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Wright v. Walden University, LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

April 21, 2017

Jennifer Wright, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Walden University, LLC, et al., Defendants. and Aaron Bleess, Plaintiff,
v.
Walden University, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          Paul A. Lesko, Esq. and Peiffer Rosea Wolf Abdullah Carr & Kane, APLC, counsel for plaintiffs Jennifer Wright, et al.

          Robert K. Shelquist, Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP, counsel for defendant Aaroon Bleess.

          Charles F. Knapp, Esq. and Sean R. Somermeyer, Esq. and Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, counsel for defendants.

          ORDER

          David S. Doty, Judge United States District Court

         This matter is before the court upon the motions to dismiss or, in the alternative, to stay the action by defendants Walden University, LLC and Laureate International Universities. Based on a review of the file, record, and proceedings herein, and for the following reasons, the court grants the motions.

         BACKGROUND

         I. The Wright Action

         Walden University is a for-profit, online university that offers a variety of bachelor, masters, and doctorate degrees.[1] No. 16-cv-4037, Compl. ¶¶ 29-30. Plaintiffs Jennifer Wright, Kelli Callahan, Janet Harrison, Pete Holubz, and Kelly Gardiner were doctoral students at Walden.[2] Id. ¶¶ 18-22. Plaintiffs claim that Walden represented to them and other prospective students that the doctoral program dissertation process would take 13-18 months and require five dissertation-level courses. Id. ¶ 3. Defendants allegedly knew, however, that it took substantially longer to complete the doctoral program but withheld this information from students. Id. ¶ 7. As a result, plaintiffs claim they spent substantially more time and money on the doctoral program than anticipated. Id. ¶¶ 13-15. Based on these alleged misrepresentations, plaintiffs filed this class action lawsuit on December 1, 2016, asserting claims of unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing against Walden and fraud in the inducement and violation the Minnesota Deceptive Trade Practices Act against both Walden and Laureate. Plaintiffs also asserted common law claims under the states of their respective residencies as an alternative state-wide subclass.

         II. The Thornhill Action

         On October 5, 2016, nearly two months before the Wright action, counsel for plaintiffs in the Wright action filed a class action lawsuit in the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of plaintiff LaTonya Thornhill.[3] See No. 2:16-cv-962 (S.D. Ohio), ECF No. 1. The complaint in Thornhill is nearly identical to the complaint filed in Wright: Thornhill asserts claims of breach of contract, unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing against Walden; fraud in the inducement and violation of the Minnesota Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act against both Walden and Laureate; and Ohio common law claims brought alternatively as an Ohio state-wide sublcass. Further, the claims are based on the same allegations in the Wright complaint, namely, that Walden misrepresented the amount of time it would take to complete the doctorate program.

         III. The Bleess Action

         On December 29, 2016, plaintiff Aaron Bleess filed a class action lawsuit, nearly identical to the complaints filed in Wright and Thornhill, against Walden and Laureate based on the same alleged misrepresentations.[4] See No. 16-4402, ECF No. 1. Bleess alleges claims of breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unjust enrichment against Walden and fraudulent inducement, violation of the Minnesota Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and violation of the Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act against both Walden and Laureate. Defendants move to dismiss, or in the alternative, to stay both the Wright and Bleess actions. On April 5, 2017, while the motions were pending, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation denied centralization of the above and other related actions.

         DISCUSSION

         It is well established that in cases of “concurrent jurisdiction, the first court in which jurisdiction attaches has priority to consider the case.” Orthmann v. Apple River Campground Inc., 765 F.2d 119, 121 (8th Cir. 1985). The first-filed rule is not “rigid, mechanical, or inflexible” and the court applies it to serve the interests of justice. Id. The rule exists “[t]o conserve judicial resources and avoid conflicting rulings.” Nw. Airlines, Inc. v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 989 F.2d 1002, 1006 (8th Cir. 1993). Absent compelling circumstances, “the first-filed rule gives priority, for purposes of choosing among possible venues when parallel litigation has been instituted in separate courts, to the party who first establishes jurisdiction.” Id. Parallel ...


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