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Muhammad v. Rice

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

October 18, 2018

WENDY RICE, et al., Defendants.



         Before the undersigned are the parties' briefs on the issue of subject matter jurisdiction. (Docs. 35, 36). For the reasons discussed below, this district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claims. Accordingly, this action is due to be dismissed without prejudice.

         I. Procedural History

         Martha S. Muhammad commenced this action individually and as the administrator of the Estate of Ayatollah Khomeini Muhammad. (Doc. 1). In those capacities, she asserts claims for wrongful death, negligent supervision, and loss of consortium against the defendants, C.R., a minor, and Wendy and Brian Rice, individually and as next friend of C.R. (Id.). Federal subject matter jurisdiction is premised on diversity of citizenship. (Id. at ¶ 2). To that end, the complaint alleges Martha S. Muhammad (the “plaintiff”) is a citizen of Georgia (id. at ¶ 4), Ayatollah Khomeini Muhammad (the “decedent”) was a citizen of Georgia (id. at ¶ 5), the defendants are citizens of Alabama (id. at ¶¶ 6-8), and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 (id. at ¶ 2). In their answer, the defendants deny the existence of diversity jurisdiction on the ground the decedent was not of diverse citizenship from the defendants. (Doc. 6 at ¶ 2, ¶ 5, p. 4). Consistent with the obligation of a district court to ensure its subject matter jurisdiction at all times, by an order dated September 11, 2018, the undersigned directed the Clerk to terminate the parties' pending motions for summary judgment addressing the merits of the plaintiff's claims and directed the parties to brief the issue of subject matter jurisdiction. (Doc. 34). The defendants submitted their brief on September 24, 2018 (Doc. 35), [1] and the plaintiff submitted her brief on September 25, 2018 (Doc. 36).

         II. Facts [2]

         The decedent is the plaintiff's son. (Doc. 36-1 at 5-7). He was shot and killed in Blount County, Alabama on July 23, 2014. (Id.). Details for a criminal harassment case to which he pleaded guilty in the District Court of Jefferson County, Alabama in December 2004 identify 2600 Sweeney Hollow Road or 428 Plaza Drive, both in Birmingham, Alabama, as his address at that time and reflect he held an Alabama driver's license. (Doc. 35-5 at 2). Case details for a traffic violation to which he pleaded guilty in the Sumiton, Alabama Municipal Court in August 2012 identify 9600 Bradford Trafford Road in Warrior, Alabama as his address at that time and record he held an Alabama driver's license. (Doc. 35-4 at 2). A marriage certificate issued to the decedent and Wendy Rice by the Probate Court of Jefferson County, Alabama in April 2013 identifies Birmingham, Alabama as the decedent's residence. (Doc. 35-3 at 2). Wendy Rice attests that through December 2013, she and the decedent resided at a rental property in Oneonta, Blount County, Alabama. (Doc 35-1 at 3). A traffic citation issued to the decedent in Alabama by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office on June 26, 2014, identifies 2345 7th Place N.W., Apt. K in Birmingham, AL as his address [3] and records he held an Alabama driver's license. (Doc. 35-2 at 2). Wendy Rice attests that for 7-10 days immediately preceding his death, the decedent resided with Brandon Shofner in Pinson, Alabama and it was her understanding the decedent intended to remain there. (Doc. 35-1 at 3). She also attests that prior to his death, the decedent had regularly worked for All My Sons Moving Company in Homewood, Alabama; Eastern Tree Service in Pinson, Alabama; and Bass Pro Shops in Irondale, Alabama. (Id. at 2).

         The plaintiff, by contrast, attests the decedent resided with her at 2773 Snapfinger Manor in Decatur, Georgia at the time of his death, had not resided at the Alabama address listed on his driver's license for at least a year at the time of his death, [4] had refused Wendy Rice's attempts to convince him to return to Alabama in June 2014, and had traveled to Blount County, Alabama at the time of his death for a car show. (Doc. 36-1 at 2-3). In further support of her allegation the decedent was a Georgia citizen at the time of his death, the plaintiff submits the following evidence: (1) the decedent's death certificate listing 2773 Snapfinger Manor, Decatur, Georgia as his residence (id. at 5-7; Doc. 36-4 at 2-4); [5] (2) letters of administration issued by the Probate Court of DeKalb County, Georgia, indicating the decedent's domicile in DeKalb County, Georgia as the basis of the probate court's jurisdiction (Doc. 36-1 at 9); [6] (3) a bill for medical treatment the decedent received in Atlanta, Georgia on July 9, 2014, [7] identifying his address as 2773 Snapfinger Manor, Decatur, Georgia (id. at 12); (4) photos of medication the plaintiff attests was prescribed for the decedent in connection with the foregoing treatment and that she further attests the decedent filled in DeKalb County, Georgia (id. at 3, 13-15); [8] (5) the affidavit testimony of Alice Goodman that the decedent resided at 2773 Snapfinger Manor in Decatur, Georgia with his mother and was Goodman's neighbor in July 2014 (Doc. 36-2 at 2); (6) Brandon Shofner's statement to the Blount County Sheriff's Office that on the day of his death the decedent told Shofner there was “nothing here for him, ” “he was going back to Atl. w/ his mother, ” and “he was going to go see [someone] about a job for money to get home” (Doc. 36-5 at 2); and (7) a business card for the decedent's personal training services printed with the 2773 Snapfinger Manor, Decatur, Georgia address and a phone number with a Georgia area code (Doc. 36-6 at 2).

