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United States v. Nobel Learning Communities

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 19, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
NOBEL LEARNING COMMUNITIES d/b/a CHESTERBROOK ACADEMY, Defendant.

          JORDAN MILOWE ANGER, DAVID V. SIMUNOVICH OFFICE OF THE U.S. ATTORNEY On behalf of Plaintiff

          BONNIE M. HOFFMAN, ANDREW M. ERDLEN, HANGLEY ARONCHICK, SEGAL PUDLIN & SCHILLER CHERRY HILL, On behalf of Defendant

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case concerns Defendant's alleged violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12151-89. Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Stay and, Alternatively, for Partial Dismissal. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion to Stay is denied, as is Defendant's Motion for Partial Dismissal.

         I.

         The Court takes its facts from Plaintiff's January 18, 2017 complaint.[1] Defendant Nobel Learning Communities (NLC) is the owner and operator of Chesterbrook Academy ("Chesterbrook") in Moorestown, New Jersey. Chesterbrook offers daycare services and an educational foundation program for young children. M.M., born on July 11, 2011 with Down syndrome, enrolled at Chesterbrook on January 5, 2012.

         At Chesterbrook, diaper-changing services are provided to children enrolled in its "Infants, " "Toddlers, " "and "Beginners" programs. Diaper-changing services are not provided to children enrolled in its "Intermediates" or "Pre-K" programs.

         In December 2014, Chesterbrook informed M.M.'s parents of its intention to move M.M. into the "Intermediates" program. At that time, M.M. still required diapers. M.M. was moved into the "Intermediates" program on January 21, 2015. Chesterbrook worked with M.M. to try to get her toilet trained, setting a deadline pursuant to corporate policy for M.M. to be toilet trained by April 1, 2015.

         On March 26, 2015, Chesterbrook informed M.M.'s parents that M.M. was being expelled effective April 1, 2015 because she was not toilet trained. M.M.'s last day at Chesterbrook was March 31, 2015.

         Plaintiff brought a claim under Title III of the ADA asking for a declaration that Defendant violated Title III of the ADA, for Defendant to be enjoined from engaging in discrimination against individuals with disabilities and from failing to comply with Title III of the ADA, for an award of compensatory damages to M.M. and M.M.'s parents, and for a civil penalty against Defendant to vindicate the public interest. Defendant filed a Motion to Stay or, Alternatively, for Partial Dismissal on March 24, 2017.

         II.

         Defendant asks the Court to stay this action under the Colorado River abstention doctrine, arguing there is similar litigation in state court. In October 2016, the Director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights filed a complaint against NLC, alleging a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) based on Chesterbrook's treatment of M.M.

         This case and the state court case arise out of the same factual allegations.

Whether abstention is appropriate is a two-part inquiry. The initial question is whether there is a parallel state proceeding that raises "substantially identical claims [and] nearly identical allegations and issues." If the proceedings are parallel, courts then look to a multi-factor test to determine whether "extraordinary circumstances" meriting abstention are present.

Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. George V. Hamilton, Inc., 571 F.3d 299, 307-08 (3d Cir. 2009) (alteration in original) (first quoting Yang v. Tsui, 416 F.3d 199, 204 n.5 (3d Cir. 2005); and then quoting Spring City Corp. v. Am. Bldgs. Co., 193 F.3d 165, 171 (3d Cir. 1999)). "The doctrine is to be narrowly applied in light of the general principle that 'federal courts have a strict duty to exercise the jurisdiction that is conferred upon them by Congress.'" Id. at 307 (quoting Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 717 (1996)).

         The Court first looks to whether the federal and state cases are parallel. See, e.g., Trent v. Dial Med., 33 F.3d 217, 223 (3d Cir. 1994). "Generally, cases are parallel so as to justify abstention under Colorado River when they involve the same parties and claims." Id. However, the Third Circuit has applied Colorado River abstention even where the parties were not "perfectly identical, " but were "substantially the same." Barron v. Caterpillar, Inc., No. 95-5149, 1996 WL 368335, at *2 n.2 (E.D. Pa. June 26, 1996); accord Mamouzette v. Jerome, No. 13-117, 2017 WL 3083628, at *8 (D.V.I. July 19, 2017) ("[C]omplete identity of parties is not required to satisfy the first prong. Courts look past the names and number of parties in determining whether there is an identity of parties for purposes of the abstention doctrine."); Glades Pharm., LLC v. Call, Inc., No. 04-4259, 2005 WL 563726, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 9, 2005) ("Two actions may involve different parties and still be parallel so long as there is a substantial similarity between the two actions.").

         In this action, Plaintiff is the United States of America and Defendant is NLC. In the state court action, the plaintiff is the Director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, and the defendant is also NLC. Accordingly, the defendants are the same, but the plaintiffs are different - one a state entity and one a federal entity. Defendant argues that, while the two cases "are nominally brought by different parties, " that "the real party in interest is indisputably M.M." Plaintiff counters that it is not a party to the state litigation, and this action was filed on behalf of the United States of America, not on behalf of M.M. or her parents. This Court agrees that this is significant.

         The plaintiffs in the state and federal actions are different, representing separate and distinct government entities. While the discrimination alleged was directed toward the same individual, this does not affect the parties listed on the complaint in the sense their interests are broader. Indeed, neither are actions where a party is bringing suit on behalf of another. While the Third Circuit has not required complete identity of parties, this Court's purview of the case law reveals that this leniency is adopted largely for where the parties are switched, such that a plaintiff in the federal action is a defendant in the state action (and vice versa)[2] and where there are additional parties to one action that are not included in the other, but where the parties are otherwise identical.[3] This is not such a case. This Court has not found a case where circumstances similar to these warranted a finding that the parties were "essentially identical, " and this Court is not convinced that such a finding would be appropriate.

         Further, this Court does not find the federal and state actions concern the same claims. "The courts have been cautious in finding actions that are merely similar to be duplicative." Certain Underwriters at Lloyds, London v. Ross, No. 98-1037, 1998 WL 372304, at *2 (E.D. Pa. 1998). "[W]hile certain issues to be litigated in the . . . federal claim may be identical to issues that have been or will be raised ... in state court, the lack of identity of all issues necessarily precludes Colorado River abstention." Univ. of Md. v. Peat Marwick Main & Co., 923 F.2d 265, 276 (3d Cir. 1991).

         The federal complaint alleges a violation of the ADA, whereas the state complaint alleges a violation of the NJLAD. There is no doubt the federal and state actions involve common facts, and that the legal analyses will have much overlap. However, "[t]he Colorado River analysis . . . turns on the claims brought, rather than upon whether or not those claims can trace their origin to a common nucleus of operative facts." Oliver v. Sid Bernstein, Ltd., No. 96-4471, 1997 WL 135751, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 11, 1997). Where two cases "employ[] substantially different 'approaches' and might 'achieve potentially different results, '" Colorado River abstention is inappropriate. See Trent, 33 F.3d at 224. This is such a case. Plaintiff's claim in the federal action falls under an entirely different statute than the state action. While the state statute often borrows from the federal statute, that does not make them identical, and relief under one statute does not require relief under the other.[4] Nor does it appear the remedies are the same.[5]

         In any event, a full analysis of the Colorado River factors fails to convince this Court that extraordinary circumstances are present here, meriting abstention.

         The factors which govern a district court's exercise of discretion in deciding whether to ...


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