Steese et al v. SML Relocation LLC
Memorandum Opinion and Order: Defendant's motion to dismiss counts two, three, four and five (Doc. No. 18 ) is granted. The case will proceed only as to count one. Judge Sara Lioi on 8/15/2017. (P,J)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
LINDA STEESE, et al.,
SML RELOCATION, LLC,
CASE NO. 5:15-cv-2681
JUDGE SARA LIOI
Before the Court is defendant’s motion for partial dismissal of plaintiffs’ first amended
complaint. (Doc. No. 18 [“Mot.”].) Plaintiffs filed a brief in opposition (Doc. No. 19 [“Opp’n”])
and defendant filed a reply (Doc. No. 20 [“Reply”]). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is
granted. Counts two, three, four, and five are dismissed and the case will proceed solely on count
On March 5, 2014, plaintiffs and defendant entered into an agreement for the relocation of
all of plaintiffs’ belongings from Midlothian, Texas to Akron, Ohio. (Doc. No. 17, First Amended
Complaint [“Compl.”] ¶ 5 and Ex. A.) The agreement offered plaintiffs two options: either pay a
deductible of $2,000 to insure the full value of their items, or agree to a “Released Value
Valuation” (i.e., liquidated damages) that valued the items at $.60 per pound per item. Plaintiffs
chose the latter, asserting that they were “under pressure to procure moving services and without
funds to afford the deductible[.]” (Id. ¶ 6; Ex. A at 154.1)
All page number references are to the page identification number generated by the Court’s electronic docketing
On or about March 9, 2014, defendant picked up plaintiffs’ belongings with a companyowned moving truck and transported them to Akron, delivering them on March 12, 2014. (Id. ¶¶
7, 9.) Plaintiffs allege that, during the transport of their items, the items were destroyed. (Id. ¶ 8.)
Nonetheless, with no explanation as to the condition of the items, defendant’s employees unloaded
them. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiffs allege that defendant sought payment under the agreement, despite the
fact that the contract price was equal to or in excess of the amount of contractual liquidated
damages. (Id. ¶ 11.)
The complaint contains five counts: (1) a Carmack Amendment claim, 49 U.S.C. § 14706;
(2) a request for declaratory judgment; (3) conversion (in the alternative to count one); (4)
negligence (in the alternative to count one); and (5) malicious conduct. Defendants seek dismissal
of all but count one, arguing preemption under the Carmack Amendment and failure to state a
A. Standard on a Motion to Dismiss
A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader
is entitled to relief[.]” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Although this pleading standard does not require
great detail, the factual allegations in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above
the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed.
2d 929 (2007) (citing authorities). In other words, “Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a ‘showing,’ rather
than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief.” Id. at 556, n.3 (criticizing the Twombly dissent’s
assertion that the pleading standard of Rule 8 “does not require, or even invite, the pleading of
“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S.
662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Rule 8
does not “unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.”
Id. at 678-79. “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be
supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should
assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to
relief.” Id. at 679. “The court need not, however, accept unwarranted factual inferences.” Total
Benefits Planning Agency, Inc. v. Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield, 552 F.3d 430, 434 (6th Cir.
2008) (citing Morgan v. Church’s Fried Chicken, 829 F.2d 10, 12 (6th Cir. 1987)).
Counts Three, Four and Five -- Preemption of State Law Claims
Plaintiffs have pleaded state law claims of conversion (count three) and negligence (count
four). They also assert in count five a state law claim for “malicious conduct.” Defendant argues
that these three counts (to the extent count five even exists as a viable claim under Ohio law)2 are
all preempted by the Carmack Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act.
