United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania
April 30, 2002
ALLSTATE INSURANCE COMPANY, PLAINTIFF,
MARY S. SEELYE AND GARY C. SEELYE, HER HUSBAND, INDIVIDUALLY, AND AS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS OF NATHAN J. SEELYE, A MINOR, DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Lancaster, District Judge
This is an action for declaratory judgment under the Declaratory
Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201 ("Act") Jurisdiction is predicated
upon diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiff,
Allstate Insurance Company ("Allstate"), seeks a determination that its
insureds, defendants Mary S. Seelye, Gary C. Seelye, and their son Nathan
J. Seelye ("the Seelyes"), may not maintain claims for stacked uninsured
motorist benefits for injuries they sustained in an automobile accident.
In addition, Allstate asks the court to declare that, under Pennsylvania
law, the Seelyes are not entitled to have this dispute submitted to
For the reasons stated below, we decline to exercise jurisdiction over
The Declaratory Judgment Act does not mandate that federal district
courts exercise jurisdiction over every declaratory
judgment action. Rather, the Act provides that
[i]n 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.
28 U.S.C. § 2201(a) (emphasis added) . The Act affords district
courts "unique and substantial discretion in deciding whether to declare
the rights of litigants." Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 286
(1995); see also State Auto Ins. Cos. v. Summy, 234 F.3d 131, 133 (3d
Cir. 2000). The Supreme Court has referred to the Act as "an enabling
Act, which confers a discretion on the courts rather than an absolute
right upon the litigant." Wilton, 515 U.S. at 287 (internal quotations
omitted) (citations omitted); see also Summy, 234 F.3d at 136. Thus,
under the Declaratory Judgment Act, district courts possess discretion in
determining whether and when to entertain the action, even when the suit
otherwise satisfies the prerequisites for subject matter jurisdiction.
The district courts' discretionary power to decline to hear declaratory
judgment actions, however, is not open-ended. For instance, a district
court does not have absolute discretion to "decline jurisdiction over a
declaratory judgment action when the issues include federal statutory
interpretation, the government's choice of a federal forum, an issue of
sovereign immunity, or inadequacy of the state proceeding." Summy, 234
F.3d at 134 (citing United States v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dep't
of Envtl. Res., 923 F.2d 1071, 1076-79 (3d Cir. 1991)). None of these
exceptions are present here. Indeed, this action presents the all too
common case of an insurance company coming to federal court, under
diversity jurisdiction, to receive declarations on purely state law
The court of appeals in Summy specifically noted that "[t]he desire of
insurance companies and their insureds to receive declarations in federal
court on matters of purely state law has no special call on the federal
forum." See id. at 136. This principle is especially relevant because the
interest of a state "in resolving its own law must not be given short
shrift simply because one party or, indeed, both parties, perceive some
advantage in the federal forum." Id. Finally, when state law is well
established, there is even less reason for federal district courts to
exercise jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action, and, thus,
district courts should rarely do so. See id.
There are no federal questions present in this dispute. The requested
relief would require us only to apply well-settled state law. See
Winslow-Quattlebaum v. Maryland Ins. Group, 752 A.2d 878 (Pa. 2000).
There simply is no federal interest at stake here. These factors weigh
heavily against exercising jurisdiction over this action.
There is, however, a salient factor in Wilton and Summy not present in
this case, namely a parallel action pending in the state court.
Undeniably, both the Supreme Court in Wilton and the court of appeals in
Summy reasoned that a pending parallel state court action is one of the
factors that favor declining jurisdiction in declaratory judgment
actions. The Supreme Court in Wilton expressly did not address the issue
of whether a district court should decline jurisdiction in declaratory
judgment actions in the absence of parallel state court proceedings.
Wilton, 515 U.S. at 290. The Wilton court implicitly indicated, however,
that there are other factors, besides the existence of parallel state
proceedings, that call for declining to exercise jurisdiction in a
declaratory judgment action.. See id. at 288 n. 2. Other courts also have
concluded that, although it is a factor for the district court to
consider, the existence of a parallel state court proceeding is not a
necessary predicate for a district court to decline jurisdiction in a
declaratory judgment action. See, e.g., Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ind-Com
Elec. Co., 139 F.3d 419, 423 (4th Cir. 1998) (holding that there is no
requirement that a state action be pending before a federal court may
decline to exercise jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action);
Golden Eagle Ins. Co. v. Travelers Cos., 103 F.3d 750, 754 (9th Cir.
1996), overruled on other grounds by Gov't Employees Ins. Co. v. Dizol,
133 F.3d 1220 (9th Cir. 1998) (en banc)
We also find support for this position in Summy. A fair reading of
Summy indicates that the existence of a parallel state proceeding,
although present there, is not a prerequisite to the district court's
proper exercise of discretion to decline jurisdiction over the case.
Rather, it is but one factor a district court should consider. See
Summy, 234 F.3d at 134-35.
Thus, although there is no parallel state court proceeding pending in
this case, that factor is not determinative, and in the court's view, the
absence of a parallel state proceeding is clearly outweighed by the lack
of any federal interest in this dispute.
Finally, while a party's objection to a district court's exercise of
jurisdiction in a declaratory judgment case is a factor that would
support the decision to decline jurisdiction, it is not a necessary one.
In other words, a district court may decline jurisdiction in a
declaratory judgment action sua sponte. Id. at 136.
In sum, this dispute is not governed by federal law and there are no
federal interests at stake. The state law to be applied is well-settled.
The state court is perfectly capable of resolving this dispute in
accordance with its own law. Therefore, under the circumstances of this
case, and in the exercise of our discretion, we will not exercise
jurisdiction over this declaratory judgment action.
Therefore, this 30th day of April, 2002, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that
Allstate's declaratory judgment action is dismissed without prejudice to
the parties' right to fully litigate these matters in the state court.
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