Gambrell et al v. IDS Property Casualty Insurance Company et al

Filing 14

ORDER that Plaintiffs' 7 Motion to Remand is GRANTED. Defendant Harrish's 5 Motion to Dismiss is DENIED AS MOOT. This case, 4:12-cv-00661 is hereby severed from 2:12-cv-01227 and remanded to Pima County Superior Court, and the Clerk of Court shall enter judgment and close the file in 4:12-cv-00661. Case No. 2:12-cv-01227 shall remain on this Court's docket for disposition in due course. Signed by Judge John W Sedwick on 12/21/2012. (LFIG)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 8 DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 IDS Property Casualty Insurance Company, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) vs. ) ) ) Frank and Bettina Gambrell, et al., ) ) Defendants. ) ) ) ) Frank and Bettina Gambrell, ) ) Plaintiffs, ) ) vs. ) ) IDS Property Casualty Insurance Company; ) Stacey Harrish, ) ) Defendants. ) ) 2:12-cv-01227 JWS (Lead Case) 4:12-cv-00661 JWS ORDER AND OPINION [Re: Motions at dockets 5 and 7 in 4:12-cv-00661] 22 I. MOTIONS PRESENTED 23 Defendant Stacey Harrish (“Harrish”) filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to 24 Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure at docket 5 in Tucson Case 25 No. 4:12-cv-00661 (“Tucson Case”), which Harrish and Defendant IDS Property 26 Casualty Insurance Company (“IDS”; collectively “Defendants”) removed from Pima 27 28 -1- 1 County Superior Court. In the motion to dismiss, Harrish argues that she was an 2 improperly named party against whom no cause of action can lie. 3 About two weeks after Harrish filed her motion to dismiss, plaintiffs Frank and 4 Bettina Gambrell (“Gambrells” or “plaintiffs”)1 filed a motion at docket 7 to remand the 5 Tucson Case back to Pima County Superior Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c), 6 arguing that there is not complete diversity because Harrish is a resident of Arizona. 7 Defendants filed an opposition at docket 11 in the Tucson Case. While they 8 acknowledge that Harrish is a resident of Arizona, they assert that she was “fraudulently 9 joined” to the case while it was in state court, meaning they believe plaintiffs have no 10 valid cause of action against Harrish, and thus, her inclusion was designed to block 11 federal diversity jurisdiction. 12 The Gambrells asked the court to stay the briefing on Harrish’s motion to dismiss 13 until the court resolved the jurisdictional issues in the motion to remand,2 but the court 14 denied the request, opting to consider the motions together, given the similarity of the 15 issue at stake in both motions – i.e., whether a claim of bad faith against Harrish exists 16 under Arizona law.3 17 The court consolidated the Tucson Case with Phoenix case 2:12-cv-01227 18 (“Lead Case”), which is IDS’s related declaratory judgment action against the 19 Gambrells. After consolidation, the Gambrells subsequently filed their opposition to 20 Harrish’s motion to dismiss at docket 22 in the Lead Case and filed their reply to the 21 motion to remand at docket 20. Harrish filed her reply to her motion to dismiss at 22 docket 23 in the Lead Case. Both parties requested oral argument, but this court 23 24 25 26 1 The Gambrells are the defendants in the Lead Case (2:12-cv-01227), but because the motions at docket 5 and docket 7 were filed in the Tucson Case, the court refers to them as the plaintiffs. 27 2 28 3 Doc. 8. Doc. 21. -2- 1 concludes that the briefing for the two motions is extensive and thorough and oral 2 argument is not necessary. 3 II. BACKGROUND 4 The two cases involving the Gambrells and IDS arise out of an automobile 5 accident that occurred March 4, 2011, in which Frank Gambrell sustained personal 6 injuries after another car crossed the center line and collided with the truck Gambrell 7 was driving. The truck was owned by Frank Gambrell’s employer. His medical 8 expenses totaled over $87,000, and his loss of earnings totaled over $6,000. The 9 Gambrells settled with the tort feasor’s insurance carrier for the $15,000 liability limit. 10 He then pursued a claim under the insurance policy that Gambrell’s employer 11 maintained on the truck involved in the accident. That policy had underinsured motorist 12 coverage in the amount of $100,000, and Gambrell collected the full amount under that 13 policy. But, because the amount Gambrell collected from the tort feasor’s policy and his 14 employer’s policy was allegedly inadequate to compensate Gambrell, he filed a claim for 15 $100,000 under his personal auto insurance policy that he maintained with IDS. IDS 16 assigned Harrish to adjust the claim. They denied Gambrell’s claim. Gambrells asked 17 defendants to reconsider their denial and pointed out reasons why they thought the 18 denial was improper, but defendants maintained their denial.4 19 On June 8, 2012, after the parties were unable to settle the claim, IDS initiated a 20 declaratory relief action in federal court by filing the complaint in the Lead Case. In the 21 complaint, IDS asks the court to judicially determine the parties’ dispute over coverage. 