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Steel v. Viscofan USA, Inc.

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

November 8, 2017

VISCOFAN USA, INC., et al., Defendants.



         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), this case was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for review and submission of a report with recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law. Doc. 13. On September 6, 2016, Plaintiff Kawayne Steel filed this lawsuit against Viscofan USA, Inc. (“Viscofan”)[1] in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama. Doc. 1-1. After the Circuit Court severed Steel's tort claims from his workers' compensation claim, Viscofan removed the tort claims to this court on May 31, 2017. Doc. 2. Now before the court is Steel's Motion to Remand. Doc. 8. After careful consideration of the parties' submissions, see Docs. 8, 9, 11, 17 & 18, and the applicable law, the undersigned recommends that the motion to remand be DENIED.


         Viscofan employed Steel as a machine operator in an industrial facility in Montgomery County. Doc. 2-2 at 3. On March 23, 2016, Steel cut his left arm as he fed a meat casing onto a machine, resulting in significant injuries. Doc. 2-2 at 3-4. According to his complaint, the defendants improperly designed, manufactured, installed, distributed, sold, or assembled this machine, causing Steel's injuries. Doc. 2-2 at 5.

         Initially, Steel brought state-law claims against Viscofan in the Circuit Court pursuant to the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (“AEMLD”) and for negligence and wantonness. Doc. 2-1 at 5-8. Steel also brought a workers' compensation claim. Doc. 2-1 at 4. He joined all of these claims in the same lawsuit, designated by the Circuit Court as Civil Action Number 03-CV-2016-901184. Docs. 2-1 & 2-6. Viscofan removed the case to this court on October 6, 2016, and then moved to sever and to remand the workers' compensation claim. See Steel v. Viscofan USA, Inc., 2017 WL 253960, *1 (M.D. Ala. Jan. 19, 2017). The undersigned declined to sever the claims and remanded the entire case. Id. at *4.

         Back in state court, Steel amended his complaint to add several foreign corporations as defendants. See Doc. 2-2. Then, on May 1, 2017, the state court severed Steel's workers' compensation claim from his tort claims pursuant to Rule 21 of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure[2] over Steel's objection. Docs. 2-6 at 311 & 17-3. The new case--consisting only of Steel's tort claims--was docketed as Civil Action Number 03-CV-2017-000261. Doc. 2-8. Viscofan removed this new lawsuit on May 31 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. The notice of removal alleges that Viscofan is a citizen of Delaware and Illinois; Defendants Viscofan SA, Master Automatismos SL, and Disenos y Projectos Electronicos are citizens of Spain; and Defendant Kuko is a citizen of China.[3] Doc. 2 at 5. Viscofan asserts that the case meets the requirements for diversity jurisdiction because Steel is a citizen of Alabama and his claims place more than $75, 000 in controversy. Doc. 2 at 4-10. Steel does not dispute that the parties are diverse or that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional threshold, see Doc. 9, but nevertheless presents three arguments for remand, as explained below. These arguments are ultimately unavailing, and the undersigned concludes upon an independent review of the record that the prerequisites for federal jurisdiction have been satisfied.


         This is a court of limited jurisdiction. Only cases that originally could have been filed in federal court may invoke this court's jurisdiction through removal from a state court. E.g., 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a); Burns v. Windsor Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (11th Cir. 1994). The “removing defendant bears the burden of proving proper federal jurisdiction.” Leonard v. Enter. Rent a Car, 279 F.3d 967, 972 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Williams v. Best Buy Co., Inc., 269 F.3d 1316, 1319-20 (11th Cir. 2001)). In analyzing whether the defendant has carried that burden, the “removal statutes are construed narrowly” and “uncertainties are resolved in favor of remand.” Burns, 31 F.3d at 1095 (citing Boyer v. Snap-on Tools Corp., 913 F.2d 108 (3rd Cir. 1990), and Coker v. Amoco Oil Co., 709 F.2d 1433 (11th Cir. 1983)). Here, the undersigned concludes that there is no uncertainty over Viscofan's proof of federal jurisdiction.

