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Media Alerts - VonRosenberg v. Lawrence -- Fourth Circuit
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April 30, 2015
  VonRosenberg v. Lawrence -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Battle of the Bishops -- Determining Federal Court Abstention for Declaratory and Non-Declaratory Claims

Area of Law: Civil Procedure

Issue Presented: Whether the district court properly abstained from hearing an action seeking both declaratory and non-declaratory relief while a concurrent state proceeding was underway.

Brief Summary: Bishop Charles vonRosenberg and Bishop Mark Lawrence are clergymen who each believe they are the leader of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina. Bishop vonRosenberg alleged that the Disciplinary Board of the Protestant Episcopal Church ousted Bishop Lawrence from his position but Bishop Lawrence improperly continued to use the Church's service marks and falsely advertised himself as the leader of the church. Bishop Lawrence maintains that he was not removed from office and that Bishop vonRosenberg serves only as leader of an unincorporated Episcopal association. Prior to Bishop vonRosenberg's district court lawsuit, some of Bishop Lawrence's supporters filed a suit in South Carolina state court against the church, alleging violations of service mark infringement and improper use of names, styles, and emblems. Bishop vonRosenberg then filed suit against Bishop Lawrence in federal district court seeking declaratory and non-declaratory relief for Bishop Lawrence's unauthorized use of the church's service marks and for falsely advertising himself as the leader, in violation of the Lanham Act. In response, Bishop Lawrence asked the district court to abstain due to the pending state court proceedings. The district court stayed the action because Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Co. of America and Wilton v. Seven Falls Co. afford federal courts broad discretion to abstain from deciding declaratory judgment actions when concurrent state proceedings are underway. Bishop vonRosenberg appealed, arguing the district court should have followed Colorado River Conservation District v. United States, wherein the Supreme Court held a federal court may only abstain from deciding non-declaratory claims if exceptional circumstances exist.

Prior to this case the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had never addressed which abstention standard applies to both declaratory and non-declaratory claims, but it joined other circuits and held that Colorado River should govern. According to the court, permitting courts broad discretion under Brillhart and Wilton would deprive a plaintiff from accessing a federal forum simply because he sought declaratory relief and an injunction or money damages. Since the district court did not apply the Colorado River standard, the Fourth Circuit vacated the stay and remanded for a determination of whether exceptional circumstances exist.

To read the full opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Motz, Gregory, and Wynn

Argument Date: 01/28/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/31/2015

Docket Number: No. 14-1122

Decided: Vacated and remanded by published opinion
Case Alert Author: Jamie Lee

Counsel: ARGUED: Richard C. Weidman, Great Falls, Virginia, Appellant Pro Se. Thomas Patrick Murphy, HUNTON & WILLIAMS, LLP, McLean, Virginia, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Arthur E. Schmalz, Ryan M. Bates, HUNTON & WILLIAMS LLP, McLean, Virginia, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion:
Judge Motz

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/30/2015 11:11 AM     4th Circuit  

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