Oniate v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company
ORDER & REASONS that Plaintiff's 6 Motion to Remand is DENIED. Signed by Judge Eldon E. Fallon on 1/20/16. (dno)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
FRANK J. ONIATE, JR.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE
SECTION "L" (5)
ORDER & REASONS
Before the Court is Plaintiff’s Motion to Remand. R. Doc. 6. Having reviewed the
parties’ briefs and the applicable law, the Court now issues this Order & Reasons.
This case arises from an automobile accident. On December 25, 2013, Plaintiff, Frank
Oniate, was operating his 2002 Mercedes CLK in Chalmette, Louisiana. R. Doc. 6-1 at 1. While
stopped at a red light, Oniate was struck by a 2001 Dodge Durango owned and operated by
Michael Derouen. R. Doc. 6-1 at 1.
Defendant State Farm provided Uninsured/Underinsured (“UM”) medical payment
coverage to Oniate at the time of the accident. State Farm received notice of Oniate’s claim of
injury on January 13, 2014. Throughout treatment for his injuries, Oniate forwarded to State
Farm medical expenses, medical records, operative reports, and other memoranda of Oniate’s
expenses and medical records. R. Doc. 6-1 at 2. During the next several months, State Farm
received numerous copies of medical bills from Oniate. R. Doc. 6-1 at 3. On August 28, 2014,
State Farm received a final medical bill totaling $28,807.60. R. Doc. 6-1 at 3.
Oniate filed suit on June 20, 2015, against State Farm in Louisiana state court. R. Doc. 12 at 3. Oniate alleged that State Farm was liable for a “sum in excess of Fifty Thousand
Dollars . . . .” R. Doc. 1-2 at 3. On July 9, 2015, Oniate sent State Farm a letter advising State
Farm that Oniate had incurred $40,106.60 in medical expenses. The letter requested a check for
$36,116.60 in compensation, as State Farm had only paid $3,990.00 in medical expenses at that
State Farm sent Interrogatories and Requests for Production of Documents to Oniate on
July 28, 2015. Oniate served his discovery responses on State Farm on November 4, 2015. R.
Docs. 1-3, 1-4, 1-5). The discovery responses included Plaintiff’s Answers to Interrogatories,
which itemized Plaintiff’s damages as $313,556.60. R. Doc. 1-3 at 4.
State Farm filed its Notice of Removal from state court on December 2, 2015, alleging
diversity jurisdiction. R. Doc. 1.
Plaintiff Oniate filed the present Motion to Remand. R. Doc. 6. Oniate asks this Court to
remand the present action to state court on the grounds that State Farm’s removal was untimely.
R. Doc. 6-1 at 5–6. Diversity and amount in controversy are not disputed. The parties only
contest when the suit became removable.
a. Oniate’s Motion to Remand
After summarizing Oniate’s efforts to inform State Farm of his medical expenses prior to
the commencement of this case, Oniate claims that State Farm’s removal was untimely because
“it [was] apparent that Oniate’s claims [were] likely above $75,0000” at the time of Oniate’s
filing. R. Doc. 6-1 at 5. Oniate cites cases from Louisiana state courts and the Fifth Circuit
which hold that plaintiffs with injuries similar to Oniate have recovered as much as $400,000 in
general damages. R. Doc. 6-1 at 4-5. Relying on this case law, Oniate argues that State Farm
was aware in August, 2014, that Oniate’s injuries exceeded $75,000. State Farm’s alleged
awareness stems from the knowledge that Oniate’s final medical bills exceeded $38,000.00. R.
Doc. 6-1 at 5. According to Oniate, this knowledge alone constitutes sufficient notice to render
State Farm’s motion to remove untimely. R. Doc. 6-1 at 6. Oniate argues in the alternative that
State Farm was placed on notice of the $75,000 amount in controversy by the face of the state
court pleadings, interrogatories, document production requests, and updated medical expense
totaling $40,106.40. R. Doc. 6-1 at 5–6. The date of each of these communications allegedly
renders State Farm’s December 2, 2015, removal untimely.
b. State Farm’s Opposition
State Farm opposes the motion to remand. R. Doc. 9. State Farm contends that diversity
removal was proper because all the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and 28 U.S.C. § 1441 are
satisfied. R. Doc. 9 at 2.
Regarding the timeliness of State Farm’s Notice of Removal, State Farm points to 28
U.S.C. § 1446(b)(3), and writes that State Farm was required to file a notice of removal within
thirty days after the receipt of “other paper” which indicated that the case was removable. R.
