Artworks, LLC et al v. Hartford Casualty Insurance Company et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REMAND. Plaintiffs Motion to Remand Action to State Court 16 is hereby GRANTED and the Court hereby REMANDS this case to the Circuit Court of Harrison County, West Virginia. Hartford Casualty Insurance Companys and Hartford Insurance Company of the Midwests Motion to Dismiss 2 , the Motion to Dismiss of Sam Landis 5 , Defendant Melissa Feathers Motion for Partial Dismissal 11 , and the Motion to Bifurcate and Stay [Doc. 13] are all hereby DENIED AS MOOT. Signed by District Judge John Preston Bailey on 5/27/2020. (Copy Clerk of the Harrison County Circuit Court by US Mail) (dk)
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 1 of 8 PageID #: 506
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF WEST VIRGINIA
ARTWORKS, LLC, a West
Virginia Limited Liability Company,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:20-cv-65
INSURANCE COMPANY, an
Indiana Insurance Company,
COMPANY OF THE MIDWEST,
an Indiana Insurance Company,
SENTINEL INSURANCE COMPANY,
LTD, A Connecticut Insurance
Company, MELISSA FEATHER/
LINDSTEDT, an Individual and
South Carolina Resident, SAM
LANDIS, an Individual and West
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING
PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION TO REMAND
Currently pending before this Court is Plaintiffs’ Motion to Remand Action to State
Court [Doc. 16], filed April 23, 2020. The Motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for
decision. Having reviewed the record and considered the arguments of the parties, this
Court concludes that the motion to remand should be granted.
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 2 of 8 PageID #: 507
This case arises out of a dispute over insurance coverage. Plaintiff Artworks, LLC
(“Artworks”) is a West Virginia business formerly based in Bridgeport, West Virginia at 601
S. Virginia Avenue (“the Insured Property”), and plaintiff MacDowell is the founder and
owner of Artworks. [Doc. 1-1 at 1-2]. Defendants in this case are the insurers of that
property and individuals who were employed by the insurers. Id. at 2. According to the
Complaint, the Insured Property was affected by a catastrophic fire on October 3, 2019,
resulting in a total loss. Id. at 3. In the days following the fire, the Complaint alleges that
defendants acknowledged the insured property was a complete and total loss. Id. at 4.
However, on November 7, 2019, defendants began to suggest that the Insured Property
had only a partial loss, which would result in a reduced amount payable to plaintiffs. Id.
at 3, 5.
On March 3, 2020, plaintiffs filed their Complaint in the Circuit Court of Harrison
County, West Virginia. There, plaintiffs assert five causes of action. First, plaintiffs claim
bad faith against all defendants, arguing defendants unreasonably failed to promptly
resolve this insurance claim. [Doc. 1-1 at 7-8]. Second, plaintiffs claim breach of contract
against all defendants for the same conduct. Id. at 9. Third, plaintiffs claim constructive
fraud against all defendants, alleging that defendants have violated “a substantial public
policy prohibiting insurers from deceiving, oppressing, and/or taking unfair advantage of
policy holders.” Id. at 10. Fourth, plaintiffs claim intentional or reckless infliction of
emotional distress against all defendants, relying on the same conduct. Id. at 10-11.
Finally, plaintiffs claim vicarious liability against defendants Hartford Casualty Insurance
Company, Hartford Insurance Company of the Midwest, and Sentinel Insurance Company
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 3 of 8 PageID #: 508
LTD (“Sentinel”). Id. at 11.
On April 9, 2020, all defendants except defendant Landis filed a Notice of Removal,
removing this case to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. [Doc. 1]. In their
notice of removal, defendants do not dispute that defendant Landis is a West Virginia
resident, but assert that he has been fraudulently joined as a party to this action. Id. at 4.
On April 23, 2020, plaintiffs filed their motion to remand. There, they argue that Mr. Landis’
inclusion in the case prevents complete diversity of the parties and that Landis has not
been fraudulently joined. [Doc. 16]. Specifically, they point to the Complaint’s allegations
that defendant Landis “was an insurance adjuster/insurance investigator actively involved
in the adjustment/investigation of the fire loss at issue in this litigation.” Id. at 8. They
claim they have sufficiently alleged that defendant Landis was “actively involved in the
improper and unlawful insurance activity–among others, the bad faith denial of Plaintiffs’
valid insurance claim.” Id. at 10.
