Zazueta v. Nationstar Mortgage LLC

Filing 18

ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE, granting 10 MOTION to Remand filed by Martin Zazueta. Signed by Judge Robert J. Bryan. (JL)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT TACOMA 8 9 10 11 MARTIN ZAZUETA, Plaintiff, 12 13 14 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE v. NATIONSTAR MORTGAGE LLC, Defendant. 15 16 CASE NO. 3:16-cv-05893-RJB THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff’s Motion for Remand and to Strike. 17 Dkt. 10. The Court has considered the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the 18 motion, the notice of removal, and the remainder of the file herein. Dkts. 1, 15, 17. Plaintiff has 19 requested oral argument, but the Court deems oral argument unnecessary. For the reasons 20 discussed below, Plaintiff’s motion for remand should be granted, and Plaintiff’s motion to strike 21 should be denied as moot. BACKGROUND 22 23 This case has an extensive history in Mason County Superior Court. Plaintiff served the 24 complaint on Defendant on May 12, 2015, and filed the case in state court on June 6, 2015. Dkt. ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 1 1 1-1; Dkt. 2-1 at 162. The original complaint alleged violations of three state statutes: the 2 Consumer Loan Act, the Collection Agency Act, and the Consumer Protection Act. Dkt. 1-1 at 3 8-15. The complaint did not enumerate an amount in controversy. See Dkt. 1-1. While pending 4 before the Mason County Superior Court, that court held 10 hearings and resolved 12 motions, 5 most of them dealing with discovery issues. Dkt. 2-1 at 162-173. On September 27, 2016, the 6 parties held a mediation, which was unsuccessful. 7 In preparation for mediation, approximately one week prior, Plaintiff sent Defendant a 8 mediation communication (“the mediation communication”), wherein Plaintiff “demand[ed] 9 $300,000 for purposes of facilitating settlement.” Dkt. 2-1 at 148-158. The letter demanded 10 $18,594 in actual, trebled damages; $247,100 in damages for emotional distress; $6,000 in costs, 11 and $85,000 in attorney’s fees. Dkt. 2-1 at 157. In 2015, to settle the case Plaintiff had previously 12 demanded $50,000, including $10,000 in attorney’s fees. 13 The mediation communication demanded damages for emotional distress, although 14 emotional distress was not pleaded in the original complaint. See Dkt. 1-1; Dkt. 2-1 at 157. 15 About two weeks after the mediation, on October 10, 2016, Plaintiff requested leave to amend 16 the complaint. Dkt. 2-1 at 173. The amended complaint alleges harm in the form of emotional 17 distress and adds an outrage claim. While the motion for leave to amend was still pending, on 18 October 21, 2016, Defendant filed the notice of removal. Dkt. 2-1 at 173. Plaintiff filed the 19 motion for remand on November 21, 2016. Dkt. 10. 20 21 STANDARDS GOVERNING MOTION FOR REMAND 28 U.S.C. § 1441, provides that “any civil action brought in a State court of which the 22 district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant 23 or defendants, to the district court of the United States for any district . . . where such action is 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 2 1 pending.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). District courts have “original jurisdiction,” among other reasons, 2 where there is complete diversity between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds 3 $75,000 at the time of removal. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). Removal statutes are construed 4 restrictively, and any doubts about removability are resolved in favor of remanding the case to 5 state court. Gaus v. Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992). 6 On a motion for remand, the removing defendant faces a strong presumption against 7 removal, and bears the burden of establishing that removal was proper by a preponderance of 8 evidence. Gaus, 980 F.2d at 567; Sanchez v. Monumental Life Ins. Co., 102 F.3d 398, 403-04 9 (9th Cir. 1996). Conclusory allegations by the defendant will not suffice to overcome the 10 traditional presumption against removal. Rodgers v. Central Locating Service, Ltd., 412 F. 11 Supp.2d 1171, 1175 (W.D. Wash. 2006); Singer v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 116 F.3d 12 373, 375 (9th Cir. 1997). Instead, the courts may look beyond pleadings and consider other 13 summary judgment type evidence relevant to the amount in controversy, tested as of the time of 14 removal. Kroske v. U.S. BankCorp., 432 F.3d 976, 980 (9th Cir. 2005); Valdez v. Allstate Ins. 15 Co., 372 F.3d 1115, 1117 (9th Cir. 2004). 