“The Carmack Amendment . . . created a national scheme of carrier liability for loss or
damages to goods transported in interstate commerce.” Exel, Inc. v. S. Refrigerated Transp., Inc.,
807 F.3d 140, 148 (6th Cir. 2015). “The Amendment restricts carriers’ ability to limit their liability
for cargo damage. It makes a motor carrier fully liable for damage to its cargo unless the shipper
See Justice v. Justice, No. 99CA16, 2000 WL 221996, at *13 n. 15 (Ohio Ct. App. Feb. 4, 2000) (“malicious conduct
. . . is not a separate cause of action but rather a prayer for punitive damages”); see also Grant v. Wells Fargo Home
Mortg., Case No. 2:15-cv-12972, 2016 WL 8115649, at *4 (E.D. Mich. May 11, 2016) (“damages [for malicious
conduct] are a remedy, not a cause of action”).
has agreed to some limitation in writing.” Id. (citing 49 U.S.C. § 11706(a), (c), § 14101(b)).
“Carriers in turn acquire reasonable certainty in predicting potential liability because shippers’
state and common law claims against a carrier for loss to or damage were preempted.” Id. (citing
Certain Underwriters at Interest at Lloyds of London v. UPS, 762 F.3d 332, 335 (3d Cir. 2014)).
Plaintiffs argue in opposition that they have pleaded their state law claims of conversion
and negligence in the alternative,3 “[t]o the extent that the Court finds that the Agreement is
unenforceable[.]” (Compl. ¶¶ 17, 22.) But, if the agreement is unenforceable, that means that
defendant cannot limit its liability to the released value, but must pay the full value. There is no
need for any alternative claim, even if the doctrine of complete preemption permitted one. But,
where state law claims are completely preempted, they simply cannot be brought, not even in the
Defendant is entitled to dismissal of counts three, four and five.
Count Two – Declaratory Judgment
In this count, plaintiffs ask the Court to declare “the parties’ respective rights and
obligations pursuant to the Agreement and as to the enforceability of the Agreement.” (Compl. ¶
15.) In the prayer for relief, plaintiffs ask for a declaration that the agreement is unenforceable.
“[D]istrict courts possess discretion in determining whether and when to entertain an action
under the Declaratory Judgment Act, even when the suit otherwise satisfies subject matter
jurisdictional requirements.” Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 282, 115 S. Ct. 2137, 132
L. Ed. 2d 214 (1995) (citing Brillhart v. Excess Ins. Co. of Am., 316 U.S. 491, 62 S. Ct. 1173, 86
In their opposition brief, plaintiffs argue that “[it] has yet to be determined whether [d]efendant is a ‘motor carrier’
as defined under the Caremack [sic] Amendment.” (Opp’n at 174.) But the Court is satisfied that defendant meets the
definition of both “motor carrier” and “carrier.” See 49 U.S.C. § 13102.
L. Ed. 1620 (1942)). In the Sixth Circuit, courts generally consider five factors: “(1) whether the
judgment would settle the controversy; (2) whether the declaratory judgment action would serve a
useful purpose in clarifying the legal relations at issue; (3) whether the declaratory remedy is being
used merely for the purpose of ‘procedural fencing’ or ‘to provide an arena for a race for res
judicata’; (4) whether the use of a declaratory action would increase the friction between our
federal and state courts and improperly encroach on state jurisdiction; and (5) whether there is an
alternative remedy that is better or more effective.” Scottsdale Ins. Co. v. Roumph, 211 F.3d 964,
968 (6th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted).
Here count two is no more than a restatement of count one. Plaintiffs are seeking a
declaration that defendant, by way of the agreement between the parties, failed to limit its liability
under the Carmack Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act. Defendant is arguing that
plaintiffs are not entitled to that declaration. One way or the other, that determination will be made
on the strength of count one. Plaintiffs will either be able to establish under count one that
defendant did limit its liability or it did not. Although factors three and four are not at issue here,
the other three factors weigh in favor of dismissal. See World Shipping, Inc. v. RMTS, LLC, No.
1:12 CV 3036, 2013 WL 774503, at *5 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 22, 2013) (granting defendant’s motion
to dismiss the declaratory judgment count in the complaint because it “would not settle the
controversy[,] . . . nor . . . serve a purpose more useful than that served by the breach of contract
The Court declines to exercise jurisdiction over count two and it is dismissed.
For the reasons set forth herein, defendant’s motion to dismiss counts two, three, four and
five (Doc. No. 18) is granted. The case will proceed only as to count one.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: August 15, 2017
HONORABLE SARA LIOI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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