Sanchez v. Rushton

Decision Date06 November 2020
Docket Number1:20-cv-00550-LF-SCY
PartiesJANICE LYNN SANCHEZ, as Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF MARLYSA SANCHEZ and Next Friend of E.T., a minor child, Plaintiff, v. ROBERT RUSHTON, in his individual and official capacities, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Mexico

THIS MATTER comes before the Court on defendant Robert Rushton's Motion to Stay Parallel Proceedings, filed August 12, 2020. Doc. 7. Plaintiff Janice Lynn Sanchez filed her response on August 31, 2020. Doc. 9. Mr. Rushton filed his reply and a notice of the completion of briefing on September 14, 2020. Docs. 10, 11. Ms. Sanchez filed a motion for a hearing on the motion but subsequently withdrew that motion. Docs. 14, 17. Accordingly, the Court will decide the motion on the briefs. D.N.M.LR-Civ. 7.6(a) ("A motion will be decided on the briefs unless the Court sets oral argument."). Having read the submissions of the parties and the relevant law, the Court finds that the motion is not well-taken and will DENY it.

I. Background Facts and Procedural Posture

This case arises from an encounter between defendant police officer Robert Rushton and plaintiff's decedent Marlysa Sanchez on November 5, 2017. Ms. Sanchez initially brought claims against Officer Rushton and the Village of Ruidoso1 on April 19, 2019, in the Twelfth Judicial District Court of New Mexico. Doc. 7 at 14-28. The case progressed through discovery in state court and was scheduled for trial in September of 2020. Doc. 7 at 3. In April of 2020, the state court vacated the September trial setting. Id. More than a year after initially filing the state court case, on June 6, 2020, Ms. Sanchez filed suit against Officer Rushton in his individual and official capacities in this Court. Doc. 1. The state and the federal lawsuits are both based on the events that took place on November 5, 2017, in which Officer Rushton shot and killed Marlysa Sanchez. Compare Doc. 1 with Doc. 7 at 14-28. The allegations contained in the complaints in the state and federal court are nearly identical. Id. The key difference between the two is that the state case asserts state tort claims under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act ("NMTCA"), Doc. 7 at 26-28, whereas the federal case brings claims for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, Doc. 1 at 16-18.2

In his motion to stay proceedings, Officer Rushton contends that the state and federal cases are parallel and, therefore, subject to abstention under the Colorado River3 doctrine. Plaintiff contends that the cases are not parallel, and even if the Court finds that the two cases are parallel, it should refrain from staying this case based on Colorado River. The Court finds that the New Mexico state court case and this case are not parallel, and therefore it will not stay this matter under the Colorado River doctrine.

II. Discussion
A. Abstention Under Colorado River

"Federal courts have the power to refrain from hearing, among other things, cases which are duplicative of a pending state proceeding." D.A. Osguthorpe Family P'ship v. ASC Utah, Inc., 705 F.3d 1223, 1233 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation and citation omitted). The Colorado River doctrine applies to "situations involving the contemporaneous exercise of concurrent jurisdictions by state and federal courts." Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 817. In Colorado River, the Supreme Court announced an abstention doctrine under which a federal court, for reasons of "wise judicial administration," may stay or dismiss a federal suit pending resolution of a parallel state court proceeding. Id. at 817. The Colorado River doctrine is a judicially created doctrine of efficiency that was designed to "fill a gap in the federal courts' existing inventory of abstention principles." Id. at 817-18 (distinguishing between dismissal under abstention doctrines and dismissal "for reasons of wise judicial administration"). Avoiding duplicative litigation is at the core of the Colorado River doctrine. D.A. Osguthorpe Family P'ship, 705 F.3d at 1233. The goal of the Colorado River doctrine is "to preserve judicial resources." Id. "The doctrine springs from judicial economy concerns that may justify deferral of a federal case when pending state litigation will resolve the issues in the federal case." THI of New Mexico at Hobbs Ctr., LLC v. Patton, 851 F. Supp. 2d 1281, 1288 (D.N.M. 2011). Declining to exercise jurisdiction based on the Colorado River doctrine, however, is appropriate only in "exceptional" circumstances. Fox v. Maulding, 16 F.3d 1079, 1081 (10th Cir. 1994). Any doubt in the application of the factors "should be resolved in favor of exercising federal jurisdiction." Id. at 1082.

