May 29, 2014
Delaware Building & Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO
The University of Delaware et al.,
Date Submitted: May 21, 2014
The Plaintiff in this action contends that the Defendants are "subdivisions of the State" of Delaware, and thus subject to the prevailing wage provisions of 29 Del. C. § 6960. It seeks a declaratory judgment to that effect, and an injunction prohibiting the Defendants from violating that statute in the future. This Letter Opinion addresses whether the Complaint provides a sufficient basis for this Court to exercise equitable jurisdiction over this matter. For the following reasons, it does not.
On September 20, 2012, Plaintiff Delaware Building & Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO filed its Verified Complaint, alleging that the Defendants—the University of Delaware (the "University") and 1743 Holdings, LLC ("1743")—are "subdivisions of the State" under 29 Del. C. § 6960 (the "Prevailing Wage Law"), and thus subject to the requirements governing certain public works projects promulgated therein. In its Complaint, the Plaintiff requests a declaration that the Defendants "constitute a 'subdivision' of the State of Delaware and must comply with the Prevailing Wage Law, " as well as the "entry of a Permanent Injunction prohibiting the University and 1743 from undertaking public works projects subject to the Prevailing Wage Law without complying with its provisions."
On March 21, 2013, the Defendants moved for summary judgment; the Plaintiff cross-moved on March 13, 2014. In April, I requested a teleconference with the parties regarding whether the Court has equitable jurisdiction over this matter. During that teleconference, counsel for the Plaintiff argued that this Court had jurisdiction, and requested the opportunity to brief the issue. On May 21, 2014, the Plaintiff submitted its Memorandum of Law Regarding Equitable Jurisdiction. After reviewing the Plaintiff's Complaint, as well as its Memorandum, I conclude that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.
B. Subject Matter Jurisdiction
The Court of Chancery is a court of limited jurisdiction, and "can acquire subject matter jurisdiction over a case in three ways: (1) the invocation of an equitable right; (2) the request for an equitable remedy when there is no adequate remedy at law; or (3) a statutory delegation of subject matter jurisdiction.""[U]nlike many jurisdictions, judges in the Delaware Court of Chancery are obligated to decide whether a matter comes within the equitable jurisdiction of this Court regardless of whether the issue has been raised by the parties." When the issue of equitable jurisdiction is raised, by either the Court or one of the parties, the Plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating that such jurisdiction exists. In deciding whether this Court has equitable jurisdiction over a pending matter, I "must look beyond the remedies nominally being sought, and focus upon the allegations of the complaint in light of what the plaintiff really seeks to gain by bringing his or her claim."
The Plaintiff seeks both a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, relying on the latter as the basis for this Court's equitable jurisdiction. According to the Plaintiff, "[p]ast failures by Defendants to abide by all Prevailing Wage Law requirements create a reasonable belief that future violations will occur" such that "[t]he mere entry of a Declaratory Judgment would be inadequate, as it would only declare that the Defendants are subject to the Prevailing Wage Law, not require future compliance." Accordingly, the Plaintiff requests that this Court employ its "coercive powers" to ensure the Defendants' compliance with 29 Del. C. § 6960, if this Court finds that they are in fact bound by this statute.
In McMahon v. New Castle Associates, then-Chancellor Allen observed that "[a]t a minimum, for a complaint to properly state a claim cognizable in equity solely because of a request for an injunction, the facts alleged must, if assumed to be true, create a reasonable apprehension of a future wrong." Even accepting all facts alleged in the Complaint as true, the Plaintiff here has not sufficiently alleged facts that indicate the Defendants will shirk their duties under the Prevailing Wage Law if a declaratory judgment is issued in the Plaintiff's favor. The Plaintiff merely contends that, because the Defendants have purportedly not complied with this statute in the past, they will continue this alleged pattern of non-compliance even if a court were to declare that they are "subdivisions of the State" and thus bound by its requirements. However, that contention is insufficient to invoke the equitable jurisdiction of the Court, as "[t]his [C]ourt cannot permit its jurisdiction to be invoked simply on the basis of unsubstantiated fear that a legal duty may be breached in an uncertain future."
Here, assuming that the Plaintiff is correct that the Defendants are bound by Section 6960, the Plaintiff is simply wrong in its assertion that injunctive relief is required to compel "future compliance;" compliance is compelled by the statute itself. Although the Plaintiff argues that "[t]he mere entry of a Declaratory Judgment would be inadequate, as it would only declare that the Defendants are subject to the Prevailing Wage Law, "
it is not at all clear what purpose would be served by enjoining [the Defendants] from violating duly enacted statutes that it is already duty-bound to honor. The [Plaintiff's] request for injunctive relief of that nature both trivializes equity's role and implicitly suggests that the most powerful expression of a societal prohibition—an express statute forbidding conduct—is somehow insufficient without an "us, too" from the judicial branch.
In fact, as the Plaintiff itself points out in its Memorandum, penalties for breach of Section 6960 are already provided for, in the statute itself. Any injunctive order from this Court would be redundant of the directive of the legislature made by statute. Accordingly, I find that, although the Plaintiff's Complaint seeks injunctive relief, it does not "properly state a claim cognizable in equity." As such, I do not need to address the other arguments raised by the Plaintiff in its Memorandum of Law Regarding Equitable Jurisdiction.
Because the only other relief that the Plaintiff seeks is a declaratory judgment based in law and not equity, I find that this relief is available from the Superior Court. As "there is a full, complete, practical and efficient remedy at law, this Court is without jurisdiction to hear the matter."
Having found that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the Plaintiff's claims, this action is dismissed, unless the Plaintiff seeks to transfer this matter to Superior Court pursuant to 10 Del. C. § 1902.
Sam Glasscock III