Defendants have collectively filed two responses to the motion. First, defendants
Sentinel and Melissa Feather filed a response on May 7, 2020. There, they point out that
the only allegation in the Complaint relating to Landis is that he is a West Virginia resident
and was employed or contracted by defendants to adjust or investigate insurance claims.
[Doc. 19 at 2]. Defendants argue that plaintiffs cannot establish a cause of action against
Landis. First, as to counts I and II of the Complaint, statutory bad faith and breach of
contract, respectively, such claims cannot survive against defendant Landis since it is not
alleged that Landis was party to the insurance contract. Id. at 7-8. Second, as to the
constructive fraud claim, defendants argue that “Plaintiffs have not alleged that Defendant
Landis deceived them, injured their public interests, or even had conversations with them
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 4 of 8 PageID #: 509
regarding the subject fire or the allegations in this lawsuit.” Id. at 9-10. Third, as to the
intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress claim, they argue plaintiffs’ Complaint
fails to make specific allegations regarding defendant Landis’ conduct. Id. at 10. Finally,
defendants address the vicarious liability claim, which although not including defendant
Landis, specifically mentions him. They argue that there was no employment relationship
between Sentinel and Landis, and as such plaintiffs cannot assert respondeat superior
liability. Id. at 10-11.
The same day, defendant Landis filed a memorandum in opposition to the Motion
to Remand. [Doc. 20]. In it, defendant Landis argues that plaintiffs cannot state a claim
against him. First, Landis argues plaintiffs cannot state a claim under the West Virginia
Unfair Trade Practices Act because Landis is not an insurance adjuster. Id. at 2. Second,
he argues plaintiffs cannot make a claim against him for breach of contract because he
was not a party to a contract with plaintiffs. Id. at 8. Third, Landis argues the constructive
fraud claim fails because “they fail to plead any misleading statements made by Mr. Landis
or any reliance on any misleading statements.” Id. at 9-10. Finally, Landis argus that
plaintiffs cannot state a claim for intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress
because they have not plead extreme and outrageous conduct. Id. at 11-12.
On May 13, 2020, plaintiffs filed their reply. [Doc. 21]. First, the plaintiffs take issue
with defendants’ citation of a Southern District case, Benson v. Continental Insurance
Co., 120 F.Supp.2d 593 (S.D. W.Va. 2000), arguing that it has been criticized by other
cases in that district and conflicts with earlier decisions by this Court. [Doc. 21 at 5-8].
Next, plaintiffs argue the Motion to Remand should be granted because they have asserted
a viable claim of constructive fraud against defendant Landis; they contend they have
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 5 of 8 PageID #: 510
alleged specific facts which plead a valid constructive fraud claim. Id. at 9. Finally, they
contend that defendant Landis’ affidavit asserts facts conflicting with allegations in the
Complaint, and at the Motion to Remand stage these factual disputes must be resolved in
favor of the plaintiffs. Id. at 11.
“We begin with the undergirding principle that federal courts, unlike most state
courts, are courts of limited jurisdiction, created by Congress with specified jurisdictional
requirements and limitations. Accordingly, a party seeking to adjudicate a matter in federal
court must allege and, when challenged, must demonstrate the federal court’s jurisdiction
over the matter. If a plaintiff files suit in state court and the defendant seeks to adjudicate
the matter in federal court through removal, it is the defendant who carries the burden of
alleging in his notice of removal and, if challenged, demonstrating the court’s jurisdiction
over the matter.” Strawn v. AT&T Mobility, 530 F.3d 293, 296 (4th Cir. 2008) (citations
Federal courts “are obliged to construe removal jurisdiction strictly because of the
‘significant federalism concerns implicated.’ Therefore, ‘if federal jurisdiction is doubtful,
a remand to state court is necessary.’” Maryland Stadium Auth. v. Ellerbe Becket Inc.,
407 F.3d 255, 260 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co.,
29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994)); see also Healy v. Ratta, 292 U.S. 263, 270 (1934) (“Due
regard for the rightful independence of state governments, which should actuate federal
courts, requires that they scrupulously confine their own jurisdiction to the precise limits
which the statute has defined.”).
