Bennett v. Williams et al
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 8/31/2017. (PSM)
2017 Aug-31 PM 04:34
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
WILLIAMS, et al.,
Memorandum of Opinion
Plaintiff Connie Bennett (“Bennett”) initially brought this action in
Alabama state court against Defendants Christopher N. Williams (“Williams”),
Werner Enterprises, Inc. (“Werner Enterprises”), Access Insurance Company
(“Access Insurance”) (collectively, “Defendants”), and several fictitious
defendants. The complaint alleges state-law claims arising out of a motor vehicle
accident. Defendants removed the case to this Court on April 13, 2017. (Doc. 1.)
Before this Court is Bennett’s Motion to Remand. (Doc. 5.) For the reasons stated
more fully herein, the motion is due to be granted and this matter remanded.
Bennett’s complaint alleges that on December 22, 2015, Bennett and
Williams were involved in a motor vehicle accident in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At the
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time of the accident, Williams was driving a tractor-trailer owned by his employer,
Werner Enterprises. Bennett was insured by, and a beneficiary of, a policy issued
by Access Insurance protecting against bodily injury, death, and property damage
from uninsured or underinsured motorists.
Standard of Review
This Court, like all federal courts, is a court “of limited jurisdiction.”
Jackson-Platts v. Gen. Elec. Capital Corp., 727 F.3d 1127, 1134 (11th Cir. 2013). It is
authorized to hear only those cases falling within “one of three types of subject
matter jurisdiction: (1) jurisdiction under a specific statutory grant; (2) federal
question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331; or (3) diversity jurisdiction
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a).” PTA-FLA, Inc. v. ZTE USA, Inc., 844 F.3d 1299,
1305 (11th Cir. 2016). A defendant may remove an action initially filed in state
court to federal court if the action is one over which the federal court has original
jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). “[A] defendant seeking to remove a case to a
federal court must file in the federal forum a notice of removal ‘containing a short
and plain statement of the grounds for removal.’” Dart Cherokee Basin Operating
Co. v. Owens, 135 S. Ct. 547, 553 (2014) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a)).
Defendants’ notice of removal (Doc. 1) claims that this Court may exercise
diversity jurisdiction over this action. Diversity jurisdiction exists if there is
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complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and the amount in
controversy exceeds $75,000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Where a defendant’s notice of
removal makes a good-faith claim for a specific amount in controversy, his
“allegation should be accepted when not contested by the plaintiff or questioned by
the court.” Dart Cherokee, 135 S. Ct. at 553.
However, when a defendant’s amount-in-controversy allegation is
“contested by the plaintiff or questioned by the court,” id., then “both [plaintiff
and defendant] submit proof and the court decides, by a preponderance of the
evidence, whether the amount-in-controversy requirement has been satisfied.” Id.
at 554. The Court must find that it is “more likely than not” that the plaintiff could
recover more than $75,000 from the defendants in order for jurisdiction to exist
under Section 1332. Roe v. Michelin N. Am., Inc., 613 F.3d 1058, 1061 (11th Cir.
2010). The removing party bears the burden of proof to establish that the amount
in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum. Dudley v. Eli Lilly and Co., 778
F.3d 909, 913 (11th Cir. 2014). Any doubt about the existence of federal jurisdiction
“should be resolved in favor of remand to state court.” City of Vestavia Hills v.
Gen. Fid. Ins. Co., 676 F.3d 1310, 1313 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Univ. of S. Ala. v.
Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 411 (11th Cir. 1999)).
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Defendants have alleged that the amount-in-controversy requirement has
been met due to the wide-ranging damages sought in Bennett’s complaint. (Doc. 1
at 4-7). Specifically, Defendants argue Bennett’s complaint seeks compensatory
damages for serious injury, pain and suffering, future medical expenses, loss of
ability to pursue normal activities, loss of earning capacity, lost wages, and property
damage, in addition to punitive damages. Though Bennett’s complaint and
Defendants’ Notice of Removal aver Bennett suffered “serious” and
“permanent” injuries as a result of the accident, neither is specific about the nature
and extent of those injuries. Id. The Court has questioned Defendants about the
sufficiency of Defendants’ amount-in-controversy allegations. In the same vein
Bennett in her motion to remand argues the Court lacks jurisdiction because the
amount in controversy does not exceed $75,000. (Doc. 5.) Thus, under Dart
Cherokee, this Court must look past the parties’ allegations to evidence submitted
by both sides of the amount in controversy. 135 S. Ct. at 554. In doing so the Court
“must make findings of jurisdictional fact to which the preponderance standard
applies.” Id. (quoting H.R.Rep. No. 112–10, p. 16 (2011)). If “the jurisdictional
amount is not facially apparent from the complaint,” this Court “look[s] to the
notice of removal and may require evidence relevant to the amount in controversy
at the time the case was removed.” Williams v. Best Buy Co., Inc., 269 F.3d 1316,
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1319 (11th Cir. 2001). “Where the pleadings are inadequate, [this Court] may
review the record to find evidence that diversity jurisdiction exists.” Id. at 1320.