To determine whether to stay or dismiss a federal case under the Colorado River doctrine, the Court must conduct a two-step process. First, the Court must determine whether the state and federal cases are "parallel." Fox, 16 F3d at 1081. Once the court determines that the state and federal proceedings are parallel, it then determines whether it should defer to the state court proceeding based on the circumstances. Id. at 1082. "[T]he decision whether to defer to the state courts is necessarily left to the discretion of the district court in the first instance." Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 19 (1983). "A court has no discretion to dismiss rather than to stay an action if the plaintiff has set forth claims for monetary damages that cannot be redressed in state court." Allen v. Bd. of Educ., Unified Sch. Dist. 436, 68 F.3d 401, 403 (10th Cir. 1995). Because Ms. Sanchez has set forth claims for monetary damages that cannot be redressed in state court—such as attorney's fees and punitive damages, see Doc. 1 at 16, 18—the Court does not have the discretion to dismiss the case but will decide whether this case should be stayed pending resolution of the state court proceedings.

B. The State and Federal Proceedings are Not Parallel.

"Suits are parallel if substantially the same parties litigate substantially the same issues in different forums." Fox, 16 F.3d at 1081. The proceedings are substantially similar where "the parallel state-court action is an adequate vehicle for the complete and prompt resolution of the issue between the parties." THI of New Mexico at Hobbs Ctr., LLC v. Patton, 851 F. Supp. 2d 1281, 1288-89 (D.N.M. 2011). The Colorado River doctrine "necessarily contemplates that the federal court will have nothing further to do in resolving any substantive part of the case, whether it stays or dismisses." Fox, 16 F.3d at 1081-82. The Court should not engage in considering how the state proceedings could have been brought in theory but must examine the state proceedings as they actually exist to determine whether they are parallel to the federal proceeding. Id. at 1081. Moreover, the Court need not conclude that there is "formal symmetrybetween the two actions." Tyrer v. City of South Beloit, 456 F.3d 744, 752 (7th Cir. 2006). Rather, the proceedings are sufficiently parallel if "the suits involve the same parties, arise out of the same facts and raise similar factual and legal issues." Id.; see also Vulcan Chem Techs., Inc. v. Barker, 297 F.3d 332, 341 (4th Cir. 2002) (suits are similar when the federal court is required to "consider . . . the same evidence and arguments" as the state court would have to consider); Ambrosia Coal & Constr. Co. v. Pages Morales, 368 F.3d 1320, 1329-30 (11th Cir. 2004) (rejecting argument that Colorado River "abstention" is permissible only when the relevant federal and state cases "share identical parties, issues, and requests for relief").

1. The Parties are Substantially Similar.

The parties in the state and federal cases are substantially similar. In state court, Ms. Sanchez sued the Village of Ruidoso and Robert Rushton in his individual and official capacities. Doc. 7 at 1. In the federal case, Ms. Sanchez does not name the Village and names only Officer Rushton in his individual and official capacities. Officer Rushton points out that "[a] claim brought against Defendant Rushton in his official capacity is treated the same as a suit brought against a governmental entity"; thus, the parties in the state and federal suits are the same. Doc. 7 at 5 n.2 (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985); Lumen Const., Inc. v. Brant Const. Co., Inc., 780 F.2d 691, 695 (7th Cir. 1985)). Ms. Sanchez does not dispute that a claim against Officer Rushton in his official capacity is treated the same as a suit against the Village of Ruidoso. Further, even if the parties are slightly different, that "does not destroy the parallel nature of the cases. If it did, parties could avoid the doctrine of Colorado River by the simple expedient of naming additional parties." Interstate Material Corp. v. City of Chicago,847 F.2d 1285, 1288 (7th Cir. 1988). The Court, therefore, finds that the parties are substantially similar.

2. The Issues are not Substantially Similar.

The chief dispute in this case is whether the issues are substantially similar. In her state court complaint, Ms. Sanchez asserts claims for wrongful death/battery and loss of consortium pursuant to the NMTCA, N.M. Stat. Ann. § 41-4-12 (1978).4 Doc. 7 at 26-27. In her federal court complaint, Ms. Sanchez asserts claims for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and loss of consortium. Doc. 1 at 16-17. The parties do not dispute that the loss of consortium claim is substantially similar in both cases. Instead, they dispute whether the battery claim under the NMTCA is substantially similar to the excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment. These claims are not substantially similar because the standards used to determine whether Officer Rushton is liable for battery under the NMTCA and whether he is liable for a violation of the Fourth Amendment are...

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