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Harrison v. Hobson

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

March 7, 2019




         On December 28, 2018, the Magistrate Judge entered a Report and Recommendation (Doc. 15, filed 12/28/18) which recommends that (1) the motion to remand this case to state court filed by the plaintiff, Devin Anthony Harrison (“Plaintiff” or “Harrison”) be denied and (2) Defendant Thomas Michael Hobson (“Hobson”) be dismissed without prejudice from this action and terminated as a party defendant. Plaintiff timely filed objections (Doc. 16) to which Defendant Allstate Insurance Company (“Allstate”) filed its response (Doc. 18). For the reasons articulated below, the Court adopts in part and rejects in part the Magistrate Judge's R&R, sustains the objections filed by Plaintiff as discussed below, and grants the Motion to Remand (Doc. 8).

         I. Standards 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 (11th Cir. 1994). Defendant, as the party removing this action, has 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).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), this court reviews de novo the portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation (“R&R”) to which objections are made.

         II. Objections to the Report and Recommendation

         In his objections, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge correctly rejected Allstate's argument that Hobson's statements were absolutely privileged, but then improperly relied on an argument raised only in a footnote of Allstate's response to the motion to remand (Doc. 10, filed 8/3/18) to find that Hobson was nevertheless fraudulently joined. Plaintiff also asserts that the Magistrate Judge improperly relied on an argument from Plaintiff's own reply brief to determine that Plaintiff's misrepresentation claim was not based on any pre-accident statements Hobson or his grandson, Alex Hobson, made to Plaintiff. He contends that this is improper because the argument was made after removal, and the Court's determination of fraudulent joinder must be based on the pleadings and allegations at the time of removal.

         Plaintiff also argues that, based on the statements in his reply brief, the Magistrate Judge misconstrued the complaint's allegations as limited to misrepresentations made after the accident, when the complaint also alleges that Defendant Hobson made pre-accident misrepresentations. Specifically, he asserts, the complaint alleges that Defendant Hobson misrepresented the fact that Plaintiff was a permissive driver before the underlying accident, and Plaintiff relied on that misrepresentation to his detriment when he drove the car the night of the accident. Finally, in a footnote, Plaintiff states that his complaint raises a claim of suppression of a material fact, which does not require reliance as an element under Alabama law.

         In its response, Allstate urges the Court to adopt the R&R, arguing, first, that Plaintiff cites no authority to support his assertion that the Magistrate Judge exceeded the scope of inquiry in determining that Defendant Hobson was fraudulently joined. Allstate argues that Plaintiff's objections merely attempt to “muddy the waters” by confusing the issues and purported claims. Doc. 18 at 2. Lastly, Allstate argues that Plaintiff's contention that his complaint alleges reliance on Defendant Hobson's pre-accident representations is futile because the Magistrate Judge explicitly rejected that argument in determining that Plaintiff could not establish the element of reliance.

         III. Discussion

         As an initial matter, the Court adopts the thorough factual and procedural background as detailed in the R&R. See Doc. 15 at 1-7. Moreover, the Court adopts the R&R's analysis and findings, except to the extent noted below. Notably, the Court adopts the Magistrate Judge's initial findings regarding the proper scope of the inquiry-namely, that a determination of fraudulent joinder in this case depends on whether there is a possibility, based on Plaintiff's pleadings at the time this case was removed from state court, that Plaintiff can establish a misrepresentation claim against Hobson. See id. at 11. The Court also adopts the analysis in the R&R as it pertains to the applicability of the absolute litigation privilege to Hobson's allegedly false statements after the accident. See id. at 13-16. Specifically, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's determination that Allstate's core argument, that the absolute litigation privilege bars suit against Defendant Hobson, is unavailing. The Court also agrees with the Magistrate Judge's underlying determination that Plaintiff's misrepresentation claim against Hobson arguably is based not only on Hobson's allegedly false statements during discovery, but also on statements made to Allstate prior to litigation as part of its post-accident investigation. See id. at 15-16, 21-22.

         However, subsequent to these findings, the Magistrate Judge determines that Plaintiff nevertheless cannot establish a cause of action for misrepresentation because he cannot demonstrate reliance, a necessary element of fraudulent misrepresentation. See id. at 22. This is where the Court respectfully parts ways with the recommendation because such a finding requires two leaps the Court cannot take because doing so would extend the matter outside the realm of a jurisdictional-only determination.

         IV. Analysis

         Since this lawsuit began in state court, the Court's jurisdiction depends on the propriety of removal. “A party removing a case to federal court based on diversity of citizenship bears the burden of establishing the citizenship of the parties.” Rolling Greens MHP, L.P. v. Comcast SCH Holdings L.L.C., 374 F.3d 1020, 1022 (11th Cir. 2004). Therefore, removal jurisdiction based upon diversity requires: (1) a complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiff(s) and the defendant(s) and (2) satisfaction of the amount in controversy ...

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