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Mays v. General Motors LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

April 18, 2017

MISTY D. MAYS, Administratrix and Personal Representative of the Estate of Johnny Lee Mays, Jr., Deceased, and as the Surviving Dependent Spouse of Decedent Johnny Lee Mays, Jr., and WILLIAM LEON BRYANT, JR., Plaintiffs,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS LLC, HOWARD BENTLEY BUICK GMC, INC., and CAPITOL MACHINE & EQUIPMENT COMPANY, LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS United States District Judge

         The Complaint in this civil action alleges that Johnny Lee Mays, Jr. and William Leon Bryant, Jr. were injured while working as employees of Capitol Machine & Equipment Company, LLC. (“Capitol”). According to the Complaint, Mays and Bryant were riding in a pickup truck “manufactured, assembled, sold, warranted and distributed” by General Motors, LLC (“GM”) and Howard Bentley Buick GMC, Inc. (“HBB”), when the truck “ignited on fire, resulting in serious and traumatic injures, including burn injuries to . . . Mays and to . . . Bryant, and ultimately resulted in the death of . . . Mays.” (Doc. 1-2 at 7-8).

         This action was originally filed in the Circuit Court of Talladega County, Alabama, on December 13, 2016, by Misty Mays, in her capacity as the Administratrix and Personal Representative of the Estate of Johnny Lee Mays, Jr., and also in her capacity as the surviving spouse of Johnny Lee Mays, Jr. Bryant is named as a co-Plaintiff and sues on behalf of himself alone. The Plaintiffs named GM, HBB, and Capitol as Defendants. Mays makes a claim against Capitol for her husband's workers' compensation benefits. (Count Seven). Bryant also makes a claim against Capitol for his own workers' compensation benefits. (Count Twelve). Against GM and HBB the Plaintiffs allege various tort law theories all arising out of the truck fire. (Counts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Eight, Nine, Ten, and Eleven).

         On January 13, 2017, GM removed the case to this Court, asserting subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1), the diversity jurisdiction statute, despite the fact that the Plaintiffs, and Defendants HBB and Capitol, are all citizens of the state of Alabama. (Doc. 1). On February 10, 2017, the Plaintiffs moved to remand, asserting that there is not complete diversity of citizenship in this case, and arguing that the removal was procedurally defective. (Doc. 21).[1] For the reasons stated herein, the motion to remand will be GRANTED.

         I.SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION AND FRAUDULENT JOINDER

         “It is by now axiomatic that the inferior courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They are empowered to hear only those cases within the judicial power of the United States as defined by Article III of the Constitution, and which have been entrusted to them by a jurisdictional grant authorized by Congress.” Univ. of South Alabama v. The American Tobacco Co., et al., 168 F.3d 405, 409 (11th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted). “The jurisdiction of a court over the subject matter of a claim involves the court's competency to consider a given type of case, and cannot be waived or otherwise conferred upon the court by the parties. Otherwise, a party could ‘work a wrongful extension of federal jurisdiction and give district courts power the Congress denied them.'” Jackson v. Seaboard Coast Line R.R., 678 F.2d 992, 1000-01 (11th Cir. 1982) (quoting American Fire & Cas. Co. v. Finn, 341 U.S. 6, 18 (1951)) (internal footnotes and citations omitted). Moreover, “[b]ecause removal jurisdiction raises significant federalism concerns, federal courts are directed to construe removal statutes strictly.” Univ. of S. Ala., 168 F.3d at 411 (citing Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 108-09 (1941)).

         “Diversity jurisdiction exists where the suit is between citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds the statutorily prescribed amount, in this case $75, 000.” Williams v. Best Buy Co., 269 F.3d 1316, 1319 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)). The statute “requires complete diversity-every plaintiff must be diverse from every defendant.” Palmer v. Hosp. Auth., 22 F.3d 1559, 1564 (11th Cir. 1994). As alluded to above, in this case there is not complete diversity since HBB and Capitol are Alabama citizens and so are both Plaintiffs.

         GM states that this Court should ignore the citizenship of HBB and Capitol because they have been “fraudulently joined”-added solely to destroy complete diversity and avoid removal of this case. “‘[W]hen a plaintiff names a non-diverse defendant solely in order to defeat federal diversity jurisdiction, the district court must ignore the presence of the non-diverse defendant and deny any motion to remand the matter back to state court.'” Christopher M. Hunt, Sr. v. Nationstar Mortgage, LLC, et al., No. 16-12832, 2017 WL 1325253, at *2 (11th Cir. Apr. 11, 2017) (quoting Stillwell v. Allstate Ins. Co., 663 F.3d 1329, 1332 (11th Cir. 2011)). Very recently, a panel of the Eleventh Circuit noted:

Fraudulent joinder can be established under two circumstances: (1) when there is no possibility that the plaintiff can establish a cause of action against the non-diverse defendant; or (2) the plaintiff fraudulently pleaded jurisdictional facts specifically to bring the action in state court and defeat diversity jurisdiction in federal court. [Stillwell, 663 F.3d at 1332].

