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Bell v. Board of Trustees of the Harvey Firefighters' Pension Fund

April 5, 2006

WILLIAM BELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE HARVEY FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blanche M. Manning United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

I. Background

Plaintiff William Bell brought the instant two-count complaint alleging that the defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Article I, § 2 of the Illinois Constitution when they denied him pension benefits without due process of law. According to the complaint, defendant Richard Stockwell, president of the defendant Board of Trustees of the Harvey Firefighters' Pension Fund ("Board"), summarily suspended Bell's pension benefits without notice or a hearing when Stockwell learned that Bell had been appointed Harvey's Public Safety Fire Administrator. Bell claims that the summary termination was part of a pattern and practice of suspending pension benefits of African-Americans who had returned to work for the city of Harvey while not doing so for white pensioners who also had returned to work for Harvey.

At the time the instant action was filed, a complaint for administrative review was pending in the Circuit Court of Cook County seeking review of the Board's vote suspending Bell's pension benefits. The circuit court remanded the case for further factual support, and the original Board members voted to affirm their initial decision. The circuit court then reversed the Board's decision and remanded the matter for a new hearing before the Board. In the instant motion, the Board contends that this court should abstain from hearing this action based on the Colorado River abstention doctrine, Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813 (1976). For the following reasons, the court finds that abstention is warranted and grants the motion.

II. Discussion

"Abstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is the exception, not the rule." Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813 (1976). Colorado River abstention is appropriate when considerations of "[w]ise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation," support abstention in favor of a pending state court case. Id. at 817. Under Colorado River, only the "clearest of justifications" warrants dismissal. 424 U.S. at 819.

Before a court can consider whether exceptional circumstances justify a stay under Colorado River, it must first consider whether the federal action is parallel to the state or foreign proceeding. See, e.g., Clark v. Lacy, 376 F.3d 682, 685 (7th Cir. 2004); LaDuke v. Burlington N.R.R. Co., 879 F.2d 1556, 1559 (7th Cir. 1989) (parallelism with respect to state and federal proceedings). The actions need not be identical to be parallel. See, e.g., Lumen Construction, Inc. v. Brant Construction Co., 780 F.2d 691, 694 (7th Cir. 1985). Instead, they must feature substantially the same parties litigating substantially similar issues. See, e.g., Interstate Material Corp. v. City of Chicago, 847 F.2d 1285, 1288 (7th Cir. 1988).

The fact that the parties in the state and federal actions are not identical does not necessarily mean that the "substantially the same parties" test cannot be satisfied. Lumen Construction, 780 F.2d at 695. This is because a plaintiff cannot control the parallel nature of concurrent proceedings simply by naming different parties in the federal case. Id. The true measure of whether parties are substantially the same is whether the parties and their litigation interests in the concurrent cases are substantially similar. Id. at 694; Caminiti and Iatarola, Ltd. v. Behnke Warehousing, Inc., 962 F.2d 698, 700-01 (7th Cir. 1992) (where different parties in state and federal actions shared a common interest in a fee dispute, parties were "substantially similar").

Similarly, the issues in the concurrent proceedings need not be identical to be substantially similar. Instead, issues are "substantially similar" when there is "a substantial likelihood that the state litigation will dispose of all claims presented in the federal case." Lumen Construction, 780 F.2d at 694. In determining whether issues are "substantially similar," the court must consider whether the different issues raised in concurrent proceedings filed by the same party share a common factual underpinning, so that the disposition of the state claims affects the disposition of the federal claims. See id. With these basic principles in mind, the court turns to the parties' arguments.

A. Are the Parties Parallel?

With respect to the parties, Bell is the plaintiff in both actions. Moreover, the Board is a defendant in both actions; however, individual board members are named in the instant action while they are not named in the state court administrative review action.

The absence of the individual board members from the state court case does not, in and of itself, destroy parallelism, as the Seventh Circuit has held that "the simple expedient of naming additional parties" does not necessarily allow a party to avoid the Colorado River doctrine.

Lumen Construction, 780 F.2d at 695; Rosser v. Chrysler Corp., 864 F.2d 1299, 1307 (7th Cir. 1989). Instead, if a party is named in a federal action but is not named in a state action, the inquiry regarding the parallelism of parties blends into the inquiry regarding the parallelism of issues. This means that, if there is "a substantial likelihood that the state litigation will dispose of all claims presented in the federal case," the presence of additional parties in a federal case will not destroy parallelism. Lumen Construction, 780 F.2d at 695. With this in ...


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