22 On July 25, 2012, plaintiffs filed the underlying complaint in the Tucson Case in state 23 court. The complaint originally alleged a breach of contract and bad faith claim against 24 IDS.5 On August 3, 2012, shortly after defendants declined plaintiffs’ request to 25 26 27 28 4 The background facts are taken from the First Amended Complaint, which is filed at doc. 1-3 at p. 20 in the Tucson Case. 5 Doc. 1-3 at p. 12. -3- 1 stipulate to a remand in the Lead Case, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint in state 2 court, adding Harrish as a defendant and alleging that Harrish was assigned to adjust 3 the claim and that both defendants owed a duty of good faith and fair dealing to 4 plaintiffs, which they breached when they refused without reasonable basis to provide 5 benefits under the policy.6 On September 4, 2012, defendants filed their notice of 6 removal.7 As noted above, after the motions to dismiss and remand were filed, the 7 court consolidated the two cases, and all filings have since been lodged in the Lead 8 Case. 9 10 11 III. STANDARD OF REVIEW A. Motion to dismiss A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil 12 Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a plaintiff’s claims. In reviewing such a 13 motion, “[a]ll allegations of material fact in the complaint are taken as true and 14 construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”8 Dismissal for failure to 15 state a claim can be based on either “the lack of a cognizable legal theory or the 16 absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory.”9 Dismissal is not 17 “confine[d] . . . to claims of law which are obviously insupportable.”10 Instead, a claim 18 must be dismissed “without regard to whether it is based on an outlandish legal theory 19 20 21 22 23 6 24 25 See doc. 1-3 at pp. 17-25. 7 Doc. 1. 26 8 27 9 28 10 Vignolo v. Miller, 120 F.3d 1075, 1077 (9th Cir. 1997). Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dept., 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1989). -4- 1 or on a close but ultimately unavailing one.”11 “Conclusory allegations of law . . . are 2 insufficient to defeat a motion to dismiss.”12 3 To avoid dismissal, a plaintiff must plead facts sufficient to “state a claim to relief 4 that is plausible on its face.”13 “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads 5 factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant 6 is liable for the misconduct alleged.”14 “The plausibility standard is not akin to a 7 ‘probability requirement’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant 8 has acted unlawfully.”15 “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent’ 9 with a defendant’s liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of 10 entitlement to relief.’”16 “In sum, for a complaint to survive a motion to dismiss, the non- 11 conclusory ‘factual content,’ and reasonable inferences from that content, must be 12 plausibly suggestive of a claim entitling the plaintiff to relief.”17 13 B. Fraudulent joinder 14 Defendants removed the Tucson Case from state court to federal court pursuant 15 to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) based on the court’s diversity jurisdiction. Although defendants 16 acknowledge that Harrish’s presence in the lawsuit destroys complete diversity because 17 she is a resident of Arizona, they maintain that her presence is based on fraudulent 18 joinder and, thus, can be ignored for purposes of diversity jurisdiction.18 Plaintiffs filed 19 20 11 Id. 21 12 22 Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 679 (9th Cir. 2001). 13 23 Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). 14 24 25 Id. 15 Id. (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). 26 16 27 17 28 18 Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Moss v. U.S. Secret Serv., 572 F.3d 962, 969 (9th Cir. 2009). Doc. 1 at p. 3. -5- 1 the motion to remand arguing that there is no fraudulent joinder issue and, thus, the 2 case must be remanded pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). 3 Fraudulent joinder is a term of art.19 A plaintiff’s subjective intent does not play a 4 role in the analysis.20 Instead, fraudulent joinder exists, and the non-diverse defendant 5 is ignored for purposes of determining diversity of the parties, if the plaintiff “fails to state 6 a cause of action against a resident defendant, and the failure is obvious according to 7 the settled rules of the state.”21 “In borderline situations, where it is doubtful whether the 8 complaint states a cause of action against the resident defendant, the doubt is ordinarily 9 resolved in favor of the retention of the cause in the state court.”22 It is only where a 10 plaintiff has no possibility of bringing a cause of action against a resident defendant, and 11 therefore has no reasonable grounds to believe he has such an action, that the court 12 can conclude that the resident defendant has been joined to evade jurisdiction in federal 13 court.23 14 15 Because there is a presumption against removal, the defendant has the burden of establishing that removal is proper and thus that fraudulent joinder exists.24 16 17 18 19 19 20 20 21 22 McCabe v. Gen. Foods Corp., 811 F.2d 1336, 1339 (9th Cir. 1987). See Albi v. St. & Smith Publ’ns, 140 F.2d 310, 312 (9th Cir. 1944) (stating that “it is universally thought that the motive for joining [a non-diverse] defendant is immaterial); Selman v. Pfizer, Inc., No. 11-CV-1400, 2011 WL 6655354, at *10 (D. Or. Dec. 16, 2011) (rejecting an intent test for fraudulent joinder). 