May 3, 2022

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) stated in its February 25. 2022 opinion in a Puerto Rico federal medical malpractice case that the United States District Court had dismissed: “This appeal requires us to examine  the framework governing a stay or dismissal of a federal action that is duplicative of parallel state litigation. Because the court below erroneously applied the “prior pending action” doctrine in lieu of the test adumbrated in Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976), and its progeny, we vacate the order dismissing the plaintiffs’ action and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The plaintiffs had filed a medical malpractice case in the federal district court alleging federal jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship and the existence of a controversy in the requisite amount. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). The plaintiffs’ complaint alleged negligence under Puerto Rico law leading to the death of their mother, Gregoria Cabrera-Bayanilla, during the previous year. They named as defendants the physicians who cared for the decedent, the hospital in which she was a patient, and others.

Roughly a month before the plaintiffs instituted their federal medical malpractice action, a larger group of plaintiffs (also relatives of the decedent) brought a similar medical malpractice suit in the Superior Court of Puerto Rico, sitting at Ponce. The earlier suit also arose from Mrs. Cabrera-Bayanilla’s death, asserted similar causes of action, and named the same defendants.

Prior Pending Action Doctrine

A defendant in both cases filed a motion in the federal court seeking either to stay or dismiss the federal court proceeding based upon either Colorado River abstention or the “prior pending action” doctrine. The federal district court dismissed the federal medical malpractice action without prejudice based on the prior pending action doctrine that provides that the pendency of a prior action, in a court of competent jurisdiction, between the same parties, predicated upon the same cause of action and growing out of the same transaction, and in which identical relief is sought, constitutes good ground for abatement of the later suit. The plaintiffs  appealed.

Federal Appellate Court Opinion

The Federal Appellate Court stated: “The prior pending action doctrine is good law where it belongs, but it does not belong here. It covers scenarios in which “actions involving the same parties and similar subject matter are pending in different federal district courts” and “the overlap between the two suits is nearly complete.” … The Supreme Court, though, has left no doubt that such a “general principle . . . to avoid duplicative litigation” holds water only within the federal system. Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 817. When the jurisdictional overlap is “between state and federal courts” the justification for applying that general principle vanishes: “the pendency of an action in the state court is no bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court having jurisdiction.” … This divergence, the Court explained, “stems from the virtually unflagging obligation of the federal courts to exercise the jurisdiction given them.”” (Cases pending in the Puerto Rico courts are treated as functionally equivalent to state-court cases for purposes of Colorado River abstention.)

“Consistent with this distinction, the decisional calculus changes when the competing litigation lies outside the federal system. A federal court cannot renounce jurisdiction in the absence of “the clearest of justifications.” … “”[d]uplication and inefficiency are not enough to support a federal court’s decision to bow out of a case over which it has jurisdiction.”

The Federal Appellate Court concluded: “We hold that the court’s failure to apply the correct test, drawn from Colorado River and its progeny, constituted an abuse of discretion. Given that the district court has yet to address the issue, we take no view as to whether the Colorado River factors will support either a stay or an order of dismissal on these facts.”

Source Maldonado-Cabrera v. Anglero-Alfaro, No. 20-2030.

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