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Green v. Caterpillar, Inc.

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

April 6, 2018

BRAXTON GREEN, as the Administrator of the Estate of Jeffrey L. Danner, Sr., deceased Plaintiff,
CATERPILLAR, 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. 14, entered 10/25/17). Now pending before the Court is the Motion for Remand (Doc. 8, filed 10/10/17). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for review. For good cause shown, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Motion for Remand be GRANTED.

         I. Facts and Procedural History[1]

         Plaintiff Braxton Green (“Green” or “Plaintiff”), as the Administrator of the Estate of Jeffrey L. Danner, Sr., filed this a complaint in Barbour County, Alabama Circuit Court on July 25, 2017. See Doc. 1, Atch 1, Complaint. The suit alleges wrongful death stemming from the negligent and wanton actions of Defendants Caterpillar, Inc. and Thompson Tractor Company, Inc. On April 21, 2017, Jeffrey Danner, Sr. was killed when his Caterpillar D4C Series III, bulldozer moved rearward without the intended operator input and without the operator within the operator compartment. As a result, the dozer ran over Mr. Danner. Id. Plaintiff asserts three specific causes of action. The first two counts are directed against Defendant Caterpillar, Inc. (“Caterpillar”) and make state law claims under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (AEMLD) and Negligence/Wantonness. Id. at p. 3-5. In a nutshell, Plaintiff claims defective design in the bulldozer subject to the accident at issue and negligence/wantonness as it related to that design, manufacture, marketing, sale, and recall. The third count is against Thompson Tractor Company, Inc. (“Thompson Tractor”) and asserts a claim for negligence/wantonness in the servicing of the bulldozer. Id. at p. 6.

         On August 25, 2017, Defendant Thompson Tractor Co., Inc. (“Thompson Tractor”) filed its answer in Barbour County Circuit Court. See Doc. 1, Atch. 7, Answer. On September 13, 2017, Defendant Caterpillar, Inc. filed a Notice of Removal in this court based on an assertion of diversity jurisdiction. See Doc. 1, generally. Defendant Caterpillar states in its Notice of Removal that the case is properly removable under 28 U.S.C. §1441 because the United States District Court has original jurisdiction over this case under 28 U.S.C. §1332.

         Specifically, Defendant Caterpillar asserts diversity jurisdiction exists in this case because the amount in controversy exceeds the $75, 000 jurisdictional threshold and complete diversity of citizenship exists among the “true parties” when considering Defendant Thompson Tractor has been fraudulently joined. Plaintiff is a citizen of Alabama. Defendant Caterpillar is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Peoria, Illinois. Defendant Thompson Tractor - the defendant which has allegedly been fraudulently joined - is an Alabama corporation with its principal place in Birmingham, Alabama.

         Plaintiff timely filed his motion to remand and brief in support on October 10, 2017. See Docs. 8-9. In the motion to remand, Plaintiff asserts Defendant Thompson Tractor was not fraudulently joined and therefore this case was not removable pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2) which states “[a] civil action otherwise removable solely on the basis of the jurisdiction under section 1332(a) of this title may not be removed if any of the parties in interest properly joined and served as defendants is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought.” Caterpillar responded to the motion to remand arguing that Thompson Tractor was fraudulently joined because Plaintiff could not recover against him under Alabama law. See Doc. 13. Therefore, if fraudulently joined, the Court must disregard his citizenship when considering the existence of diversity of citizenship. It emphasizes its point by arguing that the last work done by Thompson Tractor was in September 2015 (almost 20 months before the accident), there was no “contract” between Jeffrey Danner, Sr. and Thompson Tractor, and Thompson Tractor did not manufacture or assemble the machine, otherwise exercise control over the machine, or alter/modify the machine prior to selling it. See Doc. 13 at p. 4. Plaintiff timely filed a reply asserting Defendant have not established that Alabama law precludes a claim against Thompson Tractor and that Defendant improperly seeks to shift the burden to Plaintiff by arguing the merits of the claim instead of whether there is an arguable claim as required for jurisdictional purposes. See Doc. 15. Thompson Tractor has not filed any pleadings beyond its original Answer filed in state court and the required Corporate/Conflict Disclosure statement. See Docs. 1, 5.