16 28 U.S.C. § 1446 sets out the procedure for removing civil actions. In cases where the 17 initial pleading does not provide a basis for removal, “a notice of removal may be filed within 18 thirty days after receipt by the defendant . . . of a copy of an amended pleading, motion, order, or 19 other paper from which it may first be ascertained that the case is . . . removable.” § 1446(b)(3). 20 An exception to the 30 day rule set out in subsection (b)(3) applies to diversity cases over 1 year 21 old: “A case may not be removed under subsection (b)(3) on the basis of [diversity jurisdiction] 22 conferred . . . more than 1 year after commencement of the action, unless the district court finds 23 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 3 1 that the plaintiff has acted in bad faith . . . to prevent a defendant from removing the action.” § 2 1446(c)(1). 3 “Bad faith” in the context of diversity jurisdiction has not yet been defined within the 4 Ninth Circuit, see Heller v. Am. States Ins. Co., 2016 WL 1170891 at *2, but subsection 5 (c)(3)(B) of the statute specifies that bad faith includes the plaintiff’s deliberate failure to 6 disclose the amount in controversy to prevent removal. § 1446(c)(3)(B). The Ninth Circuit in the 7 context of sanctions has described bad faith as a “high threshold.” Primus Auto. Fin. Servs., Inc. 8 v. Batarse, 115 F.3d 644, 649 (9th Cir. 1997). 9 DISCUSSION 10 A. Motion for remand. 11 Plaintiff argues remand is appropriate because Defendant cannot meet its burden to show 12 an amount in controversy over $75,000, except by relying on the mediation communication, 13 which should be stricken. The mediation communication, Plaintiff contends, is privileged under 14 both state and federal law and is not otherwise admissible under any other evidentiary rules. 15 Plaintiff further argues that even if Defendant has met its burden as to the amount in controversy 16 requirement, Defendant has not shown that Plaintiff acted in bad faith to avoid federal 17 jurisdiction. 18 According to Defendant, there is no mediation privilege under federal law, which 19 controls, so the mediation communication may be considered for purposes of establishing the 20 amount in controversy. Dkt. 15 at 4-7. Defendant argues in the alternative that the mediation 21 communication is admissible under ER 408 for the same limited purpose. Dkt. 15 at 7-10. The 22 amount in controversy is further established, Defendant contends, by Plaintiff’s refusal to 23 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 4 1 stipulate to damages under $75,000 and by Plaintiff’s failure to disavow or modify the amount 2 requested in the mediation communication. Dkt. 15 at 11-17. 3 Regarding bad faith by Plaintiff, Defendant incorporates its removal briefing (Dkt. 1 at 4 20-28). Dkt. 15 at 17-23. Among other conduct evidencing bad faith, Defendant highlights the 5 increase in monies sought by Plaintiff’s settlement demands, from $50,000 (November 2015) to 6 $300,000 (October 2016); the dramatic increase in requested attorney’s fees from $10,000 7 (August 2015) to $85,000 (October 2016); Plaintiff’s delayed filing of the amended complaint 8 until after the removal deadline, despite the fact that no new facts gave rise to the new claim; 9 Plaintiff’s three attempts to delay responding to discovery responses that would have confirmed 10 a higher damages amount; and Plaintiff counsel’s reluctance to engage in settlement negotiation 11 or mediation until after the removal deadline. Dkt. 15 at 17-23. 12 In Plaintiff’s Reply, Plaintiff argues that Defendant, not Plaintiff, acted in bad faith, by 13 removing the case without notice to Plaintiff while motions were still pending and more 14 discovery was to be produced. Dkt. 17 at 2, 3, 13. Further, Plaintiff argues, if Plaintiff’s counsel 15 was truly attempting to avoid removal, he would never had submitted to Defendant the mediation 16 communication, or any other document representing damages more than $75,000. Dkt. 17 at 13. 17 Regarding Defendant’s burden to establish the amount in controversy, Plaintiff argues that 18 neither the amended complaint in Mason County Superior Court (that remained pending prior to 19 removal), Plaintiff’s refusal to stipulate to the amount in controversy, nor Defendant’s reliance 20 on the mediation communication are sufficient to satisfy Defendant’s burden. Dkt. 17 at 5-11. 