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Jenkins v. Miller

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division

June 13, 2019

Janet Jenkins, ET AL., Plaintiffs,
Kenneth L. Miller, ET AL., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court upon (1) Defendant Liberty University, Inc.'s motion to dismiss, (dkt. 27); (2) Defendants Liberty Counsel, Inc., Mathew Staver, and Rena Lindevaldsen's (“Liberty Counsel Defendants”) motion to dismiss, (dkt. 38); (3) Defendant Timothy Miller's motion to dismiss, (dkt. 40); (4) Defendant Linda Wall's motion to dismiss, (dkt. 63); and (5) Plaintiff Janet Jenkins's (appearing on her own behalf and as the next friend of her daughter, Isabella Miller-Jenkins) motion to stay, (dkt. 52).

         The Court finds that Plaintiff has engaged in claim splitting by filing this suit while another essentially identical action remains pending in the District of Vermont. Accordingly, the Court will grant Defendants' motions to dismiss, deny Plaintiff's motion to stay, and strike this case from the Court's active docket.

         I. Facts as Alleged & Procedural History

         Plaintiff Janet Jenkins and Defendant Lisa Ann Miller entered into a civil union in Vermont in or before 2002, at which point their daughter, Isabella Miller-Jenkins, was born. (Dkt. 1 ¶ 20 (“Complaint”)). In 2003, when Isabella was 17 months old, Miller moved to Virginia, renounced homosexuality, and began to deny court-ordered parent-child contact between Isabella and Jenkins. (Id. ¶ 21). Miller was found in contempt of Vermont court orders (which Virginia courts registered and enforced) beginning in 2004. (Id.). On November 20, 2009, a Vermont family court ordered Isabella's transfer to Jenkins on January 1, 2010. (Id. ¶ 22). Jenkins alleges that Miller, with Defendants' aid, had already fled with Isabella to Nicaragua on or about September 21, 2009 in anticipation of this order. (Id. at 2). Isabella has been listed as missing by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children since January 2010. (Id.). Jenkins (in her personal capacity and as next friend of Isabella) alleges that Defendants participated in a conspiracy to kidnap Isabella to interfere with Vermont court orders granting Jenkins custody over Isabella and to violate Jenkins's and Isabella's civil rights, in part because of Defendants' alleged animus toward Jenkins's sexual orientation.

         On August 14, 2012, Jenkins filed suit against Defendants in the District of Vermont. (Id. ¶ 70). The complaint in that action, (see dkt. 28-1), includes two claims.[1] In Count One, Plaintiff alleges the intentional tort of kidnapping under Vermont law. In Count Two, Plaintiff alleges a conspiracy to violate her and Isabella's civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). After a stay of the case pending the criminal trial of Defendant Philip Zodhiates, the District of Vermont granted Defendant Staver's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and granted Liberty University's motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (Complaint ¶¶ 72, 74). Neither order has been certified as final under Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b), and both remain subject to revision by the District of Vermont or appeal. Defendant Timothy Miller has a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction currently pending before the District of Vermont. The District of Vermont has denied all other defendants' motions to dismiss. (Id. ¶ 74). Discovery remains underway in the Vermont action.

         Plaintiff filed an essentially identical action in this Court on September 21, 2018. The complaint includes three counts. In Count One, Plaintiff alleges tortious interference with parental rights against all defendants “under Vermont and Virginia law.” (Id. ¶ 75). In Count Two, Plaintiff alleges the intentional tort of abduction by kidnapping under both Vermont and Virginia law against all defendants. (Id. ¶ 78). In Count Three, Plaintiff alleges a conspiracy to violate civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), asserting that Defendants conspired to violate the civil rights of Jenkins and Isabella “based on class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus against same-sex couples” and against “Jenkins due to her sexual orientation.” (Id. ¶ 82).

         Several defendants have not yet responded to the complaint. On January 3, 2019, the Court extended the period of service of Defendant Lisa Ann Miller, who apparently remains at large in Nicaragua, until a reasonable time after her return to the United States or until such time as her whereabouts are otherwise known so as to allow service under Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(f). (Dkt. 31). In that same order, the Court extended the time for Defendants Philip Zodhiates, Response Unlimited, Inc., and Victoria Hyden to respond to the complaint to June 14, 2019. (Id.).

         II. Analysis

         Defendants move to dismiss on multiple grounds, including an argument that Jenkins has engaged in claim splitting by filing an action in this Court while an essentially identical action remains pending in the District of Vermont.[2]

         “It is undisputed that it is within a district court's power to stay or dismiss a suit that is duplicative of another federal court suit.” Chihota v. Fulton, Friedman & Gullace, LLP, No. WDQ-12-0975, 2012 WL 6086860, at *2 (D. Md. Dec. 5, 2012) (quoting Sensormatic Sec. Corp. v. Sensormatic Elecs. Corp., 452 F.Supp.2d 621, 626 (D. Md. 2006), aff'd in relevant part, 273 Fed.Appx. 256, 264-66 (4th Cir. 2008)). See also Great Am. Ins. Co. v. Gross, 468 F.3d 199, 207, n.6 (4th Cir. 2006) (noting same); Couch v. Jabe, No. 7:09-cv-00434, 2010 WL 1416730, at *1 (W.D. Va. Apr. 8, 2010) (noting same and quoting Curtis v. Citibank, N.A., 226 F.3d 133, 138 (2d Cir. 2000)). “As between two federal district courts, the general rule is that duplicative litigation should be avoided.” Great Am. Ins. Co., 468 F.3d at 206 (citing Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976) (noting same)).

         “The principles behind the claim-splitting doctrine, like those behind res judicata, are to foster judicial economy, to protect parties from vexatious and expensive litigation, and to prevent piecemeal litigation.” Superior Performers, Inc. v. Family First Life, LLC, No. 1:14-cv-382, 2015 WL 471389, at *4 (M.D. N.C. Feb. 4, 2015). The doctrine also aims to avoid a situation where “identical issues” are “determined in separate actions, ” creating “both confusion and inefficiency.” McNeely v. Soyoola, No. 2:12-cv-8727, 2013 WL 3457731, at *4 (S.D. W.Va. July 9, 2013).

         “In a claim splitting case, the second suit will be barred if the claim involves the same parties and ‘arises out of the same transaction or series of transactions as the first claim.'” Sensormatic Sec. Corp., 273 Fed.Appx. at 265 (quoting Trustmark Insur. Co. v. ESLU, Inc., 299 F.3d 1265, 1269-70 (11th Cir. 2002)). See also Bloch v. Executive Office of the President, 164 F.Supp.3d 841, 854-55 (E.D. Va. 2016) (noting same); Superior Performers, Inc., 2015 WL 471389, at *3 (noting same). Dismissal on claim-splitting grounds does not require a final judgment in the parallel action, as the doctrine of claim splitting “bars two suits that are pending at the same time.” Id. at *4 (emphasis added).

         “[A] court faced with a duplicative suit will commonly stay the second suit, dismiss it without prejudice, enjoin the parties from proceeding with it, ” or, if possible, “consolidate the two actions.” Couch, 2010 WL 1416730, at *1 (quoting Ridge Gold Std. Liquors, Inc. v. Joseph E. Seagram & Son, 572 F.Supp. 1210, 1213 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 17, 1983)). “Dismissal of a duplicative lawsuit ‘foster[s] judicial economy' and the ...

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