Shiver et al v. Trudel et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that Plaintiffs' Motion to Remand 9 is GRANTED, and that this action is REMANDED to the Circuit Court of Macon County, Alabama, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). The Clerk of the Court is DIRECTED to take appropriate steps to effect the remand. Signed by Chief Judge William Keith Watkins on 4/19/2012. (jg, ) Modified on 4/19/2012 Certified copy of docket sheet and order mailed to Circuit Clerk for Macon County (jg, ).
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
APRIL C. SHIVER, et. al.,
HOLLY LYN TRUDEL, et al.,
) CASE NO. 3:11-CV-917-WKW
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Defendants timely removed this action from the Circuit Court of Macon
County, Alabama, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441 and 1446(b), asserting that
complete diversity and the jurisdictional amount are satisfied.1 Before the court is
Plaintiffs’ motion to remand (Doc. # 9), which has been fully briefed (Docs. # 12, 14).
Based upon counsels’ arguments, the relevant law, and the record as a whole,
Plaintiffs’ motion is due to be granted.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Federal courts have a strict duty to exercise the jurisdiction conferred on them
by Congress. Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 716 (1996). At the
Section 1441(b) recently was amended and became effective on January 6, 2012. See
Federal Courts Jurisdiction & Venue Clarification Act of 2011, Pub. L. No. 112–63, 125 Stat.
758. Because this action was commenced prior to the Act’s effective date, the Act does not
apply to this action. See id.
same time, “[f]ederal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.” Burns v. Windsor Ins.
Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (11th Cir. 1994). Hence, in actions removed from state court
to federal court, federal courts strictly construe removal statutes, resolve all doubts in
favor of remand, and place the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction on the
defendant. Miedema v. Maytag Corp., 450 F.3d 1322, 1328–30 (11th Cir. 2006).
A federal district court may exercise subject matter jurisdiction over a civil
action in which only state law claims are alleged if the civil action arises under the
federal court’s diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Section 1332(a)(1)
confers jurisdiction on the federal courts when the dispute is between “citizens of
different States,” and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, exclusive of interest
and costs. Id.
Where the complaint alleges unspecified damages, the removing party bears the
burden of establishing the jurisdictional amount by a preponderance of the evidence.
Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 752 (11th Cir. 2010). In some
cases, the preponderance burden “requires the removing defendant to provide
additional evidence demonstrating that removal is proper.” Roe v. Michelin N. Am.,
Inc., 613 F.3d 1058, 1061 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Pretka, 608 F.3d at 744). “In other
cases, however, it may be ‘facially apparent’ from the pleading itself that the amount
in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum, even when ‘the complaint does
not claim a specific amount of damages.’” Id. (quoting Pretka, 608 F.3d at 754). In
either case, the amount in controversy must be measured as of the time of removal, not
by events occurring afterward. See Pretka, 608 F.3d at 751.
The allegations in the Complaint are sparse on details, but are sufficient to
reveal the following. On May 13, 2011, Defendant Holly Lyn Trudel was operating
a motor vehicle within the line and scope of her employment for Defendant J. B. Hunt
Transport, Inc. It can be inferred that a collision occurred between Ms. Trudel’s and
Plaintiffs’ vehicles, as Plaintiffs allege that Ms. Trudel negligently and wantonly
caused severe bodily injuries to the five Plaintiffs.2 Plaintiffs are April C. Shiver,
Carrie Ellison, Carrie Shiver, and two minor children.
Plaintiffs bring claims for negligence and wantonness against Defendants,
seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for their injuries. One
Plaintiff suffered injuries to his arm, clavicle, hand, and ear; three Plaintiffs injured
their backs; and the fifth Plaintiff sustained injuries to her nose, hand, and jaw.
Plaintiffs seek compensatory damages for medical treatment, pain and suffering,
mental anguish, permanent injury, and permanent disfigurement, and punitive
Although not alleged in the Complaint, Plaintiffs indicate in their motion to remand that
Ms. Trudel was driving a tractor trailer owned by Defendant J.B. Hunt Transport and collided
with Plaintiffs’ automobile.
damages on the wantonness claims. Plaintiffs further allege that the “amount in
controversy exceeds $50,000” (Compl. 2), and the ad damnum clause seeks damages
“in an amount deemed appropriate under the circumstances” (Compl. 18). Defendants
removed this action within thirty days of receiving Plaintiffs’ initial pleading,
asserting that this action satisfies the requirements of diversity jurisdiction pursuant
to § 1332.
There is no dispute that Plaintiffs and Defendants are of diverse citizenship. The
only issue is whether § 1332(a)’s amount in controversy was present at the time of
removal. Defendants argue that the allegations of the Complaint sustain their burden
of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy as to
at least one Plaintiff exceeds $75,000.3 Defendants initially point out that the
Complaint establishes by admission that at least $50,000 is in controversy. They
contend that this admission, coupled with the allegations of severe bodily injury,
The parties agree that the Complaint contains indeterminate damages and, thus, that the
preponderance of evidence standard governs Defendants’ removal burden. See Fed. Mut. Ins.
Co. v. McKinnon Motors, LLC, 329 F.3d 805, 808 (11th Cir. 2003) (A prayer for damages is
indeterminate when it “‘does not allege a specific amount of damages.’”); see also Barnes v.
JetBlue Airways Corp., No. 07-60441, 2007 WL 1362504, at *1 & n.1 (S.D. Fla. May 7, 2007)
(finding that damages were unspecified where the removed complaint alleged damages in excess
of $15,000, but less than $75,000).
which include alleged permanent injuries and disfigurement and wanton conduct,
clearly demonstrate that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.