Doc. 9 at 3. The “other paper” identified by State Farm is Plaintiff’s November 4, 2015,
Answers to Interrogatories, which itemized Plaintiff’s damages as $313,556.60. R. Doc. 1-3 at
4. Using this date, State Farm contends that their December 2, 2015 removal was within the
thirty-day removal deadline of 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(1). State Farm argues in turn that none of
Oniate’s prior communications with State Farm were legally sufficient to trigger the thirty-day
removal timeline. R. Doc. 9 at 4.
State Farm cites legal precedent from the Fifth Circuit in support of its position. R. Doc.
9 at 4- 7. The cited precedent indicates that the thirty-day time period for removal only runs
from the defendant’s initial receipt of the pleading if the initial pleading explicitly alleges
damages in excess of the federal jurisdictional amount. R. Doc. 9 at 5 (citing Chapman v.
Powermatic, 969 F.2d 160, 163 (5th Cir. 1992). State Farm also argues that the Fifth Circuit has
rejected an argument that a defendant can be deemed on notice of a jurisdictional amount due to
a general knowledge of quantum in similar cases. R. Doc. 9 at 6 (citing Bosky v. Kroger Texas,
LP, 288 F.3d 208, 210 (5th Cir. 2002). State Farm takes the position that these cases support a
finding that State Farm’s removal deadline began on November 4, 2015, because that was the
date when State Farm “unequivocally realized” that the $75,000 jurisdictional limit was met. R.
Doc. 9 at 6-7.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
a. Applicable Law
A defendant in state court may remove any civil case that originally could have been filed
in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). A civil case qualifies for direct filing in federal court if
there is complete diversity of citizenship among the parties and the amount in controversy
exceeds $75,000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a).
Section 1446 places two separate thirty-day filing deadlines on a notice of removal. The
Fifth Circuit interprets this provision as a two-step test when analyzing the timeliness of
removal. See Brown v. Richard, No. 00-1982, 20000 WL 1653835, at *4 (E.D. La. Nov. 2000)
(citing Chapman v. Powermatic, Inc., 969 F.2d 160, 161 (5th Cir. 1992). A court must first
determine whether the case was removable as initially filed. § 1446(b)(1). Section 1446(b)(1)
[t]he notice of removal of a civil action or proceeding shall be filed
within 30 days after the receipt by the defendant, through service
or otherwise, of a copy of the initial pleading setting forth the
claim for relief upon which such action or proceeding is based, or
within 30 days after the service of summons upon the defendant if
such initial pleading has then been filed in court and is not required
to be served on the defendant, whichever period is shorter.
If not, the court must then evaluate whether the case became removable at a later time. Section
1446(b)(3) provides that:
[e]xcept as provided in subsection (c), if the case stated by the
initial pleading is not removable, a notice of removal may be filed
within thirty days after receipt by the defendant, through service or
otherwise, of a copy of an amended pleading, motion, order or
other paper from which it may first be ascertained that the case is
one which is or has become removable.
Therefore, the discovery that a case is removable activates the thirty-day deadline for removal
even if a case was not originally removable.
A case is originally removable on the basis of jurisdictional amount if the “pleading
affirmatively reveals on its face that the plaintiff is seeking damages in excess of the minimum
jurisdictional amount of the federal court.” Chapman v. Powermatic, Inc., 969 F.2d 160, 163
(5th Cir. 1992). The Fifth Circuit recently revisited this holding in Mumfrey v. CVS Pharmacy,
Inc. 719 F.3d 293, 400 (5th Cir. 2013). Reviewing the rule announced in Chapman and some
expansive language in Bosky v. Kroger Texas, LP, 288 F.3d 208 (5th Cir. 2002), which had
“[become] the source of significant confusion,” the Fifth Circuit reaffirmed the Chapman rule.
Mumfrey, 719 F.3d at 400. “[T]he thirty-day clock is not triggered unless the initial pleading
‘affirmatively reveals on its face’ that the plaintiffs sought damages exceeding the jurisdictional
amount.” Id. (quoting Chapman, 969 F.2d at 163); cf. S.W.S. Erectors, Inc. v. Infax, Inc., 72
F.3d 489, 494 (5th Cir. 1996) (“[T]he defendant’s subjective knowledge cannot convert a case
into a removable action.”).
A case that is not originally removable can become removable by defendant’s receipt of
“other paper,” § 1446(b)(3), if the “other paper” is “unequivocally clear and certain” regarding
the information supporting removal. Bosky, 288 F.3d at 211. “[O]ther paper” must also be
“received by a defendant only after that defendant has received the initial pleading.” Chapman,
959 F.2d at 164. If a case is originally not removable for reasons concerning amount in
controversy, responses to discovery are considered “other paper.” § 1446(c)(3).
