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Allstate Insurance Co. v. Preston

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 12, 2019

JERMEARA PRESTON, et al., Defendants.


          James K. Bredar, Chief Judge.

         This case stems from a tort suit filed in Maryland state court asserting common law and state statutory claims related to alleged lead poisoning. Plaintiff Allstate Insurance Company filed the present action for declaratory judgment to determine insurance coverage and its potential duty to indemnify certain defendants in the underlying state suit. Defendant Jermeara Preston, the plaintiff in the state suit, now seeks to dismiss or, in the alternative, to stay the declaratory judgment action. (ECF No. 16.) No. hearing is required. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that Allstate's action for declaratory judgment is premature, and the Court lacks jurisdiction at this time. The motion to dismiss will be granted without prejudice to Allstate's ability to refile the claim once the state court action is fully resolved.

         I. Background[1]

         In 2017, Jermeara Preston sued multiple defendants in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City, alleging damages from exposure to lead-based paint. See Preston v. S&S Partnership, Civ. No. 24-C-17-004952 (Cir. Ct. Bait. City filed Oct. 10, 2017). (Compl. ¶ 13, ECF No. 1.) Stanley Rochkind and Rhoda Rochkind are defendants in the state suit. (Id. ¶¶ 3-4.) Preston claimed the Rochkinds owned[2] a residential property in Baltimore City at which Preston was exposed to lead-based paint between November 1996 and 2000. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 15.)' Her lawsuit named twenty-three defendants and alleged damages from lead exposure sustained at three different Baltimore properties during that time. (State Compl. ¶¶ 2-3, ECF No. l-l.[3]) That lawsuit is still pending.

         Allstate provided insurance coverage to the Rochkinds through a "Personal Umbrella Policy," which included "excess personal liability coverage," from June 1988 until the policy's cancellation on June 13, 2000. (Compl. ¶ 16.) Allstate contends that coverage for claims arising from lead exposure was eliminated from the Rochkinds' policy as of June 13, 1999. (Id. ¶ 16.)

         In the present lawsuit, Allstate seeks a declaratory judgment that "coverage is not available for the Rochkind Insureds under the [Personal Umbrella] Policy for any damages caused by lead exposure to Preston, occurring on or after June 13, 1999," and, further, that "Allstate's share of the pro-rata allocation of liability is limited to 42.19% of the total of any judgment for Preston." (Id. at 6-7.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Under the Declaratory Judgement Act ("the Act"), district courts "may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration." 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). The Act is "an enabling [statute], which confers a discretion on the courts rather than an absolute right upon the litigant.'" Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 287 (1995) (quoting Public Serv. Comm'n of Utah v. Wycoff Co., 344 U.S. 237, 241 (1952)). District courts have "great latitude in determining whether to assert jurisdiction over declaratory judgment actions." United Capitol Ins. Co. v. Kapiloff, 155 F.3d 488, 493 (4th Cir. 1998) (quoting Aetna Cos. &Sur. Co. v. Ind-Com Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 422 (4th Cir. 1998)). Discretion to decline to exercise jurisdiction exists "even when the suit otherwise satisfies subject matter jurisdiction prerequisites." Wilton, 515 U.S. at 282. "[W]henever a parallel proceeding is pending in state court, district courts must take into account 'considerations of federalism, efficiency, and comity'" before exercising jurisdiction over a suit for declaratory judgment. Kapiloff, 155 F.3d at 493 (quoting Nautilus Ins. Co. v. Winchester Homes, Inc., 15 F.3d 371, 376 (4th Cir. 1994)).