Hunt, 2017 WL 1325253, at *2-3. There is also “a third situation in which the Eleventh Circuit has recognized fraudulent joinder ‘where a diverse defendant is joined with a nondiverse defendant as to whom there is no joint, several or alternative liability and where the claim against the diverse defendant has no real connection to the claim against the nondiverse defendant.'” Mabry v. Travelers Home & Marine Ins. Co., No. 2:16CV680-CSC, 2017 WL 1160576, at *2 n. 2 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 28, 2017) (Coody, J.) (quoting Triggs v. John Crump Toyota, Inc., 154 F.3d 1284, 1287 (11th Cir. 1998)); Alexander v. Whaley, No. 216CV00921WHACSC, 2017 WL 694228, at *3 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 21, 2017) (Albritton, J.). This situation, referred to as “fraudulent misjoinder, ” proceeds from the requirement in Rule 20 of both the Alabama and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that persons may be joined in one action as defendants if there is “asserted against them jointly, severally, or in the alternative, ” any right to relief in respect of or “arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences” and if “any question of law or fact common to all defendants will arise in the action.” See, Tapscott v. MS Dealer Serv. Corp., 77 F.3d 1353, 1360 (11th Cir. 1996) abrogated for other reasons by Cohen v. Office Depot, Inc., 204 F.3d 1069 (11th Cir. 2000); Ala. R. Civ. P. 20(a); Fed.R.Civ.P. 20(a). In Tapscott the Eleventh Circuit was clear that “[w]e do not hold that mere misjoinder is fraudulent joinder, ” but noted that misjoinder may be “so egregious as to constitute fraudulent joinder.” Tapscott, 77 F.3d at 1360. It is the third type of fraudulent joinder (fraudulent misjoinder) which GM claims is present here.

         II. ANALYSIS

         “A civil action in any State court arising under the [workers'] compensation laws of such State may not be removed to any district court of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1445(c). “[T]he Eleventh Circuit has held that federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over removed [workers'] compensation claims.” Formosa v. Lowe's Home Centers, Inc., 806 F.Supp.2d 1181, 1186 (N.D. Ala. 2011) (Blackburn, J.) (citing Reed v. Heil Co., 206 F.3d 1055');">206 F.3d 1055, [1061] (11th Cir.2000)); New v. Sports & Recreation, Inc., 114 F.3d 1092, 1097 (11th Cir. 1997) (“Section 1445(c) is a jurisdictional-based limitation on the district court's removal power.”); Alansari v. Tropic Star Seafood Inc., 388 F.App'x 902, 905 (11th Cir. 2010) (“We have concluded that, under section 1445(c), a district court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to review a retaliation claim arising out of state workers' compensation laws.”) (citing Reed). Because this Court has no jurisdiction over the claims in Counts Seven and Twelve, those claims must be remanded to the Circuit Court of Talladega County, Alabama.[2] The only issue is whether those claims alone, or the entire case, must be remanded.

         A. There Is No Fraudulent Misjoinder in This Case.

         In its Notice of Removal, GM argues that these claims have been fraudulently misjoined, and therefore should be dismissed from this case. (Doc. 1 at 7-9)[3] . The Court does not agree. “[I]n an action with a workers' compensation claim and other tort claims seeking several liability for damages in a work-related incident, joinder [is] proper because the claims involve (1) several liability, and (2) common questions of fact.” Watson v. Gen. Elec., Inc., No. CV 12 S 2661 NE, 2012 WL 5931884, at *5 (N.D. Ala. Nov. 26, 2012) (Smith, J.); see also, Jernigan v. City of Eufaula, Ala., 123 F.Supp.3d 1322, 1330 (M.D. Ala. 2015) (Albritton, J.) (and cases cited therein); Phillips v. R.R. Dawson Bridge Co., LLC, No. 2:14-CV-00480-LSC, 2014 WL 3970176, at *3 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 12, 2014) (Coogler, J.) (no fraudulent misjoinder of workers' compensation claims and tort claims where “[a]ll of the claims . . . stem from [the plaintiff's] death while on the job”); Wingard v. Guillot Textilmaschinen GMBH, No. 2:08-cv-342-WKW, 2008 WL 4368884, at *3 (M.D.Ala. Sept. 23, 2008) (Watkins, J.) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 20(a); Williams v. CNH America, LLC, 542 F.Supp.2d 1261, 1265 (M.D.Ala.2008) (Fuller, J.); Brooks v. Paulk & Cope, Inc., 176 F.Supp.2d 1270, 1276 (M.D. Ala 2001)) (Albritton, J.).

         GM contends that this case is different than those cited above because both Mays and Bryant have sworn that the allegations contained in Counts Seven and Twelve, respectively, “are true and correct.” (Doc. 1-7 at 3, 4). Therefore, the argument goes,

[t]here is no fact in dispute about the obligation of Capitol . . . to pay workers' compensation benefits. Therefore, there are no overlapping facts involving the workers' compensation claims and the claims against GM. There is also no common question of law between the Plaintiffs' claims against Capitol . . . and their claims against GM.

(Doc. 1 at 8).

         This argument fails for two reasons. First, just because the Plaintiffs believe and swear that their claims have merit does not resolve any dispute. As noted by the Plaintiffs, “if filing a verified complaint (which is required under [Alabama law]) was sufficient to demonstrate the absence of any dispute as to liability, there would never be a contested workers' compensation claim in the state of Alabama.” (Doc. 31 at 31). Second, Capitol, through its insurer Argos Risk Management, has expressly denied liability on Counts Seven and Twelve. (Doc. 31-7 at 2-4; doc. 31-8 at 2).

         In support of its fraudulent misjoinder argument, GM cites Callen v. Daimler Trucks N. Am., LLC, No. 2:16CV311-WHA, 2016 WL 3566736, at *3 (M.D. Ala. June 29, 2016) (Albritton, J.) (doc. 1 at 8-9), another case in which tort law claims against a diverse defendant were joined with workers' compensation claims against a non-diverse defendant, all of which arose out of the same work place accident. In that case, Judge Albritton held that

because Worker's Compensation benefits were paid, the undisputed evidence is that there are no additional benefits at issue, and the benefits were being paid at the time the Complaint was filed, there is no possibility that state law would impose liability on, and ...

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