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Brown v. City of Allen Park

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

December 21, 2017

TRACIE BROWN, Plaintiffs,
CITY OF ALLEN PARK, A municipal corporation, Defendants.


          Nancy G. Edmunds United States District Judge.

         Police officer, Tracie Brown ("Plaintiff") filed this Title VII Civil Rights action for sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation on July 25, 2017. The City of Allen Park ("Defendant") moves to stay this action with a Motion for Abstention in deference to a parallel action in state court, pursuant to the Colorado River doctrine. (Dkt. 12, at 3.) For the reasons that follow, based on the parties' briefs, and the oral arguments which took place on December 6, 2017, Defendant's motion is DENIED.

         I. Factual Background

         Having served the City of Allen Park's police department for fifteen years, Plaintiff, in April of 2016, commenced a lawsuit in the Wayne County Circuit Court against an administrative sergeant in the Allen Park Police Department, Daniele Cerroni. Case No. 2016-005240-CZ, Hon. John A. Murphy. Plaintiff's suit alleges state law claims, of sex harassment, and assault and battery, against Cerroni, related to on-going unwanted sexualized attention and touching. Plaintiff amended her state court complaint in January 2017, to add their employer, Defendant, as a second defendant. As with the original complaint, the amended complaint only alleges state law claims.

         In July 2017, Plaintiff filed in this Court, a new federal claim against Defendant (and not Cerroni) based on the same factual allegations. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges three counts in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000, et seq., hostile environment sexual harassment, retaliation, and sex discrimination. In response, Defendant, asks this Court to stay these federal proceedings, pending the outcome of the Plaintiff's state claims. Defendant argues abstention is appropriate, since the two suits are based on the same factual allegations and because the state causes of action are similar to those asserted here under federal law.

         II. Legal Standard

         In Colorado River, the Supreme Court explained that a district court may sometimes be justified in abstaining from exercising jurisdiction in deference to a parallel state-court proceeding. Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976). Federal courts recognize several traditional bases for abstaining from exercising their jurisdiction. See e.g., Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971)(holding abstention appropriate where federal proceedings would restrain state criminal proceedings); County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185 (1959) and Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman, 312 U.S. 496 (1941)(holding abstention appropriate in cases presenting federal constitutional issues which might be mooted or narrowed by a definitive ruling on state law issues); Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959)(holding abstention appropriate where difficult questions of state law will be determinative of state policy transcending the result in the case at bar); Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943)(holding abstention appropriate where a federal review of the question in the case would be disruptive to state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern).

         Beyond these traditional bases for abstaining, Colorado River established what has come to be called the Colorado River doctrine, which recognizes there are exceptional instances in which the traditional abstention categories are inapplicable but which may nevertheless warrant a stay or dismissal of a federal lawsuit pending the resolution of concurrent state court proceedings. Application of the Colorado River doctrine involves a two step process. First, a determination of the threshold issue of whether the state and federal cases are parallel. And second, careful consideration of the multiple Colorado River factors, to determine if abstention is appropriate. Preferred Care of Delaware, Inc. v. VanArsdale, 676 Fed.Appx. 388, 393 (6th Cir. 2017)(unpublished).

         "Abdication of the obligation to decide cases can be justified under the doctrine only in 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. "[T]he 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 the District Court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it." Id. at 813-14. "Generally, as between state and federal courts, the 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. . . .This difference in general approach between state-federal concurrent jurisdiction and wholly federal concurrent jurisdiction stems from the virtually unflagging obligation of the federal courts to exercise the jurisdiction given them." Id. at 817 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. Analysis

         A. Parallel Cases

         To determine whether application of the Colorado River doctrine is appropriate, the Court must first address the threshold issue of whether the state and federal proceedings involve the same parallel matter. See Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. V. Mercury Center, 460 U.S. 1, 13-15 (1983). The appropriate consideration is whether the two cases are currently parallel, not whether one could be modified so as to make the cases identical. Crawley v. Hamilton County Comm'rs, 744 F.2d 28, 31 (6th Cir. 1984). "Exact parallelism" between the actions is not required; instead, the actions need only be "substantially similar." Nakash v. Marciano, 882 F.2d 1411, 1416 (9th Cir. 1989)

         Here the state case and this matter are parallel. "[W]here (1) the parties are substantially similar and (2) [plaintiff's] claims against [defendants] are predicated on the same allegations as to the same material facts. . . .the actions must be considered "parallel" for the purposes of the Colorado River abstention doctrine." Romine v. Compuserve Corp., 160 F.3d 337, 340 (6th Cir. 1998). Defendant is named in both the state and federal case. Likewise, Plaintiff, is the sole plaintiff in both matters. The party differences, that Plaintiff chose not to name Cerroni as defendant in the federal case, is not decisive. "This court has never held that only a perfect, or even near-perfect, symmetry of parties and causes of action" are necessary to satisfy the "parallel" criteria. Preferred Care, 676 Fed.Appx. at 393.

         The counts arise out of the same claims and alleged set of facts. Both concern whether Cerroni caused Plaintiff to experience a hostile work environment, and sexual harassment, and the adequacy of Defendant's response to those alleged incidents. Many of the witnesses and much of the discovery is expected to overlap. ...

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