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 6 of 8 PageID #: 511
Defendants seeking removal bear the burden of demonstrating that jurisdiction is
proper. See Strawn, 530 F.3d at 296–97. “While a defendant filing a notice of removal
under 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a) need only allege federal jurisdiction in a short plain
statement—just as federal jurisdiction is pleaded in a complaint—when removal is
challenged, the removing party bears the burden of demonstrating that removal jurisdiction
is proper.” Id. at 297 (citing Ellenburg v. Spartan Motors Chassis, Inc., 519 F.3d 192,
200 (4th Cir. 2008)); see also Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, 574 U.S.
81, 88-89 (2014) (when challenged, defendant must show that removal is proper by
preponderance of the evidence).
From a review of the Notice of Removal and the Motion to Remand, it is undisputed
that plaintiffs and defendant Landis are all West Virginia citizens, that the other defendants
are not West Virginia citizens, and that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.
Accordingly, the question of whether to remand this case to the Circuit Court of Harrison
County rests on whether defendant Landis has been fraudulently joined to this action.
Upon review, this Court finds that he has not and that the case should therefore be
The doctrine of fraudulent joinder “permits a district court to disregard, for
jurisdictional purposes, the citizenship of certain nondiverse defendants, assume
jurisdiction over a case, dismiss the nondiverse defendants, and thereby retain jurisdiction.”
Mayes v. Rapoport, 198 F.3d 457, 461 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Marshall v. Manville Sales
Corp., 6 F.3d 229, 232–33 (4th Cir.1993); Cobb v. Delta Exports, Inc., 186 F.3d 675, 677
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 7 of 8 PageID #: 512
(5th Cir.1999)). Defendants claiming fraudulent joinder must meet a heavy burden. “In
order to establish that a nondiverse defendant has been fraudulently joined, the removing
party must establish either: [t]hat there is no possibility that the plaintiff would be able to
establish a cause of action against the in-state defendant in state court; or [t]hat there has
been outright fraud in the plaintiff's pleading of jurisdictional facts.” Marshall, 6 F.3d at 232
(citation and quotations omitted). This “no possibility” standard means the Court resolves
“all issues of fact and law in the plaintiff's favor.” Id. at 233.
Here, plaintiffs allege, among other things, constructive fraud against defendant
Landis. They allege that Landis, while working as an insurance adjuster or investigator for
defedants Hartford Casualty, Hartford Midwest, and Sentinel, was a participant in the
wrongful denial of plaintiffs’ insurance claims. Although defendants dispute plaintiffs’
allegations, including as to Landis’ employment, such factual disputes at this stage must
be resolved in favor of the plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs’ theory for constructive fraud is based on their argument that it can be
asserted because of West Virginia’s public policy prohibiting insurers from taking unfair
advantage of policy holders. [Doc. 1-1 at 8]. “[C]onstructive fraud is generally reserved for
those cases where a fiduciary relationship exists between the parties or the fraud violates
an important public policy concern.” White v. Nat'l Steel Corp., 938 F.2d 474, 489 (4th
Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). Although defendants argue that this claim must fail because
plaintiffs have not alleged any misleading statements on the part of Landis, such
statements are not a prerequisite for pleading constructive fraud; indeed, “[c]onstructive
fraud does not require proof of fraudulent intent.” Stanley v. Sewell Coal Co., 169 W.Va.
Case 1:20-cv-00065-JPB Document 23 Filed 05/27/20 Page 8 of 8 PageID #: 513
72, 77, 285 S.E.2d 679, 683 (1981). Accordingly, this Court finds that plaintiffs could
possibly establish a cause of action for constructive fraud against defendant Landis. As
such, defendant Landis is not fraudulently joined, there is not complete diversity between
the parties, and this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction and must remand the case to
For the aforementioned reasons, Plaintiff’s Motion to Remand Action to State Court
[Doc. 16] is hereby GRANTED and the Court hereby REMANDS this case to the Circuit
Court of Harrison County, West Virginia. As such, Hartford Casualty Insurance Company’s
and Hartford Insurance Company of the Midwest’s Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 2], the Motion
to Dismiss of Sam Landis [Doc. 5], Defendant Melissa Feather’s Motion for Partial
Dismissal [Doc. 11], and the Motion to Bifurcate and Stay [Doc. 13] are all hereby
DENIED AS MOOT.
It is so ORDERED.
The Clerk is directed to transmit copies of this Order to all counsel of record herein
and to the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Harrison County, West Virginia.
DATED: May 27, 2020.
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