Plaintiffs counter that the Complaint alleges a minimum amount in controversy
of $50,000 to invoke the appellate jurisdiction of the Alabama Supreme Court, see
Ala. Code § 12-3-10, and is insufficient to establish that more than $75,000 is at issue.
Plaintiffs further contend that no discovery has been conducted, and no evidence has
been introduced as to the severity of the alleged injuries or the value of the punitive
damages claim. They contend that absent any evidence and on the Complaint alone,
Defendants’ assertion that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 is “purely
speculative.” (Doc. # 14, at 4.)
In this action timely removed based upon the initial pleading, Pretka permits
consideration of evidence outside the removal petition, see 608 F. 3d at 754–55;
however, there is no evidence. Defendants choose instead to rely solely on the
Complaint, but the determination of whether the amount in controversy is apparent
from the face of the Complaint presents a quandary:
[I]n situations like the present one – where damages are unspecified and
only the bare pleadings are available – we are at a loss as to how to apply
the preponderance burden meaningfully. We have no evidence before
us by which to make any informed assessment of the amount in
controversy. All we have are the representations relating to jurisdiction
in the notice of removal and the allegations of the . . . complaint. As
such [sic], any attempt to engage in a preponderance of the evidence
assessment at this juncture would necessarily amount to unabashed
guesswork, and such speculation is frowned upon.
Lowery v. Ala. Power Co., 483 F.3d 1184, 1210–11 (11th Cir. 2007).
This quandary is a familiar one. Last year, in another case before this court, the
removing defendant relied on the pleadings as its sole proof of the amount in
controversy. See Justice v. Jeff Lindsey Cmtys., Inc., No. 3:10cv888-WKW, 2011 WL
744773 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 25, 2011). In Justice, a slip-and-fall case predicated on
negligence and wantonness claims, the issue was whether the complaint, which sought
recovery for severe head injuries, sustained the removing defendant’s burden to prove
§ 1332(a)’s amount in controversy where damages were unspecified. See id.
Notwithstanding that punitive damages were sought and wanton conduct was alleged,
the court found that the allegations alone failed to prove that more than $75,000 was
at stake because the allegations did not reveal “[t]he nature, severity, and degree of
permanence of [the p]laintiff’s head injuries.” Id. at *3. Other district courts have
reached the same conclusion when presented only with a barebones complaint on
removal. See Channell v. Nutrition Distrib., LLC, No. 08cv794, 2008 WL 5114314,
at *1 (M.D. Ala. Dec. 4, 2008) (claims for punitive damages and damages for
permanent injuries did not permit the court to assume that the $75,000 amount in
controversy was satisfied, without sufficient allegations or evidence by which to
appraise the value of the claims); Jackson v. Am. Gen. Fin. Servs., Inc., No. 7:06cv19,
2006 WL 997614, at *3 (M.D. Ga. Apr. 17, 2006) (finding that the amount in
controversy was not satisfied where the defendant relied solely on the demand for
punitive damages and provided no evidence to show that the amount of punitive
damages would exceed the jurisdictional requirement).
It may be that the Complaint places a minimum of $50,000 at stake, but there
are insufficient allegations from which to conclude that the amount in controversy
exceeds $75,000. The Complaint provides no reliable indication of the specific
amount of compensatory or punitive damages sought by Plaintiffs. The allegations
of permanent injury and permanent disfigurement are boilerplate, and there is no
factual detail from which the nature, severity and degree of permanence of the alleged
injuries can be quantified. There also are no facts describing how Defendants acted
wantonly. Overall, the Complaint rests largely on legal conclusions and does not
provide a factual basis upon to ascertain whether the amount in controversy exceeds
$75,000, as required to establish diversity jurisdiction. To extrapolate a specific
amount of damages from the Complaint would require speculation. Hence, the
Complaint does not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in
controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum.
Defendants contend, however, that common sense dictates that the amount in
controversy exceeds $75,000 where there are allegations of serious injuries resulting
from allegedly wanton conduct and punitive damages are at issue. It is true that
“judicial experience and common sense” need not be cast aside in assessing the
amount-in-controversy requirements, Roe, 613 F.3d at 1064, and that a request for
punitive damages must factor into the analysis of the amount in controversy. Holley
Equip. Co. v. Credit Alliance Corp., 821 F.2d 1531, 1535 (11th Cir. 1987). However,
the amount in controversy cannot be measured in a factual vacuum, as discussed, or
absent a factual predicate that Plaintiffs are “likely to be awarded substantial punitive
damages.” SUA Ins. Co. v. Classis Home Builders, LLC, 751 F. Supp. 2d 1245, 1255
(S.D. Ala. 2010); accord Butler v. Charter Comm., Inc., 755 F. Supp. 2d 1192, 1195
(M.D. Ala. 2010). Because the Complaint is inconclusive on damages, the absence
of evidence pertaining to the value of the punitive damages claim precludes
Defendants from satisfying their removal burden.4
Defendants also cite other allegedly similar cases where jury verdicts yielded more than
$75,000. However, given only a Complaint that is devoid of any factual particulars, the court
“cannot possibly ascertain how similar the current action is to those the defendants cite.”
Lowery, 483 F.3d at 1221.
For the forgoing reasons, Defendants have not established § 1332(a)’s amount
in controversy by a preponderance of the evidence. Accordingly, it is ORDERED that
Plaintiffs’ Motion to Remand (Doc. # 9) is GRANTED, and that this action is
REMANDED to the Circuit Court of Macon County, Alabama, pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 1447(c). The Clerk of the Court is DIRECTED to take appropriate steps to effect
DONE this 19th day of April, 2012.
/s/ W. Keith Watkins
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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