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Hargrove v. Jefferson County Board of Education

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

June 7, 2017

REBECCA HARGROVE, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Dave Whalin, Magistrate Judge United States District Court.

         The Defendants, Jefferson County Board of Education,, (“Defendants”) have filed a motion asking this Court to hold this action in abeyance on the grounds of Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976). (DN 10). Plaintiff Rebecca Hargrove has responded in opposition (DN 14), and Defendants have replied (DN 15). For the following reasons, Defendant's motion will be DENIED.

         Background

         On September 12, 2016, Plaintiff Rebecca Hargrove, as Grandmother, Guardian, and Next Friend of R.S. (“Hargrove”), filed a complaint in Jefferson Circuit Court against Crosby Middle School Employees Michael Kelly (Principal), Jeffrey Marshall (Assistant Principal), and Diane Elder (Counselor). (DN 10-2). The complaint alleges that Defendants “ha[d] an affirmative duty to maintain a safe learning environment and protect R.S. from harm” but “in spite of requests to protect R.S. from the tragedy of bullying occurring to R.S., the Defendants did nothing.” (Id. at ¶¶ 6-7). Hargrove asserted one claim of “negligence and/or negligent supervision and/or negligence per se” and cited to KRS §§ 158.440, 158.148(1), 158.150, 161.180, and 525.070. (Id. at ¶ 16).

         Almost two months later, Plaintiff Mark Cooke, as Father and Next Friend of M.C. (“Cooke”), filed a motion to intervene in the Jefferson Circuit Court action. (DN 10-3). Cooke additionally named Superintendent Donna Hargens and Assistant Principal Jennifer Neuman as intervening Defendants. The motion states that the subject matter and factual basis for Cooke's claim is the same as that of Hargrove's case, namely, “the failure of the Crosby administrators to protect the students in a safe, healthy and secure educational environment.” (Id.).

         Shortly after the motion to intervene was filed, Hargrove and Cooke's counsel filed the instant action in this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (DN 1). Six Plaintiffs are named in the Complaint, including Hargrove and Cooke. (Id.). The named Defendants are Kelly, Marshall, Elder, Hargens, Neuman, the Jefferson County Board of Education, Delores Hughes (Counselor), and Hope Johnson (Counselor). (Id.). Like in the state court action, Hargrove alleges that Defendants had “an affirmative duty to maintain a safe learning environment and protect R.S. from harm” but “did nothing” in spite of consistent or daily requests to protect R.S. from bullying. (Id.at ¶¶ 12-13). Hargrove further contends that R.S. endured and suffered “daily bullying” which resulted in medical and/or psychiatric care. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-16). Cooke makes similar allegations (Id. at ¶¶ 23-24, 30-31), as do the other four plaintiffs.

         On January 10, 2017, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity in the state court action. Plaintiffs, in response, requested the Jefferson Circuit Court stay consideration of the summary judgment motion because the court had not yet ruled on Plaintiff Cooke's motion to intervene. Defendants indicate that as of March 13, 2017, no rulings have been entered on the pending state court motions.

         Presently, Defendants have filed a motion to hold the federal action in abeyance in light of the “duplicative, parallel proceeding in Jefferson Circuit Court.” (DN 10-1, at p. 1). Defendants argue this Court should hold the federal case in abeyance based on the Colorado River abstention doctrine. (Id. at p. 4). Defendants emphasize that the parallel state action creates a significant danger of piecemeal litigation and inconsistent results. (Id. at p. 5).

         In opposition, Hargrove urges the Court to deny Defendants' requested stay because the state action and federal action are not parallel in that the federal action includes § 1983 claims. (DN 14, at pp. 4-5). Even if the actions were parallel, Hargrove argues that balancing the Colorado River factors weighs against holding the federal action in abeyance. (Id. at p. 5).

         Analysis

         Federal courts have a “virtual unflagging obligation” to exercise the jurisdiction conferred upon them by Congress. Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 825 (1976). In certain circumstances, however, a federal court will abstain from hearing a case that is properly before it. One such circumstance is known as the Colorado River abstention doctrine, which applies when a federal case involves substantially the same parties and issues as a parallel case in state court. Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 817-21. But as the Supreme Court emphasized in Colorado River itself, abstention is “the exception, not the rule.” Id. at 813.

         There is a two-step process for determining whether abstention is warranted under Colorado River. Romine v. Compuserve Corp. 160 F.3d 337 (6th Cir. 1998). First, the Court must determine whether the federal and state proceedings are “parallel.” Id. at 339; see also Crawley v. Hamilton Cnty. Comm'rs, 744 F.2d 28 (6th Cir. 1984). It is not required that the proceedings be exactly parallel or identical; “[i]t is enough if the two proceedings are substantially similar.” Id. at 340; Crawley, 744 F.2d at 31. Two proceedings are substantially similar “where (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. . .” Taylor v. Campanelli, 29 F.Supp.3d 972, 977 (E.D. Mich. 2014) (quoting Romine, 160 F.3d at 340). The parties in both proceedings need not be identical. Instead, “[p]arties with ‘nearly identical' interests are considered ‘substantially the same' for Colorado River purposes.” Id. (quoting Clark v. Lacy, 376 F.3d 682, 686 (7th Cir. 2004)).

         Here, Defendants argue the cases are parallel because there is overlap in the parties, both cases involve identical allegations with respect to Hargrove and R.S., and both cases focus on the purported bullying of students at Crosby Middle School. (DN 10-1, at p. 4). Plaintiff counters that the two actions are not parallel because there is no possibility that complete relief can be obtained in state court. (DN 14, at p. 4). Specifically, Plaintiff explains that in state court Defendants have moved for summary judgment based on a qualified immunity defense under state law, which cannot dispose of a § 1983 claim. (Id.).

         The Court finds that the state and federal cases are parallel for purposes of the Colorado River doctrine analysis. The parties in the two cases, while not identical, are substantially similar. Both cases involve Hargrove as a plaintiff and involve five of the same individual defendants. Although Cooke currently seeks to intervene in the state court action and four additional plaintiffs exist in the federal action, all six ...


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