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Smith v. Pickens

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

October 27, 2017

OSIE PICKENS, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court sua sponte. On September 29, 2017, the undersigned entered a Show Cause Order (doc. 5) raising questions as to the existence vel non of federal subject matter jurisdiction as alleged in defendants' Notice of Removal (doc. 1). The parties have been given a full opportunity to brief the particular jurisdictional concerns raised in the September 29 Order.[1]

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff, Raymond Smith, commenced this action by and through counsel by filing a Complaint against Osie Pickens, Anthony Sanders and Geraldine Parte in the Circuit Court of Hale County, Alabama. Smith's Complaint alleges that defendants (all of whom appear to be Hale County public school officials) falsely accused him of making terroristic threats at Greensboro Middle School on February 18, 2016, causing Smith to be arrested, humiliated and jailed for 13 days for something he did not do.

         On its face, the Complaint clearly delineates four causes of action against defendants, with each claim set forth in a separate section and unambiguously labeled as such. Smith's claims are identified in the pleading as follows: (i) “Count One: Slander Per Se;” (ii) “Count Two: Abuse of Process;” (iii) “Count Three: Malicious Prosecution; § 6-5-550;” and (iv) “Count Four: False Imprisonment; § 6-5-170.” Each of these claims is presented in the Complaint as arising purely under Alabama law. Indeed, nowhere in the “Cause of Action” section of his Complaint does Smith reference the U.S. Constitution or any federal statute or constitutional right, much less suggest that any of Counts One through Four are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or otherwise grounded in whole or in part on a federal constitutional or statutory theory.

         Notwithstanding the foregoing, defendants filed a Notice of Removal (doc. 1) on September 14, 2017, removing this action to this District Court. In their Notice, defendants predicated federal subject matter jurisdiction solely on the federal question provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1331. According to defendants, removal was proper because “[t]his action arises under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States” based on certain language contained in the “Introduction” section of the Complaint. (Doc. 1, ¶ 3.) In particular, defendants maintained that the following text from the “Introduction” was sufficient to trigger federal question jurisdiction:

“This is a civil action seeking damages against Defendants … for slander per se, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and for wrongful acts committed under the color of Alabama law, thus depriving Plaintiff of rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America. Defendants … deprived plaintiff of his liberty without due process of law ….”

(Doc. 1-2, at 1.) In the September 29 Order, the Court directed briefing on the sufficiency of the cited language to support removal jurisdiction under § 1331.

         II. Analysis.

         As the removing parties, Pickens, Sanders and Parte bear the burden of showing that federal subject matter jurisdiction properly lies here. See, e.g., Scimone v. Carnival Corp., 720 F.3d 876, 882 (11th Cir. 2013) (“the burden of establishing removal jurisdiction rests with the defendant seeking removal”); City of Vestavia Hills v. General Fidelity Ins. Co., 676 F.3d 1310, 1313 n.1 (11th Cir. 2012) (“The removing party bears the burden of proof regarding the existence of federal subject matter jurisdiction.”). In an effort to satisfy this burden, defendants invoke the federal question provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         Section 1331 provides that “[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” In the ordinary case, “[f]ederal question jurisdiction must be determined by reference to the well-pleaded complaint rule. Under that rule, the federal basis for jurisdiction must show on the face of the plaintiff's complaint.” City of Huntsville v. City of Madison, 24 F.3d 169, 172 n.4 (11th Cir. 1994); see also Ehlen Floor Covering, Inc. v. Lamb, 660 F.3d 1283, 1287 (11th Cir. 2011) (“Federal question jurisdiction generally exists only when the plaintiffs' well-pleaded complaint presents issues of federal law ….”); Connecticut State Dental Ass'n v. Anthem Health Plans, Inc., 591 F.3d 1337, 1343 (11th Cir. 2009) (“The test ordinarily applied for determining whether a claim arises under federal law is whether a federal question appears on the face of the plaintiff's well-pleaded complaint.”). “As a general rule, a case arises under federal law only if it is federal law that creates the cause of action.” Connecticut State Dental, 591 F.3d at 1343 (citations omitted). These principles apply with equal force in the removal context. See, e.g., Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 765 n.20 (11th Cir. 2010) (“a defendant may remove on the basis of federal question jurisdiction only where that question appears on the face of the plaintiff's complaint”).[2]