State Farm’s removal in this case is only timely if: (1) the timing provision of 28 U.S.C.
§ 1446(b)(1) was not triggered by Oniate’s initial pleading; and (2) if the timing provision of
§ 1446(b)(3) was triggered on or after November 4, 2015.
i. Section 1446(b)(1) and Oniate’s Complaint
Oniate’s complaint did not trigger the timing provisions of § 1446(b)(1), because the
pleading did not affirmatively reveal on its face that Oniate sought damages in excess of
$75,000. In the Fifth Circuit, the initial pleading can only trigger the thirty-day removal time
period if the “pleading affirmatively reveals on its face that the plaintiff is seeking damages in
excess of the minimum jurisdictional amount of the federal court.” Chapman v. Powermatic,
Inc., 969 F.2d 160, 163 (5th Cir. 1992). Oniate’s state court complaint sought “a sum in excess
of Fifty Thousand Dollars and No Cents,” interest, and costs. R. Doc. 1-2 at 4. Fifty thousand
dollars falls short of the jurisdictional minimum for diversity jurisdiction, and may only suggest
an intent to secure a jury trial in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). And Oniate’s reference to
general and special damages for “pain and suffering, mental anguish and distress, medical
expenses, disability, and loss of enjoyment of life,” is insufficiently specific in quantum to
trigger the remand timer. R. Doc. 1-2 at 4. Oniate therefore failed to include in his pleading “a
specific allegation that damages are in excess of the federal jurisdictional amount,” and his claim
fails. Chapman, 969 F.2d at 163.
Oniate’s cited cases regarding damage awards for similarly situated plaintiffs are
unavailing. R. Doc. 6-1 at 4-5. The Chapman inquiry focuses on the objective text of the
pleading itself, and not the defendant’s subjective knowledge of the claim. Chapman, 959 F.2d
at 163 (“We adopt this rule because we conclude that it promotes certainty and judicial
efficiency by not requiring courts to inquire into what a particular defendant may or may not
subjectively know.”); see also Mumfrey, 719 F.3d at 400 (“[T]here seems to be no Fifth Circuit
case since Chapman that calls into question its bright line rule for timeliness disputes.”); S.W.S.
Erectors, Inc. v. Infax, Inc., 72 F.3d 489, 494 (5th Cir. 1996) (“[T]he defendant’s subjective
knowledge cannot convert a case into a removable action.”). The state court cases cited by
Oniate speak to State Farm’s subjective knowledge of the potential amount in controversy, and
hence cannot affect whether Oniate’s pleading triggered the removal timer pursuant to Chapman.
ii. Section 1446(b)(3) and Plaintiff’s Answer to Interrogatories
State Farm’s removal was timely under § 1446(b)(3), because State Farm’s December 2,
2015, Notice of Removal was filed within thirty days of State Farm’s November 4, 2015, receipt
of “other paper” which triggered the thirty-day removal period. “Other paper” can trigger the
thirty-day timer of § 1446(b)(3) if it is received after the initial complaint and is “unequivocally
clear and certain” regarding the information supporting removal. Bosky, 288 F.3d at 211.
Answers to interrogatories can qualify as “other paper.” § 1446(c)(3). State Farm did not
receive “unequivocally clear and certain” notice that Oniate claimed more than $75,000 until
November 4, 2015, when Oniate itemized damages at $313,556.60 in his Answers to
Interrogatories. R. Doc. 1-3 at 4. State Farm’s December 2, 2015, Notice of Removal fits within
the resulting thirty-day time period, and is therefore timely.
Oniate’s efforts to keep State Farm appraised of Oniate’s medical expenses prior to
November 4, 2015, do not qualify as “other paper” which could trigger the removal provision.
§ 1446(b)(3). Chapman holds that an “other paper” must be “received by a defendant only after
that defendant has received the initial pleading.” Chapman, 959 F.2d at 164; see also George v.
Wal-Mart Louisiana, L.L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4721 at*7 (W.D. 2007) (ruling that a
communication was not “other paper” because the communication occurred prior to the initial
pleading). While Oniate began sending medical records to State Farm approximately fifteen
months prior to the filing of the Motion to Remand, Chapman dictates a finding that none of the
medical bills or records sent to State Farm prior to the July 10, 2015, filing of Oniate’s initial
pleading qualify as “other paper.” And the record contains no evidence of papers sent by Oniate
to State Farm after July 10, 2015, which could render a December 2, 2015, removal untimely.
Therefore, Oniate’s argument is unavailing.
For the aforementioned reasons, IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiff’s Motion to Remand, R.
Doc. 6, is hereby DENIED.
New Orleans, Louisiana, this 20th day of January, 2016.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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