21 In this case, even if the Court assumes that Defendant has made its burden to meet the 22 amount in controversy requirement, Defendant has not met its burden to show bad faith by 23 Plaintiff. Defendant points to many examples of Plaintiff’s conduct as evidencing bad faith, but 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 5 1 only two warrant discussion. First, the increase in the settlement demand, including attorney’s 2 fees, does not show bad faith. The $300,000 settlement amount, first disclosed in the mediation 3 communication, inflated from $50,000, at worst reveals Plaintiff’s puffery. See Dkt. 2-1 at 157. 4 The mediation communication was submitted one week prior to mediation, and mediation was 5 scheduled under the terms of a court scheduling order. Although the mediation occurred more 6 than one year after the case had commenced, there has been no showing that Plaintiff delayed the 7 mediation beyond the one-year removal deadline. On the contrary, the number of court filings, 8 including multiple court hearings and motions resolved, between August 2016, when Plaintiff 9 requested $10,000 in attorney’s fees, and October 2016, when the amount had increased to 10 $85,000, show a reasonable basis for a significant increase. See Dkt. 2-1 at 163-172. 11 Second, Plaintiff’s “delay” in requesting leave to file the amended complaint does not 12 show bad faith. The amended complaint does not allege an amount in controversy over $75,000, 13 but rather, like the original complaint, the amended complaint is silent as to the amount 14 requested. The amended complaint adds an outrage claim and request for emotional damages, 15 but the new allegations were submitted after more than a year of discovery litigation, 10 court 16 hearings, 16 hours of court hearing time, and 12 court rulings issued. A review of the state court 17 docket demonstrates that Plaintiff was fully engaged with litigation, which does not indicate 18 gamesmanship or delay tactics. Defendant argues that Plaintiff knew of the facts underlying the 19 additional claim and damages request, but the plaintiff is the master of the complaint, which may 20 be amended up to and during trial, and the new allegations, by their own terms, do not show an 21 intention to avoid removal. At most, given the timing of the request for leave to amend, which 22 immediately followed the mediation, it could be that the new allegations were added to 23 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 6 1 strengthen Plaintiff’s leverage for settling the case, but a shift in litigation strategy does not 2 constitute bad faith. 3 Beyond the settlement demand increase and filing of the amended complaint, Defendant 4 does not offer much by way of the record to persuade the Court that Plaintiff acted in bad faith to 5 prevent removal. Because Defendant has not met its burden to show Plaintiff’s bad faith, and one 6 year having passed since commencement of the action, Plaintiff’s motion for remand should be 7 granted. 8 B. Motion to Strike. 9 Plaintiff moves to strike (1) the mediation communication, and (2) all documents and 10 statements related to settlement negotiation discussions. Dkt. 10 at 12-18. Even if the Court 11 considered these items, and even if they could be sufficient to satisfy Defendant’s burden to meet 12 the amount in controversy requirement, Defendant has not met its burden to show Plaintiff’s bad 13 faith. Therefore, the motion to strike should be denied as moot. 14 C. Fees. 15 “An order remanding the case may require payment of just costs and any actual expenses, 16 including attorney fees, incurred as a result of the removal.” 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). “Absent 17 unusual circumstances, courts may award attorney’s fees under § 1447(c) only where the 18 removing party lacked an objectively reasonable basis for seeking removal.” Martin v. Franklin 19 Capital Corp., 546 U.S. 132, 141 (2005). 20 Defendant’s removal was premised on the position that Plaintiff had acted in bad faith to 21 avoid removal. While the Court does not reach the same conclusion, see above, Defendant’s 22 position was objectively reasonable. The award of costs and expenses is not warranted. 23 *** 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 7 1 Plaintiff’s Motion for Remand and to Strike (Dkt. 10) is HEREBY GRANTED IN PART 2 and DENIED IN PART as follows: 3  4 The motion for remand is granted. The case is HEREBY REMANDED to Mason County Superior Court. 5  The motion to strike is denied as moot. 6  The request for fees is denied. 7 The Clerk is directed to send uncertified copies of this Order to all counsel of record and 8 to any party appearing pro se at said party’s last known address. 9 Dated this 9th day of January, 2017. A 10 11 ROBERT J. BRYAN United States District Judge 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR REMAND AND TO STRIKE- 8

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