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Gaines v. Greene County Dialysis

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

October 19, 2018

GREENE COUNTY DIALYSIS, et al., Defendants.



         This case is before the court on Plaintiff's Motion to Remand. (Doc. # 4). Plaintiff Cleophus Gaines, Jr. sued Defendants Greene County Dialysis; DaVita, Inc.; DaVita Healthcare Partners, Inc.; DaVita Accountable Care Solutions, LLC; DVA Healthcare of Tuscaloosa, LLC; DVA Healthcare Renal Care, Inc.; and DVA Renal Healthcare, Inc. in state court. Plaintiff asserts state-law negligence and premises liability claims against Defendants. Defendant DVA Renal Healthcare, Inc. (“DVA Renal Healthcare”) removed the case to this court, invoking diversity jurisdiction.

         Defendant DVA Renal Healthcare does not dispute that Plaintiff and at least some of the other named Defendants (collectively, the “Alabama Defendants”) are all citizens of Alabama, which would ordinarily defeat diversity jurisdiction. However, it argues that because Plaintiff fraudulently joined the Alabama Defendants to prevent removal, their citizenship should be disregarded in determining whether diversity jurisdiction exists. Plaintiff responds by asserting that DVA Renal Healthcare has not met the high standard for establishing fraudulent joinder and thus requests that the case be remanded to state court. After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court agrees with Plaintiff. Because there is a possibility that Plaintiff can state a vicarious liability claim for negligence against at least one of the Alabama Defendants in state court, the court cannot say those Defendants were fraudulently joined and this case properly removed. Thus, Plaintiff's Motion to Remand is due to be granted.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         This case arises out of a tragic accident that led to the death of Cleophus Gaines, Sr. On July 15, 2016, Gaines visited the outpatient facility Greene County Dialysis to receive kidney dialysis treatment. (Doc. # 1-1 at 12, ¶ 11). After completing his dialysis treatment session, Gaines waited in the front lobby of the facility for his wife to pick him up. (Id. at 12, ¶ 13). When Gaines saw his wife pull up to the front entrance, he rose from his seat and began walking to the door. (Id. at 13, ¶ 16). As he approached the front entrance, Gaines became dizzy, lightheaded, and weak, and he fell hard to the floor, severely injuring his left shoulder, left arm, and right hip. (Id.). Shortly after the fall, someone called 911 and an ambulance arrived to take Gaines to the hospital. (Id. at 15, ¶ 20). EMS personnel transported Gaines to a hospital in Tuscaloosa, where he was promptly treated and x-rayed by emergency room personnel. (Id. at 15, ¶¶ 21-23). Hospital staff later moved Gaines from the emergency department and admitted him to a room at the hospital. (Id. at 16, ¶ 24). He remained there until his health continued to decline, at which point the hospital transferred him to the intensive care unit (“ICU”). (Id.). Gaines' health continued to decline while in the ICU, and he passed away at the hospital on August 4, 2016, less than three weeks after he was admitted. (Id. at 16, ¶ 25).

         Plaintiff alleges that during the time Gaines was waiting in the lobby after his dialysis treatment, no one from the dialysis facility was in the lobby to monitor or assist patients who had just undergone treatment. (Id. at 13, ¶ 14). Plaintiff also claims Defendants breached their duty to ensure proper supervision of and assistance to Gaines, who as an elderly patient was at a known increased risk of dizziness, fatigue and weakness after receiving dialysis treatment and who himself had a documented prior history of falls and near-falls in the preceding months recorded in his chart at Greene County Dialysis. (Id. at 13-14, ¶¶ 15, 17-19). In his state-court Complaint, Plaintiff claims Defendants are both vicariously liable for the negligence of their agents and employees at Greene County Dialysis and directly liable for their own negligence (Count I). (Id. at 16-22). Plaintiff also asserts a premises liability claim against Defendants (Count II), alleging that they failed to take reasonable steps to make the front lobby and entrance area of the dialysis facility reasonably safe for their patients. (Id. at 23-25).

