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Ingram v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

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

July 25, 2019

SANITHA INGRAM, Plaintiff,
v.
HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          EMILY C. MARKS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Sanitha Ingram (“Ingram”) initiated this suit on March 5, 2019, by filing a complaint in the Circuit Court of Houston County, Alabama against Defendant Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (“Hobby Lobby”). (Doc. 1-1). Ingram alleges that on or about July 5, 2017, she sustained severe injuries when she slipped and fell on glitter in a store owned and operated by Hobby Lobby in Dothan, Alabama. (Id. at ¶ ¶ 4-6). Ingram claims that her injuries are the result of Hobby Lobby's negligence and/or wantonness and she seeks compensatory and punitive damages. Id. at 3-4.

         On March 13, 2019, Hobby Lobby removed the case to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and § 1441. Ingram is a citizen of the state of Alabama, and the notice of removal asserts that Hobby Lobby is a corporation organized under the laws of the state of Oklahoma with its principal place of business in Oklahoma. (Doc. 1 at 2). Although Ingram seeks compensatory and punitive damages, her complaint does not specify an amount of damages. In its notice of removal, Hobby Lobby alleges that the Court has jurisdiction over this matter because the parties are citizens from different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs because Plaintiff's “[c]ounsel submitted a settlement demand . . . plac[ing] the settlement value of her lawsuit against Hobby Lobby at $185, 000 in total and offered an abundance of specific information to support her claim for damages.” (Doc. 1 at 4, ¶ 11).

         On April 11, 2019, the Plaintiff filed a motion to remand (doc. 5) which is opposed by Hobby Lobby. (Doc. 10). The motion to remand is fully briefed, under submission, and ready for resolution without oral argument. Upon consideration of the motion, and for the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that the motion to remand is due to be DENIED.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In examining the issue of jurisdiction upon which the Defendant premises removal, the Court is mindful of the fact that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994); Burns v. Windsor Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1095 (11th Cir. 1994). “They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute.” Dudley v. Eli Lilley & Co., 778 F.3d 909, 911 (11th Cir. 2014). Congress has empowered the federal courts to hear cases removed by a defendant from state to federal court if the plaintiff could have brought the claims in federal court originally. See 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a); Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987).

         To establish diversity jurisdiction, the removing party must not only demonstrate that the parties are completely diverse, but, where the amount in controversy is not evident from the face of the complaint, that the amount in controversy exceeds the $75, 000 jurisdictional minimum set by 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Pretka v. Kolter City Plaza II, Inc., 608 F.3d 744, 752 (11th Cir. 2010).

         Removal statutes are to be strictly construed against removal. Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 108 (1941); Burns, 31 F.3d at 1095 (“[R]emoval statutes are construed narrowly; when the parties dispute jurisdiction, uncertainties are resolved in favor of remand.”). When a case is removed to federal court, a removing defendant's burden to establish federal jurisdiction is “a heavy one.” Pacheco de Perez v. AT&T Co., 139 F.3d 1368, 1380 (11th Cir. 1998). The removing party has the burden of proving that federal jurisdiction exists by a preponderance of the evidence, and the removing party must present facts establishing its right to remove. Williams v. Best Buy Company, Inc., 269 F.3d 1316, 1319 (11th Cir. 2001). Any questions or doubts are to be resolved in favor of returning the matter to state court on a properly submitted motion to remand. Burns, 31 F.3d at 1095. When the defendant fails to meet its burden, the case must be remanded. Williams, 269 F.3d at 1321.

         DISCUSSION

         The parties agree that there is complete diversity between them -- Ingram is a citizen of Alabama, and Hobby Lobby is considered a citizen of the state of Oklahoma. Relying on the Plaintiff's pre-suit demand letter dated December 6, 2018, Hobby Lobby argues that the demand letter is an “other paper” sufficient to establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. (Doc. 1 at 3).

         On April 11, 2019, Ingram filed a motion to remand (doc. 5) arguing that Hobby Lobby has failed to “unambiguously establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 . . ., and . . . remand is warranted.” (Id. at 1). Thus, the issue before the Court is whether Hobby Lobby has met its burden of establishing that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00.

         The complaint does not state an amount of damages. Where the amount in controversy is not evident from the face of the complaint, the removing party must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the $75, 000 jurisdictional minimum set by 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Pretka, 608 F.3d at 752; Lowery v. Ala. Power Co., 483 F.3d 1184, 1207 (11th Cir. 2007). The Plaintiff argues, however, that because the Defendant relies on the pre-suit demand letter as “other paper, ” it must “unambiguously establish” that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. (Doc. 5, ⁋ 4; Doc. 6, p. 6).

         Because the Plaintiff did not specify an amount of damages in her complaint, and because the Defendant removed this case within thirty (30) days of receipt of the complaint, the Court concludes that Hobby Lobby must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy is met. Moreover, even under the heightened “unambiguously established” standard, the Court concludes that the Defendant has established that the amount in controversy is met [1]

         In its notice of removal, Hobby Lobby attached a pre-suit demand letter from Ingram's counsel dated December 6, 2018, that offers to settle all her claims for $185, 000. (Doc. 1-3 at 5). The letter describes in detail Ingram's injuries, her medical treatment and expenses, and “[t]he effects of this fall have caused Ingram chronic pain, depression, suffering and financial hardship.” (Id. at 4). Counsel for Ingram informed Hobby Lobby that he intended to seek compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of his client. (Id. Ex. B at 1). He listed ...


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