By Ali Fenno
On February 21, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of vonRosenberg v. Lawrence. In vonRosenberg, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the district court abused its discretion by staying a federal proceeding until the conclusion of a similar state action involving different parties and claims. After examining the abstention standard from Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, the Fourth Circuit vacated the abstention order and remanded the case back to the district court, holding that the district court abused its discretion by abstaining in favor of state court proceedings that were not parallel to the federal court proceedings.
Both this federal proceeding and the related state proceeding concerned whether the Diocese of South Carolina (the “Diocese”) dissociated itself from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States (the “Episcopal Church”). Bishop vonRosenberg, the federal plaintiff-appellant, claims that the Episcopal Church appointed him as Bishop of the Diocese after removing Bishop Lawrence, the federal defendant-appellee, from the position. But Bishop Lawrence contends that the Episcopal Church could not have removed him because the Diocese of South Carolina had dissociated from the Episcopal Church and acted independently of the organization. Thus, each party claimed to be the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
Litigation over the dissociation matter first began when the Diocese filed suit against the Episcopal Church in a South Carolina state court, claiming that the Diocese had dissociated from the Episcopal Church and sought “resolution of their real and personal property rights.” The Episcopal Church then counterclaimed for trademark infringement and dilution under the Lanham Act. It also requested that Bishop Lawrence and others be added as counterclaim defendants, but the state trial court denied the request in September 2013.
The state court issued its final order on February 3, 2015. It held that the Diocese had validly dissociated from the Episcopal Church and owned the property at issue, and permanently enjoined the Episcopal Church from using the Diocese’s marks. The Episcopal Church appealed, and the South Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments on September 23, 2013. No opinion from the state supreme court has yet been issued.
Bishop vonRosenberg filed this federal action on March, 13, 2013, seeking declaratory-injunctive relief against Bishop Lawrence. He claimed that Bishop Lawrence violated the Lanham Act by falsely advertising himself as the Bishop of the Diocese. But the district court abstained the proceeding in favor of the state court proceedings in August 2013. The court reasoned that it had broad authority to decline jurisdiction on cases seeking declaratory relief. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated the abstention order on the grounds that the district court had applied the wrong abstention standard; the district court should have applied the standard for actions involving both declaratory and non-declaratory relief from Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States. The Fourth Circuit remanded the case so this correct standard could be applied.
On remand, the district court again abstained in favor of the state proceedings, and Bishop vonRosenberg appealed.
Failure to Meet the “Exceptional Circumstances” Abstention Standard
The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by establishing that Colorado River is a narrow standard; it requires that abstention of jurisdiction be justified by “exceptional circumstances.” The Fourth Circuit identified the first step in this “exceptional circumstances” test to be a determination of whether the state and federal cases are parallel. It listed three guiding principles for this determination: (1) the federal and state parties should have more in common than merely the litigation of substantially similar issues; (2) the parties themselves should be nearly identical; and (3) despite overlapping of facts, there must not be serious doubt that the state action would not resolve all the claims. The Fourth Circuit then noted that even if the if the factual circumstances are sufficiently parallel, Colorado River requires that a handful of procedural factors be balanced before abstaining.
In applying these principles to this case, the Court first observed that the parties in the two cases are not the same. Neither Bishop Lawrence nor Bishop vonRosenberg were parties to the state action. Furthermore, the two courts were not litigating the same claims. The state court looked only at the Episcopal Church’s false advertising claim, not that of Bishop vonRosenberg. Thus, because the state and federal cases involved different parties and different claims, the cases were not parallel as required by Colorado River‘s “exceptional circumstances” standard.
The Fourth Circuit concluded that the state and federal proceedings failed to meet Colorado River’s “exceptional circumstances” standard because, as they involved different parties and different claims, they could not be considered parallel cases. Accordingly, it vacated the abstention order and remanded the case back to the district court.