In the notice of removal, Defendants rely solely on the allegations from the
complaint as set out above. These allegations are devoid of “specific facts on the
amount in controversy,” and Defendants have not provided “their own affidavits,
declarations, or other documentation” in support of federal jurisdiction. See Pretka
v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 752, 755 (11th Cir. 2010). The Court is
left with no evidence from Defendants from which it can draw “reasonable
inferences and deductions.” Dudley, 778 F.3d at 913 (quoting S. Fla. Wellness v.
Allstate Ins. Co., 745 F.3d 1312, 1315 (11th Cir. 2014)). “Serious” and “permanent”
injury accompanied by “pain and suffering” and “loss of ability to pursue normal
activities” could be a minor injury or total paralysis. The general allegations made
in the complaint and notice of removal simply do not provide the evidence needed
to analyze the amount in controversy. Bennett, on the other hand, offers evidence
that her medical expenses due to the “neck and back pain” she suffered as a result
of the accident total only $1,637.50. Where the sole definite expense shown by
either party does not exceed $2,000, it is difficult to imagine, using “judicial
experience and common sense, that [the] claim satisfies the amount-in-controversy
requirement,” Roe, 613 F.3d at 1064.
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Defendants cite Smith v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. from the United
States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama for the principle that if
Bennett does not “in [her] complaint formally and expressly disclaim any
entitlement to more than $74,999.99, and categorically state that [she] will never
accept more,” then she is subject to federal jurisdiction. 868 F. Supp. 2d 1333, 1335
(N.D. Ala. 2012). This opinion is not binding or persuasive authority. Defendants’
burden-shifting argument ignores Dart Cherokee’s removal inquiry and Eleventh
Circuit precedent. Dart Cherokee, 135 S. Ct. at 553-54; Dudley, 778 F.3d at 912-13;
see also Pretka, 608 F.3d at 754 (Defendant may prove amount in controversy by
“mak[ing] specific factual allegations establishing jurisdiction and . . . support[ing]
them . . . with evidence combined with reasonable deductions, reasonable
inferences, or other reasonable extrapolations.”). Defendants have failed to submit
any evidence that “with reasonable deductions, reasonable inferences, or other
reasonable extrapolations,” Pretka, 608 F.3d at 754, could show an amount in
controversy that “exceeds the sum or value of $75,000.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a).
Defendants also assert that Bennett’s claim for uninsured- or underinsuredmotorist benefits against Access Insurance is proof that she seeks more than
$75,000 in the action because federal law requires Werner Enterprises, Williams’
employer, to maintain at least $750,000 of insurance coverage. (Doc. 10. at 4.)
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According to Defendants, Bennett’s claim implies that Werner Enterprises “does
not have sufficient financial limits to cover [her] direct claims against [it] and Mr.
Williams alone because her claims would exceed this amount.” Id.
The Eleventh Circuit has not directly addressed Defendants’ argument that
Section 1332(a)’s amount in controversy can be established by Bennett’s claim for
uninsured- or underinsured-motorist benefits from her own insurer where the
Defendants’ primary policy limit exceeds $ 75,000. However, Friedman v. New
York Life Ins. Co. has suggested in dicta that it is not proper to consider the policy’s
face value as the amount in controversy, unless there is an actual dispute about the
face value of the policy. 410 F.3d 1350, 1357 (11th Cir. 2005) (“[If] there is no
controversy involving the face value of the policy, but only with regards to certain
premiums, it would make no sense to consider the policy’s face value to be the
amount in controversy.”). The Court declines to anchor Section 1332(a)’s
jurisdictional minimum on such a theory. There are many possible reasons why
Bennett included a claim for uninsured- or underinsured-motorist benefits. Werner
Enterprise’s insurance provider may seek to defend under a reservation of right, or
coverage may not be available if Williams was not operating in the scope of
employment during the accident. Defendants have not shown by a preponderance
of the evidence that Bennett’s claim against Access Insurance for uninsured- or
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underinsured-motorist benefits establishes amount in controversy that exceeds
For the reasons stated above, Bennett’s Motion to Remand (Doc. 5) is due
to be GRANTED, and this case is due to be remanded to the Circuit Court of
Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. A separate Order consistent with this opinion will be
DONE and ORDERED on August 31, 2017.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
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