         A. Section 1445(c) Non-Removability

         Steel first argues that, “[b]ecause this action arises under Alabama's Workers Compensation Act, it is non-removable pursuant to [28] U.S.C. § 1445(c).” Doc. 9 at 6. Steel is correct to contend that federal courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over workers' compensation claims, Formosa v. Lowe's Home Centers, Inc., 806 F.Supp.2d 1181, 1186 (N.D. Ala. 2011), and that any case “arising under the workmen's compensation laws” of a state is not removable. 28 U.S.C. § 1445(c). However, Steel fails in his attempt to shoehorn his tort claims into § 1445(c).

         In Reed v. Heil Company, the Eleventh Circuit distinguished certain common-law causes of action from state-law retaliatory discharge claims in concluding that retaliatory discharge claims arise under the Alabama workers' compensation statute. See Reed v. Heil Co., 206 F.3d 1055, 1058-60 (11th Cir. 2000). Specifically, the court found that the retaliatory discharge statute is “an integral part of Alabama's workers' compensation regime” because it had been “[c]odified together with the remaining workers' compensation laws [and] passed to enhance the efficacy of the overall workers' compensation system.” Id. at 1060. Court decisions involving common-law tort-like claims--including one for an employer's intentional injury to its employees--were “inapposite” because the common-law claims “are so different from Alabama's retaliatory discharge statute.” Id. Applying Reed when Viscofan first removed this case, the undersigned concluded that Steel's tort claims “are precisely the type of common-law claims distinguished by the Reed court, ” and therefore they do not implicate § 1445(c). Steel, 2017 WL 253960, at *2; see also Payne v. J.B. Hunt Transp., Inc., 154 F.Supp.3d 1310, 1315 (M.D. Fla. 2016) (holding that a negligence claim does not arise under Florida's workers' compensation law); Moore v. CAN Found., 472 F.Supp.2d 1327, 1329 n.* (M.D. Ala. 2007) (“[I]t appears that a common-law cause of action related to a workers' compensation claim is not affected by § 1445(c).”). Then as now, Steel's tort claims do not arise under Alabama's workers' compensation law within the meaning of § 1445(c), and therefore this statute does not preclude removability.

         B. Voluntary/Involuntary Doctrine

         Alternatively, Steel relies on the voluntary/involuntary doctrine, which bars removal in certain circumstances even when the requirements of federal jurisdiction are otherwise satisfied. Doc. 9 at 7. Specifically, Steel points to Priest v. Sealift Services International, Inc., 953 F.Supp. 363 (N.D. Ala. 1997), for the proposition that “[a] case does not suddenly become removable after having been non-removable unless and except by some voluntary act of [the] plaintiff.” Priest, 953 F.Supp. at 364. Priest itself is factually distinguishable, as the Priest court was careful to note that “despite the severance, this was, at the time of removal, still one case.” Id. at 363. The same cannot be said for the instant case, in which the state-court severance resulted in two separate actions with unique case numbers. See Docs. 2-6 (Civil Action Number 03-CV-2016-900184) & 2-8 (Civil Action Number 03-CV-2017-000261). This fact alone undercuts Steel's reliance on Priest, but it does not foreclose the applicability of the voluntary/involuntary doctrine despite the rule's genesis in 1890s case law and an outdated statutory removal scheme. See Weems v. Louis Dreyfus Corp., 380 F.2d 545, 547 (5th Cir. 1967) (tracing the doctrine's lineage to Powers v. Chesapeake & Oh. Ry. Co., 169 U.S. 92 (1898), and Whitcomb v. Smithson, 175 U.S. 635 (1900), in reaffirming the doctrine following the 1949 amendments to § 1446).

         In part due to this lineage, the voluntary/involuntary doctrine demands a nuanced analysis of modern Eleventh Circuit precedent. As explained below, the court first finds that the applicability of the doctrine is not limited to involuntary dismissals of non-diverse defendants. Next, even though the court finds that the doctrine is broad enough that it might impact involuntary Rule 21 severances, the undersigned concludes that the doctrine does not bar the instant removal ...

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