Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind-Com Elec. Co., IND-COM

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM
Citation139 F.3d 419
PartiesAETNA CASUALTY & SURETY COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v.ELECTRIC COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
Decision Date23 March 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-1347,IND-COM

Page 419

139 F.3d 419
AETNA CASUALTY & SURETY COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
IND-COM ELECTRIC COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
No. 97-1347.
United States Court of Appeals,
Fourth Circuit.
Argued Oct. 27, 1997.
Decided March 23, 1998.

Page 420

ARGUED: Michael Andrew Pollard, Baker & McKenzie, Chicago, IL, for Appellant. Robert Harper Heckman, Adams, Kleemeier, Hagan, Hannah & Fouts, Greensboro, NC, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Charles B. Lewis, Jeffrey L. Hamera, Baker & McKenzie, Chicago, IL; William E. Freeman, Kevin M. Capalbo, Moore & Van Allen, Durham, NC, for Appellant. Thomas S. Thornton, Adams, Kleemeier, Hagan, Hannah & Fouts, Greensboro, NC, for Appellee.

Before RUSSELL, * MICHAEL, and MOTZ, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published per curiam opinion.

OPINION

PER CURIAM:

This appeal requires us to consider a question that the Supreme Court expressly declined to answer in Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 1 namely, what are the bounds of a district court's discretion to dismiss a declaratory judgment action in the absence of a parallel state court proceeding. Because we refuse to fashion a per se rule requiring a district court to entertain a declaratory judgment action when no state court proceeding is pending, and because we are further satisfied that the demands and policies of our case law support the district court's determination, we hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing this action.

I.

This case arises from the construction of the James H. Barnhardt Student Activity Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (the "Project"). Because the Project was state-owned, Chapter 143 of the North Carolina General Statutes ("N.C.G.S.") required that the State of North Carolina (the "State") enter into four different construction contracts. On November 13, 1993, the State awarded Lott Constructors, Inc. ("Lott") the contract for general construction work, Ind-Com Electric Company ("Ind-Com") the contract for electrical work, Mechanical Industries, Inc. ("Mechanical") the contract for mechanical work, and Alpha Mechanical, Inc. ("Alpha") the contract for plumbing work. The parties referred to

Page 421

these contractors as "co-primes," as they all were properly regarded as prime contractors for their specific work.

Pursuant to North Carolina law, the State, as the "Contracting Body" for the Project, required each co-prime to submit payment and performance bonds for its contract along with its bid. Aetna Casualty & Surety Company ("Aetna") 2 was the surety for the payment and performance bonds furnished by Lott.

Lott encountered financial difficulties which caused considerable delay and costs to the various co-primes. Lott's difficulties eventually became so severe that it was unable to perform its contractual obligations. As a result, Lott notified Aetna of its failure to perform, and pursuant to Aetna's obligations under the performance bond, Aetna entered into a contract with Roger Builders, Inc. to complete Lott's portion of the contract.

On March 5, 1996, Ind-Com submitted a formal request for an equitable adjustment in the amount of $867,888 to Aetna, Lott, the State, and the project architect, Odell Associates, Inc. ("Odell"). The request, based upon alleged damages caused by Lott's inability to perform, sought payment from Aetna's performance and payment bonds. On June 6, 1996, Aetna denied Ind-Com's claim. Less than two weeks later, Aetna instituted this declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, 3seeking a declaration of the rights and liabilities of Aetna and Ind-Com under the payment and performance bonds. 4 The district court declined to exercise jurisdiction over the matter and dismissed the case. Aetna appeals, claiming that the district court erred in dismissing the case because there was no pending parallel state court proceeding.

II.

Aetna filed this action pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act (the "Act"), 5 which states in relevant part that:

In a case of actual controversy within its jurisdiction, ... any court of the United States, upon the filing of an appropriate pleading, may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration, whether or not further relief is or could be sought. Any such declaration shall have the force and effect of a final judgment or decree and shall be reviewable as such. 6

The Act does not impose a mandatory obligation upon the federal courts to make such declarations of rights. 7 Rather, a district court's decision to entertain a claim for declaratory relief is discretionary and, as such, reviewed for abuse of discretion. 8

This circuit has long recognized the discretion afforded to district courts in determining whether to render declaratory relief. As early as Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Quarles, 9 we stated that the decision to grant or deny a petition for declaratory relief "is a matter resting in the sound discretion of the trial court." 10 While we have

Page 422

held that district courts have great latitude in determining whether to assert jurisdiction over declaratory judgment actions, we have nonetheless enumerated several factors to guide district courts in their exercise of this discretion. However, unlike the present case, these factors have been formulated in cases where there were parallel state court proceedings. Thus, we must address a question of first impression in this circuit, and one which the Supreme Court declined to resolve. In short, we must "delineate the outer boundaries of [the district court's] discretion in ... cases in which there are no parallel state proceedings." 11

III.

