In New Wellington Fin. v. Flagship Resort, No. 04-2216 (4th Cir. July 21, 2005) (PDF), the Fourth Circuit ruled that a district court is entitled to exercise its discretion to decline to hear a declaratory judgment action in light of a parallel state-court case.
The case was a business tort suit between New Jersey timeshare resort operators and their agent, New Wellington Financial. The resort operators claimed New Wellington violated its duty as their agent by taking undisclosed payments from lenders. New Wellington filed a declaratory judgment in the Western District of Virginia on August 13, 2003. A month later, it amended to add a claim for tortious interference with contract. Between the complaints, the defendants filed their own suit in New Jersey state court alleging, among other things, fraud, commercial bribery, violation of New Jersey Racketeering law, breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good fiath and fair dealing, and breach of fiduciary duty. The conduct underlying the cases was identical.
In the federal case, after the tortious interference claim was released due to settlement, the District Court ruled that it lacked personal jurisdiction over the defendants, and that even if it had personal jurisdiction, it would exercise its discretion not to hear the declaratory judgment action in light of the New Jersey state-court suit. The plaintiff appeaeled.
Assuming that personal jurisdiction was present, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion. The court noted that New Jersey had a "strong interest in having the dispute resolved in its courts," because the conduct at issue in the suits involved New Jersey companies, loans for New Jersey property, and claims based in New Jersey state law, "several of which can fairly be called complex," including those for commercial bribery, New Jersey RICO, and conspiracy to violate New Jersey RICO. Also, the court found that the state court could "resolve the matter more efficiently" because several parties who would have destroyed diversity in federal court could be joined in the state court case. Thus, the court held "we cannot conclude that the district court abused its discretion in deciding to decline to hear this declaratory judgment action if personal jurisdiction existed. Clear as day, considerations of 'federalism, comity, and efficiency,' counsel against running this action simultaneously with the New Jersey lawsuit. Accordingly, after careful consideration we conclude that the district court’s decision to dismiss is AFFIRMED." (citations omitted).