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Reagin v. French

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

October 4, 2017

JOEL REAGIN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
NORMAN FRENCH, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This civil action for a partition and sale of property proceeds before the court on Plaintiffs' Motion to Remand. (Doc. 2). In their Motion, Plaintiffs argue that the federal court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to sustain removal because this case proceeds as an in rem or quasi in rem action. Because the Defendant's removal terminated the state court's quasi in rem jurisdiction over this action, the court DENIES the motion.

         Background

         Plaintiffs Joel Reagin, Susan Ann Morris Gardner, and Carol Massey, and Defendant Norman French, assumed ownership of an undivided, one fourth interest, “each in and to [particular] property by separate deeds, ” from the Wendell and Martha French Revocable Trust. Plaintiff filed this action in the Circuit Court of Lawrence County, Alabama, on February 14, 2017, seeking a “divide or partition, or sell for partition, ” of the jointly-owned property pursuant to 1975 Ala. Code §§35-6-20 through 35-6-25 (1975). Defendant French, who avers he is a citizen of Texas, removed the action on March 17, 2017, alleging diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. §1441(a) (allowing removal of civil actions over which the district courts have original jurisdiction); 28 U.S.C. §1332 (providing that federal courts “have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sums or value of $75, 000 . . . and is between . . . citizens of different states.”). The Plaintiffs timely filed motions to remand this case to the state court.

         Standard of Review

         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and there is a presumption against the exercise of federal jurisdiction, such that all uncertainties as to removal jurisdiction are to be resolved in favor of remand.” Russell Corp. v. American Home Assurance Co., 264 F.3d 1040, 1050 (11th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). Therefore, courts should construe “removal statutes . . . narrowly, with doubts resolved against removal.” Allen v. Christenberry, 327 F.3d 1290, 1293 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 877 (2003); University of South Alabama v. American Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 411 (11th Cir. 1999)(“Because removal jurisdiction raises significant federalism concerns, federal courts are directed to construe removal statutes strictly. . . . Indeed, all doubts about jurisdiction should be resolved in favor of remand to state court”).

         The removing defendant “bears the burden of proving proper federal jurisdiction.” Adventure Outdoors, Inc. v. Blomberg, 552 F.3d 1290, 1294 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal quotes omitted). Where jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship pursuant to § 1332, French, as the removing party invoking this court's jurisdiction, must establish diversity jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. McCormick v. Aderholt, 293 F.3d 1254, 1257 (11th Cir. 2002). The court assesses the basis for federal jurisdiction at the time of removal. Whitt v. Sherman Int'l Corp, 147 F.3d 1325, 1332 (11th Cir. 1998).

         Discussion

         As the Supreme Court proclaims, federal courts “‘have no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given, than to usurp that which is not given.'” Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 298-99 (2006) (quoting Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, 404 (1821)). In the matter at bar, the case ostensibly falls under the Court's diversity subject matter jurisdiction: there exists complete diversity between the Plaintiffs and Defendant, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 for each Plaintiff.[1] Therefore, if such analysis holds, then the defendant properly removed this case because the Court possessed original jurisdiction over the action. However, there exist several common law exceptions to the exercise of otherwise proper subject matter jurisdiction, one of which arises in this case: the probate exception.

         The probate exception serves as a longstanding limitation on otherwise properly exercised federal jurisdiction. See Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 494 (1946); Sutton v. English, 246 U.S. 199 (1918). This exception stemmed from a general understanding that the equity jurisdiction conferred by the Judiciary Act of 1789 did not extend to probate matters. See Sutton, 246 U.S. at 205; O'Callaghan v. O'Brien, 199 U.S. 89, 105 (1905). The Supreme Court clarified the exception's scope in Marshall and delineated three circumstances where the probate exception limits federal court jurisdiction: (1) the probate or annulment of a will; (2) the administration of a decedent's estate; and (3) where the federal court endeavors to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. Marshall, 547 U.S. at 311-12. Federal courts may adjudicate matters “outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.” Id. at 312.

         This action involves a sale for partition under Alabama law, and thus the request falls outside the first two categories of the probate exception: it does not involve the probate or annulment of a will, and it does not involve the administration of a decedent's estate.[2] The issue remains whether a state probate court maintains custody of the subject property, a circumstances which incites the general principle that “when one court is exercising in rem jurisdiction over a res, a second court will not assume in rem jurisdiction over the same res.” 547 U.S. at 311.

         The third category of the probate exception actually comprises the prior exclusive jurisdiction doctrine. Goncalves By and Through Goncalves v. Rady Children's Hospital San Diego, 865 F.3d 1237, 1253 (9th Cir. 2017) (This aspect of Marshall “has little to do with probate; rather, it is an application of the prior exclusive jurisdiction doctrine.”) (citation omitted).[3] Pursuant to the doctrine, when litigants advance separate in rem or quasi in rem cases in federal and state courts regarding the same property, the court first assuming jurisdiction over the res at issue maintains control over the property to the exclusion of the other court. Princess Lida of Thurn and Taxis v. Thompson, 305 U.S. 456, 466 (1939); see United States v. $270, 000 in U.S. Currency, Plus Interest, 1 F.3d 1146, 1147 (11th Cir. 1993) (“A state court and a federal court cannot simultaneously exercise in rem jurisdiction over the same property.”).[4]

         The parties do not dispute that this case constitutes a quasi in rem action. The plaintiffs advance this cause to determine the status and disposition of property over which the parties have ownership interests. See Ex Parte Bruner, 749 So.2d 437, 440 (Ala. 1999)(“a quasi in rem action is an action ‘against the person in respect of the res, where, for example, it has for its object partition, or the sale or other disposition of [the] defendant's property.'”)(quoting Gill v. More, 76 So. 453, 459 (Ala. 1917)).

         The Plaintiffs argue primarily that the Lawrence County Circuit Court's assumption of quasi in rem jurisdiction, upon the initial filing in this case, precludes a federal court from exercising jurisdiction over the subject property. Implicitly, the Plaintiffs argue that the Lawrence County Circuit Court's assumption of quasi in rem jurisdiction should preclude jurisdiction in this Court, yet the Plaintiffs fail to acknowledge that this finding rests upon a missing premise: the existence of parallel proceedings in the Lawrence County Circuit Court and this federal court. As discerned previously, the prior ...


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