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K.R. v. Backpage.Com.

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

August 18, 2017

K.R., Plaintiff,
v.
BACKPAGE.COM, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. KEITH WATKINS, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

          I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, a formerly underage victim of Alabama's illicit sex trafficking industry, brought this lawsuit in Alabama state court pursuant to Alabama Code § 13A-6-157, which creates a civil cause of action for victims of sex trafficking. She named a long list of defendants. Three of them were added because of their affiliation with the hotels where Plaintiff was victimized (Choice Hotels International, Inc., Veda LLC, Nirav Joshi; collectively, “Hotel Defendants”). One was her former pimp (Santiago Alonso, i.e., “Alonso”). The rest were individuals and companies responsible for operating the website Backpage.com (“Backpage Defendants”), which was the site Alonso used to advertise Plaintiff's sexual services to potential clients. Backpage Defendants removed the case to federal court on the ground that Plaintiff had fraudulently misjoined Alonso and the Hotel Defendants, both of whom are citizens of Alabama (“Alabama Defendants”), in an effort to defeat federal jurisdiction. (Doc. # 1.) Plaintiff then filed a Motion to Remand to state court, arguing that the Alabama Defendants were properly joined. (Doc. # 33.) On June 26, 2017, the Magistrate Judge filed a Recommendation (Doc. # 44), to which Backpage timely objected (Doc. # 48). For the reasons set forth below, and upon an independent and de novo review of the record and consideration of the Recommendation, Backpage's objections are due to be overruled, the Recommendation is due to be adopted, and the motion to remand is due to be granted.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Backpage Defendants make two arguments in their objections. First, they argue that the Magistrate Judge applied the wrong standard in determining whether the Alabama Defendants were fraudulently misjoined. And second, they argue that, even under the correct standard, the allegations in the complaint do not support the conclusion that Plaintiff's claims against Backpage are sufficiently connected to her claims against the Alabama Defendants, such that joinder is appropriate.

         A. The Magistrate Judge applied the correct standard

         The joining of a resident defendant to defeat diversity jurisdiction is fraudulent joinder: “(1) if there is no [reasonable] possibility the plaintiff can prove a cause of action against the resident defendant; or (2) if there has been outright fraud by the plaintiff in pleading jurisdictional facts.” Tapscott v. MS Dealer Serv. Corp., 77 F.3d 1353, 1360 n.17 (11th Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds in Cohen v. Office Depot, Inc., 204 F.3d 1069 (11th Cir. 2000); see also Legg v. Wyeth, 428 F.3d 1317, 1324 n.5 (11th Cir. 2005) (clarifying that “no possibility” means “[t]he potential for legal liability must be reasonable, not merely theoretical” (citations omitted)). Tapscott also identified a third category of fraudulent joinder: Even where the plaintiff can prove a cause of action against him, the resident defendant is fraudulently “misjoined” if the claims against him “have no real connection with the controversy.” Tapscott, 77 F.3d at 1360.

         Focusing on a single sentence from the Recommendation, the Backpage Defendants argue that the Magistrate Judge applies the standard for fraudulent joinder (the first Tapscott category), rather than misjoinder (the third Tapscott category), when he writes: “There is nothing trivial or far-fetched in the claims against [the Alabama] defendants.” (Doc. # 44, at 10.) But Backpage's myopic analysis ignores the rest of the opinion. Just before that sentence, the Magistrate Judge analyzes the extent to which the claims against the Backpage Defendants have “a real connection” with the claims against the Alabama Defendants, concluding that:

the alleged actions of the Backpage Defendants in engaging with Alonso, an Alabama resident defendant, to advertise the sexual services of a minor child, which services were carried out in a Dothan Alabama Quality Inn owned and operated by Veda and Joshi, and resulted in injury to K.R., arise from the same operative facts or series of occurrences.

         (Doc. # 44, at 9.) The Magistrate Judge's analysis applies the correct standard-that is, whether the claims against the allegedly misjoined defendants “have no real connection with the controversy.” For this reason, Backpage's first argument is without merit.

         B. The Complaint supports the Magistrate Judge's conclusion

         The Backpage Defendants next argue that Plaintiff fails to plead facts sufficient to establish that her claims against them have a “real connection” with her claims against the Alabama defendants. They argue that the Magistrate Judge relies on “conclusory allegations, ” rather than “specific factual allegations, ” to conclude otherwise. (Doc. # 48, at 6.)

         Again, buying Backpage's argument would require the court to ignore entire paragraphs from the Recommendation. To quote the Magistrate Judge:

K.R. alleges the liability of Backpage and the other Defendants under Alabama's anti human-trafficking statute. Her allegations reference Backpage's creation of a multimillion-dollar advertising platform that caters to pimps and sex traffickers in order to benefit financially from illegal prostitution and sex trafficking, including the sexual exploitation, trafficking, and victimization of children, including K.R. She cites to the findings of the Senate Report entitled “Backpage.com's Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking” that summarizes the role www.backpage.com and its founders and officers (James Larkin, Michael Lacey, and Carl Ferrer) have played in the criminal industry of sex trafficking. She describes Backpage's practices and procedures of altering its “adult” advertisements before publication by ...

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