         Declaratory judgment actions may be appropriate "when the judgment will serve a useful purpose in clarifying and settling the legal relations in issue, and . . . when it will terminate and afford relief from the uncertainty, insecurity, and controversy giving rise to the proceeding." Id. (quoting Centennial Life Ins. Co. v. Boston, 88 F.3d 255, 256 (4th Cir. 1996)). However, the Act "authorizes relief only '[i]n a case of actual controversy'" within the meaning of Article III of the Constitution. Pa. Nat'l Mutual Cas. Ins. Co. v. Alliance Roofing & Sheet Metal, Inc., Civ. No. WDQ-12-1427, 2013 WL 1120587, at *3 (D. Md. Mar. 14, 2013) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a)); see also White v. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 913 F.2d 165, 167 (4th Cir. 1990). Federal jurisdiction under the Act exists if "the facts alleged, under all the circumstances, show that there is a substantial controversy ... of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant the issuance of a declaratory judgment." Alliance Roofing, 2013 WL 1120587, at *3. (quoting Md. Cas. Co. v. Pac. Coal & Oil Co., 312 U.S. 270, 273 (1941)). A proper declaratory judgment suit must involve "a controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree of conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts." Id. (quoting White, 913 F.3d at 167); see also Golden v. Zwickler, 394 U.S. 103, 108 (1969) (quoting United Pub. Workers of Am. (C.I.O.) v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 89 (1947)) (stating that Article III jurisdiction requires "actual cases, not abstractions").

         III. Analysis

         In her motion to dismiss, Preston argues that the Court should dismiss or stay the declaratory judgment suit under the abstention principles articulated by the Fourth Circuit in Kapiloff, 155 F.3d at 493-94. (Mot. Dismiss. Mem. at 5-6, ECF No. 16-1.) Although Preston does not explicitly move to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), district courts "have an independent obligation to determine whether subject matter jurisdiction exists." Hertz Corp. v. Friend, 559 U.S. 77, 93 (2010). Here, the Court concludes that Allstate's declaratory judgment action is premature and does not yet present an actual controversy of "sufficient immediacy and reality" to confer Article III jurisdiction. Alliance Roofing, 2013 WL 1120587, at *3 (quoting Md. Cas. Co., Ill. U.S. at 273). Without knowing the answers to essential factual questions-including whether the Rochkinds are liable to Preston at. all and whether, if liable, that liability derives from damages incurred after Allstate eliminated coverage for lead-related claims-any declaratory judgment issued by this Court would not be conclusive, but would rather operate only as "an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts." Id. (quoting White, 913 F.3d at 167).

         In arguing for the appropriateness of declaratory relief, Allstate relies primarily on the Fourth Circuit's decision in Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance Co. v. Roberts, 668 F.3d 106 (4th Cir. 2012). In that case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a declaratory judgment calculating the pro rata allocation of liability between the insurance company and the insured party. Id. at 113-15. Under that method, "'[e]ach insurer is liable for that period of time it [covered the risk] compared to the entire period during which damages occurred' and 'losses are prorated to the insured' for periods during which it was uninsured." Id. at 113 (quoting Mayor & City Council of Baltimore v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co, 802 A.2d 1070, 1104 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2002)). Allstate argues that, under Roberts, it is entitled to a calculation of its pro rata share of liability now.

         This case is not like Roberts. There, the underlying tort suit had already concluded with jury verdict against the insured party and awarding damages to the tort plaintiff. Id. at 110. Evidence from the underlying trial determined the actual period during which the tort plaintiff incurred damages, and the district court was able to determine the portion of that period for which the insurer provided coverage. Id. at 111 (determining 24 months of coverage, compared to 55 months of exposure). The insurance company's share of liability was calculated based on the percentage of the total exposure period during which it provided coverage to the insured. Id.

         Here, the underlying state suit is still pending, and crucial questions of fact are unresolved. No. court has determined whether Preston even suffers from lead poisoning, let alone whether the Rochkinds are liable for proximately causing it, and, if so, what the total exposure period was. "[T]he question of whether the insurer has a duty to pay a final judgment against the insured turns on a comparison of the ultimate findings of fact concerning the alleged occurrence within the policy coverage." Alliance Roofing, 2013 WL 1120587, at *6 (quoting Steyer v. Westvaco Corp.,450 F.Supp. 384, 389 (D. Md. 1978)). Where such critical facts are undetermined, a declaratory judgment is premature, as it resolves a question that may never become ripe, based on facts that are purely hypothetical.[4]See, e.g., Zwickler, 394 U.S. at 108 (distinguishing abstract questions from Article III controversies); Mitcheson v. ...

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