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Smith v. Metropolitan Property and Liability Insurance Co.

decided: July 10, 1980.


Appeal from an order of abstention entered in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Judge Ellen B. Burns, in an action seeking a declaration that plaintiff is covered under the uninsured motorist provisions of an automobile insurance policy. Affirmed.

Before Lumbard, Mansfield and Mulligan, Circuit Judges.

Author: Mulligan

The only question raised in this appeal is whether the district court properly abstained in a diversity action. The complaint requested a declaration of the validity under Connecticut law of an exclusionary clause in an automobile insurance policy. The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Ellen Bree Burns, Judge, approved and adopted a ruling of a United States Magistrate Arthur H. Latimer that abstention was appropriate under Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25, 79 S. Ct. 1070, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1058 (1959), in that the suit presented "difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result in the case then at bar."*fn1 Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 814, 96 S. Ct. 1236, 1244, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483 (1976). We affirm.

The appellant, Earl G. Smith, is a citizen of Connecticut and the administrator of the estate of his son, Gary D. Smith, who was fatally injured when his motorcycle collided with an automobile operated by an uninsured motorist. Gary Smith was allegedly insured under a policy issued to his father by the appellee, Metropolitan Property and Liability Insurance Co. ("Metropolitan"), a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business outside Connecticut.

The appellant filed a claim on his son's behalf under the uninsured motorist provisions of the policy. Metropolitan rejected the claim on the ground that the motorcycle which Gary Smith was operating at the time of the accident, although owned by him, was not listed in the schedule of "insured highway vehicles" which formed part of the policy.*fn2 Metropolitan argued that coverage was therefore barred by an exclusionary clause providing in pertinent part that:

This policy does not apply:

Under the Protection Against Uninsured Motorists Coverage

(e) to bodily injury to an insured while occupying a highway vehicle (other than an insured highway vehicle) owned by the named insured or by any relative resident in the same household as the named insured. . . . (emphasis added)

Upon rejection of his claim, the appellant commenced an action against Metropolitan in the District Court for the District of Connecticut. Jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship. The complaint sought a declaratory judgment that the exclusionary clause of the policy contravened Connecticut public policy and was therefore void.*fn3

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment, which were referred to Magistrate Latimer, who denied the motions and ruled that abstention was appropriate. This ruling was approved and adopted in the opinion of Judge Burns.


Although the jurisdiction which Congress has bestowed on the federal courts may at one time have been thought to be strictly mandatory, see, e. g., Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 404, 5 L. Ed. 257 (1821); Bacon v. Rutland Railroad Co., 232 U.S. 134, 137, 34 S. Ct. 283, 284, 58 L. Ed. 538 (1914); Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210, 228, 29 S. Ct. 67, 70, 53 L. Ed. 150 (1908), it is now well established that we may refrain from deciding questions of state law otherwise within our jurisdiction, where the controversy falls within one of several categories thought to be inimical to harmonious federalism. See, e. g., Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S. Ct. 1098, 87 L. Ed. 1424 (1943) (a state administrative apparatus would be disrupted); Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, supra (where a difficult question of state law of substantial import is presented). See also Railroad Comm. of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S. Ct. 643, 85 L. Ed. 971 (1941) (where federal constitutional issues might be mooted by a determination of a difficult question of state law); see generally ALI, Study of the Division of Jurisdiction Between State and Federal Courts (1969).

In deciding to abstain under Thibodaux, the district court exercised "fair and well-considered discretion." Thibodaux, supra, 360 U.S. at 30, 79 S. Ct. at 1073; see also Lehman Bros. v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386, 390-91, 94 S. Ct. 1741, 1743-44, 40 L. Ed. 2d 215 (1974) (use of state certification procedure is discretionary). In addition, a district court has discretion to withhold declaratory relief, such as is requested here, in order to avoid "needless obstruction of the domestic policies of the states." Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293, 298, 63 S. Ct. 1070, 1073, 87 L. Ed. 1407 (1943); Beacon Const. Co. v. Matco Elec. Co., 521 F.2d 392 (2d Cir. 1975). The propriety of the district court's decision to withhold such relief is further reinforced by the fact that appellant has recourse to arbitration. Paragraph 22 of the policy provides that disputes as to coverage or amount of payment shall be settled by arbitration upon written election of the insured. On the oral argument appellant indicated that the issue of damages would be submitted to arbitration. Given that both the extent of coverage and the amount of damages are arbitrable, the arbitration proceeding is a fully adequate alternative remedy which would be substantially duplicative of any proceeding in this court.

Although the availability of alternative remedies is not a bar to declaratory relief, Fed.R.Civ.P. 57, the district court may in its discretion refuse declaratory relief if the alternative remedy is more appropriate. Bituminous Coal Operators' Ass'n v. International Union, U.M.W., 585 F.2d 586, 594-95 (3d Cir. 1978); 6A J. Moore P 57.08(3) (2d ed. 1976). This is not a case in which declaratory relief is particularly appropriate. See, e. g., Luckenbach S.S. Co. v. United States, 312 F.2d 545, 548 (2d Cir. 1963) (seeking declaration of non-liability as to admiralty claim asserted by defendant but on which defendant had failed to bring suit); Mine Safety Appliance co. v. Energetics Science, Inc., 416 F. Supp. 530 (S.D.N.Y. 1976) (seeking declaration of invalidity of defendant's patent and concomitant non-infringement). See also Ungar v. Dunkin' Donuts, 68 F.R.D. 65, 145 (E.D. Pa. 1975), rev'd on other grounds, 531 F.2d 1211 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 823, 97 S. Ct. 74, 50 L. Ed. 2d 84 (1976) (dictum) (purpose of declaratory judgment is to avoid multiplicity and circuity of actions). A unified arbitration of the entire dispute would not only conserve judicial resources but would also avoid potentially abrasive intrusion into an area of state sovereignty. See Necchi S.p.A. v. Necchi Sewing Machine Sales Corp., 348 F.2d 693, 696 (2d Cir. 1965), cert. denied, 383 U.S. 909, 86 S. Ct. 892, 15 L. Ed. 2d 664 (1966) ...

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