         On the face of Smith's Complaint, he is asserting four specific, enumerated claims against defendants. Those claims are purely state-law causes of action sounding in theories of slander per se, abuse of process, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. Nothing in the text of Counts One, Two, Three or Four would support a reasonable inference that Smith is bringing them as federal statutory or constitutional claims. To the contrary, federal law does not appear to create Counts One, Two, Three or Four, nor does Smith's right to relief under those claims necessarily depend on resolution of a substantial question of federal law. Defendants do not argue otherwise. As such, under well-settled Eleventh Circuit precedents, Smith's well-pleaded complaint does not present a federal question. See, e.g., Smith v. GTE Corp., 236 F.3d 1292, 1310 (11th Cir. 2001) (“A well-pleaded complaint presents a federal question where it establishes either that federal law creates the cause of action or that the plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal law.”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Because the Complaint does not comport with the well-pleaded complaint rule for federal question jurisdiction, no § 1331 jurisdiction exists here.

         In so concluding, the Court finds unpersuasive defendants' reliance on the “Introduction” paragraph of the Complaint. To be sure, Smith (by and through counsel) makes reference in that paragraph to an alleged deprivation of Smith's “rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, ” as well as a deprivation of Smith's “liberty without due process of law.” The jurisdictional problem is that those bare allegations in the “Introduction” are untethered to any claim or cause of action actually pleaded in the Complaint. Smith's pleading was drafted by a lawyer, is well organized, and plainly delineates four (and only four) numbered claims.[3]Nowhere in those numbered claims are there any embedded federal constitutional or statutory questions. Federal law creates none of the claims actually enumerated in Smith's Complaint (i.e., Count One, Count Two, Count Three, Count Four). Smith's right to relief in those enumerated claims does not turn on resolution of a substantial question of federal law. That Smith's pleading alleges in prefatory text that he thinks defendants' conduct violated his federal constitutional rights and deprived him of liberty without due process of law is of no jurisdictional consequence where such allegations are neither connected to nor reflected in the substance of Counts One through Four. Stated differently, when this case goes to trial, the jury will be tasked with determining whether defendants engaged in slander per se (Count One), abuse of process (Count Two), malicious prosecution under Alabama Code § 6-5-550 (Count Three) and false imprisonment under Alabama Code § 6-5-170 (Count Four). That jury will not be tasked with deciding whether defendants violated Smith's federal due process rights or otherwise engaged in a deprivation of his rights under federal law. This is because no claim for relief including those questions or issues is presented in the well-pleaded Complaint. Musings or accusations in what is essentially a preamble to a counsel-drafted pleading do not suffice to create federal question jurisdiction under the well-pleaded complaint rule. Defendants identify no authority or legal principles to the contrary.[4]

         Nor do defendants strengthen their position by arguing that the “Prayer for Relief” demonstrates that Smith must be pursuing federal claims because it contains a demand for attorney's fees. Defendants are correct that the “Prayer for Relief” section of Smith's Complaint demands various remedies, including a request that defendants “pay for all litigation costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney's fees associated with the filing of this action.” (Doc. 1-2, at 6.) Defendants are also correct that an attorney's fee remedy is authorized for prevailing plaintiffs in § 1983 litigation. See 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) (stating that in § 1983 actions, “the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party … a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs”). Defendants are incorrect, however, in asserting that attorney's fees are “a remedy only available to a prevailing party under a federal claim.” (Doc. 6, at 3 (emphasis added).) Indeed, Smith has framed Count Three as a malicious prosecution claim under Alabama Code § 6-5-550, which section specifically authorizes recovery of a reasonable attorney's fee. See Ala. Code § 6-5-550 (“In any ...

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