23 21 24 22 25 23 26 27 28 McCabe, 811 F.2d at 1339. Albi, 140 F.2d at 312. Id.; see also Gottlieb v. Westin Hotel Co., 990 F.2d 323, 327 (7th Cir. 1993) (finding of fraudulent joinder appropriate only if there is no possibility that a claim can be stated); Filla v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 336 F.3d 806, 810 (8th Cir. 2003) (if there is a “colorable” cause of action, joinder is not fraudulent and remand is mandatory). 24 Gaus v. Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992). -6- 1 IV. DISCUSSION 2 The court is confronted with two motions presenting the same issue but with 3 different standards of review. Because the standard for proving fraudulent joinder is 4 more exacting than that for dismissing a claim for failure to state a claim—a merely 5 possible claim against a defendant is not enough to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, but it is 6 sufficient to defeat an assertion of fraudulent joinder and prevent removal—the court will 7 address the motion to remand first. 8 Defendants argue that the duty of good faith and fair dealing stems from a 9 contract and because she is not a party to the insurance contract, Harrish cannot have 10 acted in bad faith. Indeed, Arizona courts have held that there is no cause of action 11 when a third-party claimant who was not a party to the insurance contract tries to sue 12 the tortfeasor’s insurance company for bad faith in failing to settle his claims.25 Arizona 13 courts have also held that an insured or his assignee may not sue his insurer for 14 negligent handling of claims that is separate and distinct from the claim of breach of 15 contract or bad faith.26 Similarly, the Arizona courts have held that an insurance 16 company’s adjuster did not owe a duty to the insured in the context of a negligence 17 claim.27 However, in the context of a bad faith claim brought by an insured against the 18 insurance claims adjuster, there is no Arizona case law directly on point to support 19 defendants’ argument. Instead, as plaintiffs point out, in Farr v. Transamerica 20 Occidental Life Insurance Co. of California,28 the Arizona Court of Appeals found that 21 both the insurer and the insurer’s agent owed a common duty to the insured to act in 22 good faith despite the agent’s lack of contractual privity. It reasoned that the insurer 23 24 25 25 Leal v. Allstate Ins. Co., 17 P.3d 95, 98-99 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2000). 26 26 27 27 28 28 Miel v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 912 P.2d 1333, 1340 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1995). Meineke v. GAB Bus. Serv. Inc., 991 P.2d 267, 271 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1999). 699 P.2d 376 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1984) -7- 1 and its agent were engaged in a joint venture, even if some of the classical elements of 2 a joint venture, such as profit and loss sharing or joint right to control, were lacking.29 3 While the holding in Farr could certainly be distinguished in this case because, 4 unlike the adjuster in Farr, Harrish is an in-house employee and not a third-party entity 5 hired to administer claims,30 Arizona courts have not specifically addressed the issue. 6 Harrish cites to Walter v. Simmons31 to argue that the state courts have, in fact, 7 resolved the issue. In Walter, the Arizona court held that the plaintiff’s voluntary 8 dismissal of the bad faith claim against the adjuster did not require dismissal of that 9 same claim against the insurer. The dismissal of the adjuster and the reason for his 10 dismissal were not at issue in the appeal, but the court nonetheless stated that the 11 independent adjuster “was dismissed from the bad faith claim because he owed no 12 contractual duty to act in good faith or deal fairly with [the insured].”32 That statement 13 was not necessary to the holding, was not expressly deemed a guide for future conduct, 14 and does not provide reasoned consideration of the issue; thus, it is merely dicta.33 15 While the court is not bound by other decisions in this district on the issue, judges 16 have repeatedly concluded that the law surrounding the viability of a bad faith claim 17 against an insurance adjuster is unsettled in Arizona. In both Ballesteros v. American 18 19 20 21 29 Id. at 386. 22 30 23 It is undisputed that Harrish is an employee of IDS. See docket 7, pp. 6-7, n.3. 31 24 25 26 27 28 818 P.2d 214 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1991) 32 Id. at 222. 