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Evans v. Southern California Gas Co.

July 20, 2009

ALICIA EVANS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA GAS COMPANY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dean D. Pregerson United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO REMAND [Motion filed on April 28, 2009]

This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Alicia Evans' Motion to Remand. Evans' Complaint alleges various state law causes of action related to the disability leave policy (and particular actions related to her use of the disability policy) used by her former employer, Southern California Gas Company. Defendant Southern California Gas Company removed this action from California state superior court on the basis of federal preemption by ERISA and the Labor Management Relations Act. Arguing that her causes of action are outside the scope of both preemption provisions, Plaintiff moves to remand. After reviewing the materials submitted by the parties and hearing oral argument, the Court grants the Motion and remands the action.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Alicia Evans ("Plaintiff" or "Evans") brings this suit against her former employer, Southern California Gas Company ("Defendant" or "SCGC"). Plaintiff alleges that she was employed at SCGC from April 1993 through her termination date of August 12, 2008. Compl. ¶ 6. At all times during her employment, Plaintiff was represented by the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO. Franke Decl. in Support of Notice of Removal ("Franke Decl."), ¶ 3. SCGC maintains a Pension and Benefit Agreement Plan Document, which is Appendix D to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between SCGC and the Utility Workers Union of America AFL-CIO. Notice of Removal, Exs. C-D. The Plan covers all of SCGC's represented employees.

Union employees are entitled to 9 weeks of paid sick time per year. Starratt Decl., ¶ 7. The Plan provides long-term disability benefits. For employees who have completed less than 15 years of service, long-term disability benefits are available for sixty consecutive months. Notice of Removal, Ex. C at 36.

According to Defendant's Disabilities Management Services ("DMS") Manager, which acts as Plan Administrator, Evans took a series of leaves of absences beginning in 1998 for varying medical reasons. Starratt Decl., ¶ 5. In March 2000, Evans took a two-month leave of absence for gastric bypass procedure, and returned to work on May 15, 2000. Id. at ¶ 6. In fall of 2000, Evans filed a claim with DMS for the removal of a cyst and for post-surgical nerve damage. On May 21, 2003, Evans filed a new disability claim for abdominal pannus surgery. Id. at ¶ 7.

Plaintiff alleges that during her employment she became disabled as a result of work-related injuries primarily to her left hand and wrist, left elbow, and low back. Compl. ¶ 8. Additionally, Plaintiff had developed breathing difficulties, which had progressively worsened by August 2004. Id. After consulting with a doctor, Plaintiff was placed on restricted duty for a short period of time and had attempted to return to work thereafter through the Work Hardening Program. Id. at ¶ 9. A workers' compensation claim was filed on her behalf. Id.; Starratt Decl., ¶ 10 (workers' compensation claim filed on September 8, 2004). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant's Human Resources Director*fn1 would not allow Plaintiff to resume her job duties and informed her that the company could not accommodate her restrictions. Compl. ¶ 10.

As of November 2006, Plaintiff's breathing difficulties had increased. Id. at ¶ 11. As a result, Plaintiff had an angioplasty procedure in the throat in January 2007. Id. Following a medical exam related to her workers' compensation case, Plaintiff was diagnosed with cervical strain and lateral epicondylitis of the left elbow. Id. at ¶ 12. The doctor's work restrictions for Plaintiff consisted of "no very heavy work." Id. When Plaintiff attempted to return to work in April/May of 2008, the Human Resources Director told her that she would not be able to return until she was cleared by her back doctor and the doctor for her arm. Id. at ¶ 13.

Plaintiff's eligibility for the Plan's long-term disability benefits began on August 12, 2003. Starratt Decl., ¶ 7 & Ex. A. In a letter dated August 11, 2008, SCGC informed Plaintiff that her employment had been terminated effective August 12, 2008 because her long term disability benefits had expired. Compl. ¶ 15. In particular, the letter stated: "Under the terms of the Disability Plan Benefit, your eligibility for benefits ended on August 12, 2008, and accordance with the terms of the Plan, your employment will be terminated effective that date." Id.

Plaintiff's Complaint, which was originally filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges six causes of action arising out of her accommodations and termination. First, Plaintiff alleges that she was subject to discrimination in the form of disparate treatment on the basis of her disability in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), California Government Code §§ 12940 et seq. Compl. ¶¶ 18-26. Second, Plaintiff alleges that the Disability Benefit Plan is discriminatory in that it has a disparate impact on employees who are medically disabled. Id. at ¶¶ 27-30. Third, Plaintiff alleges that SCGC violated Government Code § 12940(m) by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to Plaintiff. Id. at ¶¶ 31-34. Fourth, Plaintiff alleges that SCGC failed to engage in an interactive process in violation of Government Code § 12940(n). Id. at ¶¶ 35-38. Fifth, Plaintiff alleges that SCGC discriminatorily refused to reinstate her once she was able to return to work. Id. at ¶¶ 39-42. Finally, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant retaliated against Plaintiff for participating in activities protected by FEHA. Id. at ¶¶ 43-48. Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages in the form of "[a]ctual medical expenses, actual, consequential and incidental losses, including but not limited to, the loss of income and benefits," as well as emotional distress, punitive damages, attorneys' fees and costs, and other appropriate relief. Id. at 10:11-23.

II. PROCEDURAL STANDARD FOR REMOVAL JURISDICTION AND REMAND

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), a district court has removal jurisdiction over actions brought in state court which could have been brought in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). A plaintiff may file a motion to remand for failure to comply with the procedural aspects of removal; alternatively, where the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case must be remanded.

28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). A defendant has the burden to establish that removal is proper, and a court should resolve any doubt against removal. Gaus v. Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992).

Only actions that could have been filed in federal court originally may be removed by a defendant. 28 U.S.C. § 1441; Audette v. Int'l Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, 195 F.3d 1107, 1111 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987)). One category of such cases is "federal question" cases, i.e., cases "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Generally, the presence or absence of federal question jurisdiction is governed by the "well-pleaded complaint rule," which provides that federal question jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint. Audette, 195 F.3d at 1111. Federal pre-emption, as a federal defense to the plaintiff's suit, "ordinarily" "does not authorize removal to federal court." Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 63 (1987). In certain circumstances, however, Congress "may so completely pre-empt a particular area that any civil complaint raising this select group of claims is necessarily federal in character" and may be the basis for removal. Id. at 63-64. ...


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