whether exceptional circumstances exists requires evaluation of six factors.

(1) whether there is a res over which one court has established jurisdiction;
(2) the inconvenience of the federal forum;
(3) whether maintaining separate actions may result in piecemeal litigation, unless the relevant law would require piecemeal litigation and the federal court issue is easily severed;
(4) which case has priority-not necessarily which case was filed first but a greater emphasis on the relative ...

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