         Plaintiff Cleophus Gaines, Jr., the personal representative of the estate of Cleophus Gaines, Sr. and a citizen of Alabama, filed this lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Greene County, Alabama. (Id. at 3, 7). Defendant DVA Renal Healthcare, a citizen of Colorado and Tennessee, removed the case to this court, invoking diversity jurisdiction. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 2-3). Plaintiff maintains that there is not complete diversity of citizenship because all of the Defendants except DVA Renal Healthcare are Alabama citizens. (Doc. # 4 at 12). DVA Renal Healthcare does not dispute that premise. Instead, DVA Renal Healthcare argues that removal is proper because the Alabama Defendants were fraudulently joined. Thus, the first issue the court must decide is whether DVA Renal Healthcare has met its burden to show that each of the other named Defendants was fraudulently joined. If any one of them was not, then complete diversity does not exist and the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Further, if DVA Renal Healthcare succeeds in showing that each of the Alabama Defendants was fraudulently joined, the court must also address whether § 1332's amount-in-controversy requirement is satisfied.

         II. Standard of Review

         A removing party bears the burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction over a case removed to this court. Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 752 (11th Cir. 2010). Courts strictly construe removal statutes, and “all doubts about jurisdiction should be resolved in favor of remand to state court.” City of Vestavia Hills v. Gen. Fidelity Ins. Co., 676 F.3d 1310, 1313 (11th Cir. 2012). In particular, a party seeking to remove a case on the basis of fraudulent joinder faces a heavy burden of proof, Crowe v. Coleman, 113 F.3d 1536, 1538 (11th Cir. 1997), and must establish fraudulent joinder by clear and convincing evidence, Henderson v. Washington Nat'l Ins. Co., 454 F.3d 1278, 1281 (11th Cir. 2006). “Clear and convincing evidence” means “[e]vidence indicating that the thing to be proved is highly probable or reasonably certain” and is “a greater burden than preponderance of the evidence . . . but less than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.” Evidence, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).

         The court must determine whether fraudulent joinder occurred “based upon the plaintiff's pleadings at the time of removal, supplemented by any affidavits . . . submitted by the parties.” Pacheco de Perez v. AT & T Co., 139 F.3d 1368, 1380 (11th Cir. 1998). Though permitted to consider evidentiary submissions by the parties, the court must resolve all questions of fact in favor of the plaintiff. Legg v. Wyeth, 428 F.3d 1317, 1323 (11th Cir. 2005). Moreover, the court “must resolve any uncertainties about state substantive law in favor of the plaintiff.” Crowe, 113 F.3d at 1538.

         III. Analysis

         Title 28 U.S.C. § 1441 permits defendants to remove to federal court any state court action falling within the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal courts-that is, any case that could have been brought originally in federal court. Title 28 U.S.C. § 1332, in turn, grants federal district courts jurisdiction over cases where complete diversity of citizenship exists among the parties and where the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, even if the case raises only state law claims. If the law were that simple, there is no doubt this case would belong in state court: the plaintiff and several of the defendants are all citizens of the same state (Alabama), and thus complete diversity does not exist. But the law is not that simple. The doctrine of fraudulent joinder provides an exception to the ordinary rules of removal. Triggs v. John Crump Toyota, Inc., 154 F.3d 1284, 1287 (11th Cir. 1998). Under the doctrine, a district court may exercise diversity jurisdiction even in the face of incomplete diversity if the plaintiff fraudulently joined the nondiverse defendants solely for the purpose of defeating federal jurisdiction. Id.

         In this Circuit, a defendant can show fraudulent joinder in three circumstances. The first is where “there is no possibility that the plaintiff would be able to establish a cause of action against the [nondiverse] defendant in state court.” Coker v. Amoco Oil Co., 709 F.2d 1433, 1440 (11th Cir. 1983). The second is where “the plaintiff has fraudulently [pleaded] jurisdictional facts to bring the [nondiverse] defendant into state court.” Henderson, 454 F.3d at 1281. The third is “where a diverse defendant is joined with a nondiverse defendant as to whom there is no joint, several or alternative liability and where the claim against the diverse defendant has no real connection to the claim against the nondiverse defendant.” [1] Triggs, 154 F.3d at 1287.

         The parties agree that only the first circumstance is at issue here. No. one claims Plaintiff fraudulently pleaded jurisdictional facts or that Plaintiff's claims against DVA Renal Healthcare have no real connection to his claims against the Alabama Defendants. Thus, the only issue the court must decide is whether there is no possibility that Plaintiff could establish [2] either a negligence or premises liability claim against one of the Alabama Defendants in Alabama's courts. But if there is even a possibility that an Alabama court could conclude Plaintiff has stated a claim ...

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