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Owens v. 3M Company, Inc.

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

September 29, 2017

CHARLES OWENS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
3M COMPANY, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         3M Company, Inc., Daikin America, Inc., and Dyneon, L.L.C. (collectively referred to as the “Defendants”) timely removed this action from the Circuit Court of Lawrence County, Alabama, claiming that jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, and 1446. Doc. 1. In response, Plaintiffs, a large group of individuals with property interests receiving water from the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority (the “Authority”), filed a motion to remand, doc. 12, asserting that the Defendants had failed to establish the requisite jurisdictional amount in controversy by a preponderance of the evidence. The motion is fully briefed, docs. 26; 27, and now ripe for decision. Following careful consideration of the parties' briefs, the record, and with the benefit of oral argument, the Plaintiffs' motion is due to be granted.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under § 1332, federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over state law claims where there is complete diversity of citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 exclusive of costs and interests. “[T]he party seeking to remove the case to federal court bears the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction.” Evans v. Walter Indus., Inc., 449 F.3d 1159, 1164 (11th Cir. 2006). Here, there is no dispute that the complete diversity requirement of § 1332 is satisfied. Thus, this court need determine only whether the amount in controversy exceeded $75, 000 at the time of removal. See Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 751 (11th Cir. 2010).[1]

         “‘Where, as here, the plaintiff has not pled a specific amount of damages, the removing defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional requirement.'” Id. at 752 (quoting Williams v. Best Buy Co., 269 F.3d 1316, 1319 (11th Cir. 2001)). In some cases, the pleadings may clearly establish that “the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum, even when ‘the complaint does not claim a specific amount of damages.'” Roe v. Michelin N. Am., Inc., 613 F.3d 1058, 1061 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Pretka, 608 F.3d at 754). And, this Court is empowered to use its judicial experience and common sense to determine whether the complaint states a claim which will, more likely than not, meet the requirements of federal diversity jurisdiction. See Id. at 1062. However, absent “facts or specific allegations, the amount in controversy c[an] be ‘divined [only] by looking at the stars'-only through speculation-and that is impermissible.” Pretka, 608 F.3d at 753-54 (quoting Lowery v. Ala. Power Co., 483 F.3d 1184, 1215 (11th Cir. 2007)). Accordingly, in some cases, “the removing defendant [must] provide additional evidence demonstrating that removal is proper” in order to satisfy their burden. Roe, 613 F.3d at 1061.

         While federal courts may not shirk from their duty of exercising the jurisdiction conferred on them by Congress, they remain “courts of limited jurisdiction.” Burns v. Windsor Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (11th Cir. 1994). Consequently, this court strictly construes removal statutes and “‘all doubts about jurisdiction [are] resolved in favor of remand to state court.'” City of Vestavia Hills v. Gen. Fid. Ins. Co., 676 F.3d 1310, 1313 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Univ. of S. Ala. v. Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 411 (11th Cir. 1999)).

         II. BACKGROUND

         This action concerns a dispute between residents and property owners who obtain their water from the Authority, the Plaintiffs, and three out-of-state manufacturing corporations, the Defendants. Doc. 1-2 at 47-48. The Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants' manufacturing and disposal activities have resulted in the release of various chemicals into the Tennessee River and its tributaries, the primary source of water for the Authority. Id. at 48-49. The Plaintiffs aver that these chemicals are carcinogenic and can significantly impact human health, even at relatively low exposure levels. Id. at 49-50.

         Accordingly, the Plaintiffs filed the instant complaint in the Circuit Court of Lawrence County, Alabama, asserting numerous state law claims including negligence, nuisance, trespass, wantonness, and battery. Id. at 44, 54-58. The complaint seeks, in addition to punitive damages, unspecified amounts of compensatory damages for emotional distress, mental anguish, and property damage. Id. at 54-58. The Plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief requiring the Defendants to remediate the harmful chemicals they have already introduced into the environment and to cease their allegedly unsafe business practices. Id. at 58- 59.

         The Defendants timely removed this action to this court pursuant to § 1441 and the first paragraph of § 1446(b) claiming that the requirements for diversity jurisdiction outlined in § 1332(a) are met. Doc. 1 at 2-4. Subsequently, the Plaintiffs moved to remand the case to state court arguing that the Defendants have failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional threshold of $75, 000. Doc. 12 at 2.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The gravamen of the Defendants jurisdictional argument is that the complaint contains serious allegations and “broadly and vaguely request[s] compensatory damages for mental anguish, emotional distress, damages to . . . real property, diminution in the value of . . . real property, . . . out of pocket expenses for bottled water and specialty water filters, [and] punitive damages.” Doc. 26 at 5. Based on these contentions, the Defendants assert that common sense tells us that at least one of the Plaintiffs must assert claims satisfying the amount-in-controversy requirement. However, given the record before this court, and the lack of any specific evidence regarding the proper valuation of the Plaintiffs' claims, the court cannot make such a finding.[2]

         The Defendants primarily argue in support of removal by suggesting that the face of the complaint makes clear that the amount-in-controversy requirement is satisfied. But, the complaint does not contain an ad damnum clause, and only specifically asserts that the jurisdictional limit for state court proceedings, $10, 000, is met. The complaint does not provide any information regarding the actual concentration of chemicals in the Plaintiffs' water-supply, the base-line level of exposure the Plaintiffs may have had to the dangerous chemicals allegedly released by the Defendants, or the specific effects increasing exposure to those chemicals may have had on the Plaintiffs or their property. Nor does the complaint offer any specific details regarding the mental anguish or emotional distress the Plaintiffs allegedly experienced. Moreover, there are no cost estimates for the provision of specialty water filters or bottled water the Plaintiffs purportedly had to purchase or any evidence showing a decline in property values based on the alleged release of chemicals into the water-supply.[3] All in all, the record is marked by a complete absence of the sort of concrete information needed to realistically assess the compensatory damages potentially available to the Plaintiffs.[4]

         The Defendants also contend that the Plaintiffs' request for punitive damages is sufficient to create an inference that the jurisdictional amount is met. The complaint, however, does not specify the amount of these damages, and the court has no evidentiary foundation to enable it to infer the amount of punitive damages potentially at issue. See, e.g., Nolen v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA, No. 2:12-cv-41-WKW, 2012 WL 4378200, at *5 (M.D. Ala. Sept. 25, 2012) (explaining that requests for mental anguish and punitive damages cannot satisfy the removing party's ...


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