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Morrison v. Miller

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

October 31, 2016

LAURIE R. MILLER AND GEORGE K. MILLER, individually, and d/b/a PINE HILL STABLES, Defendants.




         This is a declaratory judgment and § 1983 case brought against Defendants- private citizens-on the theory that their filing of a civil lawsuit against Plaintiff in New York state court constituted an abuse of process and deprived Plaintiff of her due process rights under the New York Constitution. Defendants move to dismiss this case under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). For the reasons below, Defendant's motion is GRANTED.


         This case begins in California, where Plaintiff Mary Morrison and two others went in together on the purchase of race horses. Dkt 1, ¶ 14. Eventually, Plaintiff moved from California to Missouri and disclaimed all interest in the horses, leaving their care to the others. Dkt. 1, ¶¶ 11, 15-17, 31-32. Plaintiff's former partners hired Defendants, who were located in New York, to board the horses. Dkt. 1, ¶¶ 2-3, 15.

         A dispute arose over the horse boarding, and Defendants foreclosed on the horses and sold them at a lien sale. Id. Defendants then filed a lawsuit in New York state court against all three original owners, alleging breach of contract. Dkt. 1, ¶ 7.

         Plaintiff, acting as a defendant in the New York case, challenged the New York court's personal jurisdiction over her. Dkt. 1, ¶ 20. The outcome of that challenge, however, is anything but clear. In her opposition brief, Plaintiff stated that the New York court had dismissed her from the case. But at oral argument, Plaintiff stated that it was her “position” that the New York court dismissed her from the case. And Defendant maintains that the case is still ongoing as to Plaintiff. Despite the significance of this factual point, neither party has provided any evidence of the New York case's status. At oral argument, Plaintiff claimed that she filed with her challenge to personal jurisdiction a proposed order dismissing her from the case, that the New York court entered that order, but that the court then entered another order suggesting that the previously-entered order was mistakenly entered. Plaintiff continues to maintain that she was dismissed from the case and that the later docket entry did nothing to change her dismissal.

         In any event, Plaintiff filed this federal complaint against Laurie and George Miller and Pine Stables d/b/a (New York residents and the plaintiffs in the New York case), arguing that the New York lawsuit violates her rights. Dkt. 1. Plaintiff asserts three causes of action: (1) Declaratory Judgment under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202; (2) Violation of Due Process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and (3) Abuse of Process also under §1983.[1] Dkt. 1, ¶¶ 43-62.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss this lawsuit on three grounds. Dkt. 19. First, Defendants argue that this lawsuit is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Dkt. 19, Pg. IDs 71-76. Second, Defendants argue that res judicata, collateral estoppel, and another legal maxim Defendants' counsel calls “bar” all prevent Plaintiff from bringing the case. Dkt. 19, Pg. IDs 76-81. And third, Defendants argue that the statute of limitations has run on the abuse of process claim. Dkt. 19, Pg. ID 76. Plaintiff opposes the motion. Dkt. 21.

         III. ANALYSIS

         As an initial matter, the Court finds that the grounds Defendants assert for dismissal lack merit. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply when the federal lawsuit is filed before the state court lawsuit ends. See Kircher v. City of Ypsilanti, 458 F.Supp.2d 439, 449 (E.D. Mich. 2006). Res judicata and collateral estoppel do not apply because, as far as the parties have shown, there is no judgment against Plaintiff in the New York case and no determination on any issue present in both cases. And “bar” is inapplicable because it is not an independent legal maxim. Finally, Defendants have not shown that the three-year statute of limitations has run for the abuse-of-process claim. Defendants do not identify when the period began to run, and do not contest Plaintiff's argument that the period began running when she was purportedly dismissed from the New York case, which was less than three years before she filed this lawsuit. But because the Court declines to exercise jurisdiction over Plaintiff's declaratory judgment claim, and because the Court finds that, under the Younger Abstention Doctrine, adjudicating this case would require ruling on important aspects of New York law properly left to the New York state courts, the case warrants dismissal.

         A. Discretion to Hear Declaratory Judgment Actions

         “[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). Thus “a district court is authorized, in the sound exercise of its discretion, to stay or to dismiss an action seeking a declaratory judgment before trial or after all arguments have drawn to a close.” Id. at 288. In determining whether to hear a declaratory judgment action, a district court considers five factors:

1. whether the judgment would settle the controversy;
2. whether the declaratory judgment action would serve a useful purpose in clarifying the legal relations at issue;
3. whether the declaratory remedy is being used merely for the purpose of “procedural fencing” or “to provide an arena for a race for res judicata”;
4. whether the use of a declaratory action would increase the friction between our federal and state courts and improperly encroach on state jurisdiction; and 5. whether there is an alternative remedy that is better or more effective.

Zide Sport Shop of Ohio, Inc. v. Ed Tobergte Associates, Inc., 16 F.App'x 433, 437-38 (6th Cir. 2001).

         A district court may also consider additional factors, such as whether the underlying factual issues are important to an informed resolution of the case; whether the state trial court is in a better position to evaluate those factual issues than is the federal court; and whether there is a close nexus between the underlying factual and legal issues and state law and/or public policy. Scottsdale Ins. Co. v. Roumph, 211 F.3d 964, 968 (6th Cir. 2000).

         Here, Plaintiff seeks a declaration of her rights, and requests specifically that the Court declare:

■ The New York long-arm statute and the constitutional limits of due process prevent the New York ...

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