The factors which we have articulated to guide a district court in determining whether to exercise jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action have their origin in Quarles. In that case, we noted that such an action should not be used "to try a controversy by piecemeal, or to try particular issues without settling the entire controversy, or to interfere with an action which has already been instituted." 12 Based on this reasoning, we thus held that a district court should normally entertain a declaratory judgment action when it finds that the declaratory relief sought: (1) "will serve a useful purpose in clarifying and settling the legal...

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241 practice notes
  • Reifer v. Westport Ins. Corp., No. 13–2880.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 29 Abril 2014
    ...394 (5th Cir.2003); United States v. City of Las Cruces, 289 F.3d 1170, 1183 (10th Cir.2002); Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 423 (4th Cir.1998) (per curiam); Golden Eagle Ins. Co. v. Travelers Cos., 103 F.3d 750, 754 (9th Cir.1996), overruled on other grounds by G......
  • Rose Acre Farms, Inc. v. N.C. Dep't of Env't & Natural Res., No. 5:14–CV–147–D.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • 30 Julio 2015
    ...(quotation omitted)); Penn–Am. Ins. Co. v. Coffey, 368 F.3d 409, 412 (4th Cir.2004) ; Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 421 (4th Cir.1998) (per curiam) ("The [Declaratory Judgment] Act does not impose a mandatory obligation upon the federal courts to make such a decl......
  • Town of Nags Head v. Toloczko, No. 2:11–CV–1–D.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • 28 Marzo 2012
    ...United Capitol Ins. Co. v. Kapiloff, 155 F.3d 488, 493 (4th Cir.1998) (quotation omitted); Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 422 (4th Cir.1998) (per curiam). However, this discretion is not unbridled. See, e.g., Kapiloff, 155 F.3d at 493;Ind–Com, 139 F.3d at 422. Whe......
  • Sadler v. Pella Corp., No. 2:14-mn-00001-DCN
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • 23 Noviembre 2015
    ...discretion afforded to district courts in determining whether to render declaratory relief.” Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co. , 139 F.3d 419, 421–22 (4th Cir.1998). Declaratory relief is inappropriate at this stage, as the merits of plaintiffs' substantive claims have not been adj......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
241 cases
  • Reifer v. Westport Ins. Corp., No. 13–2880.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 29 Abril 2014
    ...394 (5th Cir.2003); United States v. City of Las Cruces, 289 F.3d 1170, 1183 (10th Cir.2002); Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 423 (4th Cir.1998) (per curiam); Golden Eagle Ins. Co. v. Travelers Cos., 103 F.3d 750, 754 (9th Cir.1996), overruled on other grounds by G......
  • Rose Acre Farms, Inc. v. N.C. Dep't of Env't & Natural Res., No. 5:14–CV–147–D.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • 30 Julio 2015
    ...(quotation omitted)); Penn–Am. Ins. Co. v. Coffey, 368 F.3d 409, 412 (4th Cir.2004) ; Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 421 (4th Cir.1998) (per curiam) ("The [Declaratory Judgment] Act does not impose a mandatory obligation upon the federal courts to make such a decl......
  • Town of Nags Head v. Toloczko, No. 2:11–CV–1–D.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • 28 Marzo 2012
    ...United Capitol Ins. Co. v. Kapiloff, 155 F.3d 488, 493 (4th Cir.1998) (quotation omitted); Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 422 (4th Cir.1998) (per curiam). However, this discretion is not unbridled. See, e.g., Kapiloff, 155 F.3d at 493;Ind–Com, 139 F.3d at 422. Whe......
  • Sadler v. Pella Corp., No. 2:14-mn-00001-DCN
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
    • 23 Noviembre 2015
    ...discretion afforded to district courts in determining whether to render declaratory relief.” Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind–Com Elec. Co. , 139 F.3d 419, 421–22 (4th Cir.1998). Declaratory relief is inappropriate at this stage, as the merits of plaintiffs' substantive claims have not been adj......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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