         III. Discussion

         Subject matter jurisdiction premised on 28 U.S.C. § 1332 requires every plaintiff to be of diverse citizenship from every defendant. Triggs v. John Crump Toyota, Inc., 154 F.3d 1284, 1287 (11th Cir. 1998). Where an estate is a party, it is the citizenship of the decedent at the time of his or her death that is relevant for purposes of determining diversity. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(2); Moore v. N. Am. Sports, Inc., 623 F.3d 1325, 1327 (11th Cir. 2010). [9] A natural person is a citizen of the state where he is domiciled, and domicile requires residence in a state and an intention to remain there indefinitely. Travaglio, 735 F.3d at 1269; see also McCormick v. Aderholt, 293 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (11th Cir. 2002) (“A person's domicile is the place of his true, fixed, and permanent home and principal establishment, and to which he has the intention of returning whenever he is absent therefrom . . . .” (internal quotation marks omitted)). [10]

         Determination of a person's domicile requires consideration of a variety of objective facts, including:

where civil and political rights are exercised, where taxes are paid, where real and personal property are located, where driver's and other licenses are obtained, where mail is received, where telephone numbers are maintained and listed, where bank accounts are maintained, where places of business or employment are located, and where memberships in local professional, civil, religious or social organizations are established.

Slate v. Shell Oil Co., 444 F.Supp.2d 1210, 1215 (S.D. Ala. 2006). No. one fact is given controlling weight, but rather, courts look to the totality of the circumstances. Id. Determination of a person's domicile also requires consideration of subjective statements of intent. Id. However, such statements are not dispositive, id., and in fact, the Eleventh Circuit has noted, “[c]ourts generally The defendants do not dispute the plaintiff, who asserts a claim for loss of consortium in her personal capacity, is a citizen of Georgia. give little weight to a party's profession of domicile . . . because these declarations are often self-serving.” Molinos Valle Del Cibao, C. por A. v. Lama, 633 F.3d 1330, 1342 (11th Cir. 2011); see also Hendry v. Masonite Corp., 455 F.2d 955, 956 (5th Cir. 1972) (“In determining one's ‘citizenship' or ‘domicile' statements of intent are entitled to little weight when in conflict with facts.”).

         Finally, courts consider certain presumptions to aid their determination of a person's domicile. Audi Performance & Racing, LLC v. Kasberger, 273 F.Supp.2d 1220, 1226 (M.D. Ala. 2003) (noting usefulness of certain presumptions regarding domicile). There is a presumption a person's current residence is his or her domicile. Id.; see also Molinos, 633 F.3d at 1342 (noting it could be presumed party was domiciled at current residence until controverted by fact). However, because domicile has a mental or subjective element, it “ ‘is not necessarily synonymous with “residence, ” and one can reside in one place but be domiciled in another.'” McNeal v. Workmaster, 2009 WL 4508545, at *2 (M.D. Ala. Nov. 30, 2009) (quoting Miss. Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 48 (1989)); see also Molinos, 633 F.3d at 1341-42 (“Domicile is not synonymous with residence; one may temporarily reside in one location, yet retain domicile in a previous residence. Although physically present in the current residence, the person does not intend to remain in that state indefinitely.”).

         There is also a century-old presumption that once a person establishes a domicile in one state, that remains his domicile until he satisfies the physical and mental requirements of domicile in another. See Mitchell v. United States, 88 U.S. 350, 353 (1874) (“A domicile once acquired is presumed to continue until it is shown to have been changed.”); Audi, 273 F.Supp.2d at 1226 (noting requirements to overcome presumption). “The reason for this presumption is to solve the problem of locating an individual who has clearly abandoned his present domicile but either has not arrived at a new one or has arrived without formulating the intent to stay.” White v. All Am. Cable & Radio, Inc., 642 F.Supp. 69, 72 (D.P.R. 1986) (citing 13E Fed. Prac. & Proc. Juris. § 3612 (3d ed.)); see also Jones v. Law Firm of Hill and Ponton, 141 F.Supp.2d 1349, 1355 (M.D. Fla. 2001) (noting courts refer to presumption of continuing domicile because changes in residence are so common in this country). The party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of proving facts supporting its existence by a preponderance of the ...

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