Submitted: April 17, 2019
from United States District Court for the Western District of
Missouri - Kansas City.
COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.
Gruender, Circuit Judge.
Rice and K.M. appeal the district court's order granting
summary judgment to GEICO. We affirm.
2016, Blake Isaacson lost control of a Ford Focus. Passenger
Macie Rice died in the accident, and passenger K.M. was
injured. GEICO insured the vehicle through an automobile
liability insurance policy. The policy's declaration page
identifies Blake's parents, Brian and Christina Isaacson,
as the "Named Insured" and Blake as an
"Additional Driver." The policy provides a bodily
injury liability limit of $100,000 for "each
person" and $300,000 for "each occurrence,"
and a "Limits of Liability" clause dictates that
these amounts are the total limits of bodily injury liability
coverage. The policy lists two other covered vehicles besides
the Ford Focus involved in the accident and explains that
"the limit of coverage applies separately to each
[vehicle]." In addition, the policy contains an
"Other Insurance" provision stating that
"[a]ny insurance we provide for losses arising out of
the ownership, maintenance, or use of a vehicle you
do not own shall be excess over any other valid and
wrongful death action was pending in state court, GEICO,
Blake Isaacson, and Macie Rice's mother, Kelly Rice
("Rice"), reached a partial settlement under which
GEICO agreed to pay $100,000 to Rice, and Rice agreed to
limit her collection efforts on any subsequent judgment to
sources other than Blake Isaacson. The agreement acknowledged
that the parties dispute the total liability insurance
available under the policy "and whether the other
liability coverage stacks for the other vehicles listed on
the Declaration Pages." A Missouri circuit court approved
the partial settlement, and Rice's wrongful death action
next day, GEICO filed a declaratory judgment action in the
United States District Court for the Western District of
Missouri against Rice and the Isaacsons to resolve the
outstanding stacking question. After reaching a similar
settlement with K.M. limiting her collection efforts to
sources other than Blake Isaacson, GEICO amended its
complaint and added K.M. as an additional defendant. GEICO
moved for summary judgment on December 27, 2017. The parties
completed briefing on the summary judgment motion on January
30, 2018, though Rice and K.M. moved for an extension of time
to conduct discovery on whether GEICO had agreed to pay
stacked liability limits based on similar policy language in
the Missouri state court entered judgment in favor of Kelly
Rice on her wrongful death claim on January 24, 2018. After
that judgment became final, Rice and K.M. filed an equitable
garnishment and declaratory judgment action in Missouri state
court on March 1, 2018. The state court suit raised the same
stacking issue as the federal action, as well as other
issues. That same day, Rice and K.M. moved to dismiss
GEICO's federal action, arguing that the district court
should abstain to allow the state court to decide the state
law stacking issue. See Brillhart v. Excess Ins.
Co. of Am., 316 U.S. 491 (1942) (explaining that
district courts have discretion over whether to exercise
jurisdiction in declaratory judgment suits and setting forth
reasons to refrain from exercising jurisdiction in favor of
parallel state court proceedings); Wilton v. Seven Falls
Co., 515 U.S. 277 (1995) (reaffirming
24, 2018, the district court granted GEICO's motion for
summary judgment on its declaratory judgment claim, and it
denied Rice and K.M.'s motion for an extension of time.
The district court never addressed Rice and K.M.'s motion
to dismiss the federal action in favor of the state court
appeal, Rice and K.M. first argue that the district
court's failure to rule on their motion to dismiss under
the Brillhart/Wilton abstention doctrine
requires reversal. "Generally, a federal district court
must exercise its jurisdiction over a claim unless there are
'exceptional circumstances' for not doing so."
Scottsdale Ins. Co. v. Detco Indus., 426 F.3d 994,
996 (8th Cir. 2005). But "a federal district court has
much broader discretion in determining whether to exercise
jurisdiction in a declaratory judgment action during the
pendency of parallel state court proceedings."
Id. (citing Wilton, 515 U.S. at 282-90).
Two proceedings are parallel if-as we assume to be the case
here-"substantially the same parties litigate
substantially the same issues in different forums."
Id. at 997; see also Lexington Ins. Co. v.
Integrity Land Title Co., 721 F.3d 958, 968 (8th Cir.
2013). When there is a federal declaratory judgment action
and a parallel state court proceeding, "the normal
principle that federal courts should adjudicate claims within
their jurisdiction yields to considerations of practicality
and wise judicial administration." Wilton, 515
U.S. at 288. In such situations, federal courts should avoid
"[g]ratuitous interference with the orderly and
comprehensive disposition of a state court litigation."
Brillhart, 316 U.S. at 495. Rendering a declaratory
judgment where there are parallel state court proceedings and
no issues of federal law would "[o]rdinarily . . . be
uneconomical as well as vexatious." Id.
and K.M argue that the district court's failure to
address their motion to dismiss prevents us from reviewing
whether the district court properly acted within its broad
discretion in deciding to issue a declaratory judgment. When
a district court fails to address a matter properly presented
to it, we ordinarily remand to give the court an opportunity
to rule in the first instance. See, e.g.,
O'Neil v. City of Iowa City, Iowa, 496 F.3d 915,
918 (8th Cir. 2007). But we have refrained from remanding in
cases where it is unnecessary on the record before us.
See, e.g., Cunningham v. Apfel, 222 F.3d
496, 503 (8th Cir. 2000).
conclude that a remand is unnecessary here. As we will
explain, the insurance policy unambiguously does not allow
stacking under Missouri law-the key issue common to both
proceedings. Moreover, GEICO's motion for summary
judgment was fully briefed by the time that Rice and K.M.
brought their declaratory judgment action in Missouri state
court. While they suggest that GEICO engaged in a race to the
courthouse by bringing the declaratory judgment action, the
original settlement expressly acknowledged the dispute over
stacking. Thus, we see nothing improper in GEICO's
decision to file a declaratory judgment action promptly to
resolve an outstanding issue, even if Rice and K.M.
understandably chose to wait until they obtained a wrongful
death judgment before raising the issue in state court.
Because the motion for summary judgment was fully briefed by
the time the state court action was filed and did not present
complicated issues of state law, the considerations of
practicality, wise judicial administration, and economy
identified by the Supreme Court in Brillhart and
Wilton support the district court's decision to
grant a declaratory judgment.
we have explained that "it is relatively uncommon for
reviewing courts to find discretion abused when a district
court elects to exercise jurisdiction" and that
"when such abuses are found, there typically are
distinguishing factors." Lexington, 721 F.3d at
972. In Capitol Indemnity Corp. v. Haverfield, for
example, we concluded that the district court abused its
discretion in issuing a declaratory judgment because the
state courts disagreed on the state law question at issue in
the declaratory judgment action and the district court had to
resolve the split. 218 F.3d 872, 875 (8th Cir. 2000). Because