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Progressive Mountain Insurance Co. v. MJ Night Rider Transport LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

October 3, 2019

Progressive Mountain Insurance Company, Petitioner,
MJ Night Rider Transport LLC, et al., Respondents.

          OPINION & ORDER

          Michael L. Brown United States District Judge

         Petitioner Progressive Mountain Insurance Company (“Progressive”) seeks a declaratory judgment from the Court decreeing that it has no obligations to Respondents under an auto insurance policy and moves for summary judgment. The only Respondent to engage in this litigation, MJ Night Rider Transport, LLC (“Night Rider”), contends the Court has no subject matter jurisdiction over this action because no justiciable case or controversy exists. The Court agrees, denies Petitioner's motion for summary judgment, and dismisses this action without prejudice for lack of standing.

         I. Background Facts

         Respondent Night Rider is an auto transport company. (Dkt. 20-3 ¶ 1.)[1] In 2017, Respondent Night Rider owned a Dodge Ram truck and automotive transport trailer. (Id. ¶ 2.) It insured both through an auto insurance policy with Petitioner Progressive. (Id. ¶ 3.) Night Rider allowed no one to use the truck for personal errands, only for transportation jobs. (Id. ¶ 6.) When not being used for business, Night Rider kept it at a storage facility. (Id. ¶ 5.)

         In June 2017, Respondent Mackenzie Minter drove the truck (without the trailer) to a gas station to meet Respondent Janelle Jordan and exchange custody of their minor son. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.) He was not working for Night Rider at the time. (Id. ¶ 2.) Respondent Alohondro Custis was with Jordan. (Id. ¶ 10.) Jordan and Minter began arguing in the parking lot, causing Custis to get out of Jordan's car and begin arguing with Minter. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) Minter got back in the truck and intentionally drove the truck at Custis. (Id. ¶ 12.) He hit Custis and then drove into Jordan's vehicle, hurting her and damaging her car. (Id. ¶ 13.)

         Minter had driven the truck for Night Rider at other times but had no permission to drive it to that gas station. (Id. ¶ 15.) He was on personal business. (Id. ¶¶ 17-19.) Night Rider admits Minter's use of the vehicle “was not authorized, not with permission, and was not a use connected with the business of” MJ Night Rider Transport, LLC. (Dkt. 23 at 2.) It further admits that Minter was engaged in an intentional criminal act when he struck Custis and ran into Jordan's car. (Id.)

         Petitioner filed this petition for a declaratory judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 that it need not provide coverage or indemnification to Night Rider or Minter for any injury or damage arising from Minter's actions. (Dkt. 1 ¶ 8.) Respondent Night Rider timely filed its answer, contending that “no actual controversy exists between it and the Petitioner.” (Dkt. 7 at 1.) Respondent Night Rider, however, did not move to dismiss. None of the individual Respondents answered the complaint, and the Clerk entered default against them. (Dkt. 17.) The Court ordered the parties to file supplemental notice properly listing the citizenship of each member of all LLC parties so it could assess diversity of citizenship. (Dkt. 18.) The parties complied, and the Court found all parties diverse.[2] (Dkts. 19; 21-22.)

         Petitioner moved for summary judgment. (Dkt. 20.) Respondent Night Rider responded, accepting Petitioner's statement of facts but arguing the Court must dismiss the complaint because no actual or justiciable controversy exists. (Dkt. 23 at 6-7.) Petitioner did not reply. The individual Respondents remain in default and had no involvement in the case.

         II. Legal Standard

         “Any time doubt arises as to the existence of federal jurisdiction, [district courts] are obliged to address the issue before proceeding further.” Atlanta Gas Light Co. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 68 F.3d 409, 414 (11th Cir. 1995). Constitutional standing is “a threshold jurisdictional question which must be addressed prior to and independent of the merits of a party's claims.” Dillard v. Chilton Cty. Comm'n, 495 F.3d 1324, 1330 (11th Cir. 2007); see also Atlanta Gas Light Co., 68 F.3d at 413 (vacating and remanding for dismissal when “district court made no determination as to the existence of a justiciable case or controversy [yet] proceeded to address the merits of the summary judgment motions”).

         III. Discussion

         “Article III of the Constitution limits federal courts to adjudicating actual ‘cases' and ‘controversies.' ” A&M Gerber Chiropractic, LLC v. GEICO Gen. Ins. Co., 925 F.3d 1205, 1210 (11th Cir. 2019). And “[d]istrict courts may consider declaratory judgment suits [under the Declaratory Judgment Act] only where a ‘definite and concrete' controversy exists.” Owners Ins. Co. v. Parsons, 610 Fed.Appx. 895, 896- 97 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Fla. v. Kraus- Anderson Constr. Co., 607 F.3d 1268, 1275 n.14 (11th Cir. 2010)); see 28 U.S.C. § 2201 (providing that a court may issue a declaratory judgment “[i]n a case of actual controversy within its jurisdiction”).

         As part of this case-or-controversy requirement, a plaintiff must establish that he has “standing” to invoke the power of a federal court to decide the merits of a particular dispute. See Malowney v. Fed. Collection Deposit Grp., 193 F.3d 1342, 1346 (11th Cir. 1999). “The failure to establish standing can deprive a federal court of jurisdiction.” Esteves v. SunTrust Banks, Inc., 615 Fed.Appx. 632, 635 (11th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         To establish Article III standing, a “plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016) (citing Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992)). At a minimum, therefore, a plaintiff must “show . . . that he has suffered an injury in fact-some harm to a legal interest that is actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” Bowen v. First Family Fin. Servs., Inc.,233 F.3d 1331, 1339 (11th Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). “[O]nly when he alleges facts from which it appears there is a substantial likelihood that he will suffer injury in the future” will a plaintiff have standing to seek declaratory relief. Id. at 1340 (emphasis added). An allegation of a possibility that future injury may occur “is not sufficient to satisfy the actual controversy requirement for declaratory judgments.” Malowney, 193 F.3d at 1347 (internal quotation marks ...

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