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Sunday, February 4, 2018

The WA and Federal Priority of Action Rules

by Gregory Williams, Esq. | Under both Washington State and federal laws, are there two separate Priority of Action Rules? Here’s my point of view (NOTE: please read our DISCLAIMER before proceeding).


The Washington Priority of Action Rule provides that the first court to obtain jurisdiction over a case possesses exclusive jurisdiction to the exclusion of other coordinate courts. American Mobile Homes of Wash., Inc. v. Seattle-First Nat’l Bank, 115 Wn.2d 307, 317, 796 P.2d 1276 (1990). Generally, the term “coordinate courts” as it applies to the Rule refers to courts in different counties within the Washington State court system. See id. at 323 (holding that the superior court may not consolidate cases pending in different counties in applying the Washington Priority of Action Rule). The courts have been clear on this point; for example, in Atlantic Casualty Ins. Co. v. Oregon Mut. Ins. Co., 137 Wn. App. 296, 304, 153 P.3d 211 (Wash.App. Div. 2 2007), the court held that the unseemly and expensive jurisdictional conflict that the Washington State Priority of Action Rule is designed to avoid is one superior court trying to correct another.    


This principle was further illuminated by the Washington State Supreme Court in Mobile Homes of Wash., Inc. v. Seattle-First Nat’l Bank, 115 Wn.2d at 317, when it held that the Federal courts have their own Priority of Action Rule applicable to coordinate courts within the Federal court systemMobile Homes of Wash., 115 Wn.2d at 317.

Thus, it is manifestly evident that there is a distinct Federal Priority of Action Rule and a distinct Washington Priority of Action Rule that do not apply between the two court systems, and both the Federal Circuit Courts and Supreme Court have echoed this principle.


Undeniably, “[t]he rule is well recognized that the pendency of an action in the state court is no bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court having jurisdiction." Ryan v. Johnson, 115 F.3d 193, 195 (3rd Cir. 1997). The general rule regarding simultaneous litigation of similar issues in both state and federal courts is that both actions may proceed until one has come to judgment, at which point that judgment may create a res judicata or collateral estoppel effect on the other action. University of Maryland v. Peat Marwick Main & Co., 923, F.2d 265, 275-76 (3rd Cir. 1991)  (citing McClellan v. Carland, 217 U.S. 268, 282, 30 S.Ct. 501, 504-505, 54 L.Ed. 762 (1910); Stanton v. Embrey, 93 U.S. 548, 554, 23 L.Ed. 983 (1877)) (quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added).

Particularly, the 9th Circuit has held that “[t]he rule that permits simultaneous litigation in state and federal court of overlapping and even identical cases is deeply rooted in our system.” Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1159 (9th Cir. 2003). Parallel state and federal litigation is inherent in our legal system, and the possibility of duplicative litigation is a price of federalism. Id. (citation omitted).  Moreover, the U.S. Supreme court has recognized that the rule can produce inefficient simultaneous litigation in state and federal courts on the same issue, but the court has held that this is one of the costs of our dual court system. Id. (citing Parsons Steel, Inc. v. First Ala. Bank, 474 U.S. 518, 524-25, 106 S.Ct. 768, 88 L.Ed.2d 877 (1986); Doran v. Salem Inn, Inc., 422 U.S. 922, 928, 95 S.Ct. 2561, 45 L.Ed.2d 648 (1975).

The 9th Circuit in Noel v. Hall, supra, further explained, "The inefficiencies produced by the rule permitting simultaneous litigation in state and federal court are mitigated by a number of abstention doctrines [i.e., Younger abstention, Pullman abstention, Burford abstention, and Colorado River abstention] that permit, and often require, a federal court to abstain in favor of state court litigation.” Id. at 1159-60. “In addition, a federal court may stay its proceedings based on comity even when none of the absention doctrines requires that it do so.” Id. (citing  Deakins v. Monaghan, 484 U.S. 193, 202-03, 108 S.Ct. 523, 98 L.Ed.2d 529 (1988).


Poignantly, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atlantic Coast Line Railroad v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 398 U.S. 281, 295, 90 S.Ct. 1739, 26 L.Ed.2d 234 (1970),

[T]he state and federal courts had concurrent jurisdiction in this case, and neither court was free to prevent either party from simultaneously pursuing claims in both courts.  (emphasis added).

Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d at 1159 (internal citation omitted).


There is a Washington State and federal Priority of Action Rule. The Washington Priority of Action Rule only applies to coordinate courts within the Washington State court system; and neither rule applies between coordinate courts of the Federal court system and the Washington State court system.  


If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced Attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Please note: the information contained in this article is not offered as legal advice and will not form an attorney-client relationship with either this author or Williams Law Group, PS; please see our DISCLAIMER.

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