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Coastal Drilling Company LLC v. Creel

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

April 4, 2017

COASTAL DRILLING COMPANY, LLC
v.
BRANDON CREEL

         SECTION “R” (3)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          SARAH S. VANCE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant Brandon Creel's motion to dismiss Plaintiff Coastal Drilling Company, LLC's complaint for declaratory judgment.[1] For the following reasons, the Court grants defendant's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Coastal Drilling Company employed Creel as a floorhand on Rig 20, an inland waters drill barge operating in the navigable waters of Louisiana.[2] On July 17, 2016, Creel reported that he was involved in an accident on the drill floor, and alleged that he sustained injuries to his neck, right shoulder, multiple sections of his spine, and his hips.[3] On July 21, 2016, Coastal received a notice of representation from Creel's attorney in regard to the assertion of a Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act claim.[4] The following week, Creel's attorney requested that Coastal authorize follow up care with a physician of Creel's choice, which Coastal approved.[5]

         When Creel did not return to work, Coastal began maintenance payments to Creel. But Coastal also began surveilling Creel to determine if his activities were consistent with his complained-of injuries.[6] According to Coastal, Creel was observed and documented engaging in physical activity inconsistent with his alleged injuries.[7] For example, on October 20, 2016, Creel's doctor recommended arthroscopic surgery on Creel's right shoulder because of its alleged lack of response to conservative treatment, but Coastal alleges that it documented Creel lifting a spare tire out of a car with his right arm within hours of the doctor's recommendation.[8]

         Creel sought authorization from Coastal for the right shoulder surgery.[9] Based on its surveillance, Coastal scheduled an independent medical evaluation to take place on November 22, 2016. During the IME, Creel allegedly made statements inconsistent with the physical activity observed through surveillance.[10] The IME report stated that there was no evidence that Creel required right shoulder surgery, and after reviewing the surveillance footage, the IME physician stated that he would not recommend surgery.[11]

         Based on the IME report and recommendation, Coastal declined to authorize the surgery. According to Coastal, Creel intends to proceed with the surgery and to make a claim against Coastal for cure and/or damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees.[12] Coastal filed this action seeking declaratory relief that Creel is not entitled to maintenance and cure, damages, punitive damages, or attorney fees, and that Creel is obligated to reimburse Coastal for the maintenance already paid to Creel.[13]

         Creel now moves to dismiss Coastal's action, arguing that as a Jones Act seaman he has the right to have a jury decide his maintenance and cure claim, and that granting Coastal's declaratory judgment would deprive Creel of his right to a trial.[14] Coastal filed a response in opposition, [15] and Creel replied.[16] Additionally, on March 16, 2017, Creel filed a Jones Act complaint against Coastal and Peak Energy, LLC, seeking maintenance and cure, damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees.[17]

         II. DISCUSSION

         When “considering a declaratory judgment action, a district court must engage in a three-step inquiry.” Orix Credit Alliance, Inc. v. Wolfe, 212 F.3d 891, 895 (5th Cir. 2000). First, the court must determine whether the declaratory action is justiciable. Or, in other words, whether an “actual controversy” exists between the parties to the action. Id. Second, if the court has jurisdiction, it must determine whether it has the “authority” to grant declaratory relief. Id. Finally, the court must determine whether to exercise its discretion to decide or dismiss the declaratory action. Id.

         There is no question that the dispute at issue is justiciable because the issue of whether maintenance and cure is owed is an actual controversy. See, e.g., Rowan Companies, Inc. v. Blanton, 764 F.Supp. 1090 (E.D. La. 1991) (citing Rowan Companies Inc., v. Griffin, 876 F.2d 26, 28 (5th Cir. 1989)). Nor is the Court's authority to grant relief in question. Rather, the Court must decide whether to exercise its discretion to grant the requested relief.

         Federal courts have great discretion to entertain, stay, or dismiss a declaratory judgment action. Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277 (1995). In exercising this discretion, the Court must balance on the record the purposes of the Declaratory Judgment Act and the factors relevant to the abstention doctrine. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Fed'n, Inc., 996 F.2d 774, 778 (5th Cir. 1993). Among the factors that are relevant to this consideration are:

1) whether there is a pending state action in which all of the matters in controversy may be fully litigated; 2) whether the plaintiff filed suit in anticipation of a lawsuit filed by the defendant; 3) whether the plaintiff engaged in forum shopping in bringing the suit; 4) whether possible inequities in allowing the declaratory plaintiff to gain precedence in time or to change forums exist; 5) whether the federal court is a convenient forum for the parties ...

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