         II. Standard of Review

         Federal courts have a strict duty to exercise jurisdiction conferred on them by Congress. Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 716, 116 S.Ct. 1712, 1720, 135 L.Ed.2d 1 (1996). However, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377, 114 S.Ct. 1673, 1675, 128 L.Ed.2d 391 (1994); Burns v. Windsor Insurance Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (1994). Defendant, as the party removing this action, have the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction. See Leonard v. Enterprise Rent a Car, 279 F.3d 967, 972 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Williams v. Best Buy Co., 269 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2001)). Further, the federal removal statutes must be construed narrowly and doubts about removal must be resolved in favor of remand. Allen v. Christenberry, 327 F.3d 1290, 1293 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing Diaz v. Sheppard, 85 F.3d 1502, 1505 (11th Cir. 1996)); Burns, 31 F.3d at 1095 (citations omitted).

         Even if complete diversity is lacking “on the face of the pleadings, ” a defendant may remove “an action…if the joinder of the non-diverse party…[was] fraudulent.” Triggs v. John Crump Toyota, Inc., 154 F.3d 1284, 1287 (citing Tapscott v. MS Dealer Service Corp., 77 F.3d 1353, 1355 (11th Cir. 1996)). The action is removable because “[w]hen a plaintiff names a non-diverse defendant solely in order to defeat federal diversity jurisdiction, the district court must ignore the presence of the non-diverse defendant.” Henderson v. Wash. Nat'l Ins. Co., 454 F.3d 1278, 1281 (11th Cir. 2006). “Fraudulent joinder is a judicially created doctrine that provides an exception to the requirement of complete diversity.” Triggs, 154 F.3d at 1287. The Eleventh Circuit has recognized three situations in which joinder may be deemed fraudulent: (1) when there is no possibility that the plaintiff can prove a cause of action against the resident (or non-diverse) defendant; (2) when there is outright fraud in the plaintiff's pleading of jurisdictional facts; and (3) when there is no real connection to the claim and the resident (or non-diverse) defendant. Id.

         “[T]he determination of whether a [non-diverse] defendant has been fraudulently joined must be based upon the plaintiff's pleadings at the time of removal, supplemented by any affidavits and deposition transcripts submitted by the parties.” Legg v. Wyeth, 428 F.3d 1317, 1322 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Pacheco de Perez v. AT&T Co., 139 F.3d 1368, 1380 (11th Cir. 1998)). “The proceeding appropriate for resolving a claim of fraudulent joinder is similar to that used for ruling on a motion for summary judgment under [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56].” Id. at 1322-23 (emphasis added). Accordingly, all contested issues of substantive fact and any uncertainties as to the current state of the law must be resolved in the plaintiff's favor. See id. at 1323; see also Cabalceta v. Standard Fruit Co., 883 F.2d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1989).

         However, “[w]hile the proceeding appropriate for resolving a claim of fraudulent joinder is similar to that used for ruling on a motion for summary judgment . . ., the jurisdictional inquiry must not subsume substantive determination.” Crowe v. Coleman, 113 F.3d 1536, 1538 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotations omitted). “In a fraudulent joinder inquiry, ‘federal courts are not to weigh the merits of a plaintiff's claim beyond determining whether it is an arguable one under state law.'” Pacheco de Perez, 139 F.3d at 1380-1381 (quoting Crowe, 113 F.3d at 1538).

         III. Discussion and Analysis

         Since this lawsuit began in state court, the court's jurisdiction depends on the propriety of removal. Diversity jurisdiction exists where there is diversity of citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeds $ 75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs. 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Section 1446(b) then answers the question of when an action is removable, setting forth the preconditions for removal in two types of cases: (1) those removable on the basis of an initial pleading; and (2) those that later become removable on the basis of “a copy of an amended pleading, motion, order or other paper.” Normally, the notice of removal must “be filed within thirty days after ...

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