33 See Phelps Dodge Corp. v. Ariz. Dept. of Water Res., 118 P.3d 1110, 1116 n.9 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2005) (discussing what should be considered judicial dictum and thus should be followed absent a cogent reason for departing from it and obiter dictum that does not have precedential value but can be persuasive); McOmie-Gray v. Bank of Am. Home Loans, 667 F.3d 1325, 1329 (9th Cir. 2012). -8- 1 Standard Insurance Co. of Wisconsin34 and Allo v. American Family Mutual Insurance 2 Co.,35 the district courts concluded that it is unclear in Arizona whether an 3 adjuster employed by an insurance company could be held liable for bad faith. The 4 magistrate judge in Wapniarski v. Allstate Insurance Co.36 also addressed this issue 5 and found the reasoning in Ballesteros persuasive and remanded the case back to state 6 court. 7 Defendants cite to two other District of Arizona cases, Huffman v. American 8 Family Mutual Insurance Co.37 and Didyoung v. Allstate,38 to support their position. But 9 those two cases are inapposite. Huffman presented a different issue altogether: 10 whether the plaintiff could amend her complaint to add a non-diverse defendant after 11 the case had been removed to federal court. In determining whether the plaintiff could 12 amend to add a non-diverse defendant, the court looked at the strength of her bad faith 13 claim against that defendant and found that it was weak because the covenant of good 14 faith and fair dealing is inherent in a contract, and there was no contract between the 15 proposed defendant and the plaintiff. But, the court in Huffman was applying different 16 standards altogether and furthermore, the court agreed that “Arizona courts have not 17 squarely rejected [the plaintiff’s] proposed theory.”39 18 19 20 21 22 34 23 436 F. Supp. 2d 1070 (D. Ariz. 2006). 35 24 25 No. CV-08-0961, 2008 WL 4217675 (D. Ariz. Sept. 12, 2008). 36 No. CV-10-0823, 2010 WL 2534167 (D. Ariz. June 18, 2010). 26 37 27 38 28 39 No. CV-10-2809, 2011 WL 814957 (D. Ariz. Mar. 4, 2011). No. CV-12-348, 2012 WL 1983779 (D. Ariz. June 4, 2012). 2011 WL 814957, at *3 (D. Ariz. Mar. 4, 2011). -9- 1 Didyoung was considering the issue of fraudulent joinder, but the claim was not a 2 bad faith claim but rather a negligence claim,40 and under Arizona law, as discussed 3 above, it is clear that an insurance adjuster is not liable for negligent claim handling. 4 Given the holding in Farr, that the claims administrator was engaged in a type of 5 joint venture with the insurer and thus could be jointly and severally liable with the 6 insurer, the court must concur with the prior decisions in this district and conclude that 7 Arizona law is not fully settled as to whether an insured can bring a bad faith claim 8 against an in-house insurance adjuster. The court acknowledges Harrish’s argument 9 that an employee and employer cannot form a joint venture, but, as noted above, Farr 10 did not require a finding that all elements of joint venture be present in the insurance 11 context. Although the court is not persuaded that the reasoning in Farr would be 12 applicable to an in-house employee, there is no state case directly on point, and the 13 court must resolve any ambiguities in favor of the plaintiff. 14 Furthermore, when looking at the issue of fraudulent joinder, the court has to 15 consider whether the plaintiffs have at least a reasonable ground to believe such a 16 claim could go forward.41 Given the district court decisions in Ballesteros and Allo that 17 found the issue unsettled, there is, in fact, a reasonable basis for the Gambrells to move 18 forward with the bad faith claim against Harrish. While it is a close call, as noted above, 19 ambiguity in the law must favor the plaintiff, and the prior district court cases persuade 20 the court to conclude that Arizona law has not yet closed the matter. 21 Because this court finds that there is no fraudulent joinder, it cannot ignore 22 Harrish’s presence in the suit. As such, complete diversity does not exist, and the court 23 24 25 26 40 2012 WL 1983779 at *4 (“[T]he legal theory asserted against [the adjuster] sounds neither in breach of contract nor in bad faith. Rather, . . . the claim against [the adjuster] is limited to a claim sounding in negligence.”). 27 41 28 While the defendant notes that the procedural history of this case suggests Harrish was only added to destroy diversity, the plaintiffs’ actual motive is not part of the analysis. -10- 1 must remand pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). Given that the case has been 2 remanded, the motion to dismiss Harrish for failure to state a claim is now moot. 3 V. CONCLUSION 4 Based on the foregoing analysis, plaintiffs’ motion to remand at docket 7 in Case 5 No. 4:12-cv-00661 is GRANTED. Defendant Harrish’s motion to dismiss at docket 5 in 6 Case No. 4:12-cv-00661 is DENIED AS MOOT. Case No. 4:12-cv-00661 is hereby 7 severed from Case No. 2:12-cv-01227 and remanded to Pima County Superior Court, 8 and the Clerk of Court shall enter judgment and close the file in Case No. 4:12-cv- 9 00661. Case No. 2:12-cv-01227 shall remain on this court’s docket for disposition in 10 11 due course. DATED this 21st day of December 2012. 12 13 /s/ JOHN W. SEDWICK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 -11-

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