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Gerald Huffman, Theresa Huffman v. Target Corporation

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


May 20, 2011

GERALD HUFFMAN, THERESA HUFFMAN, INDIVIDUALLY, AND ON BEHALF OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
TARGET CORPORATION, A CORPORATION, AKA TARGET INC., A CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Gerald and Theresa Huffman ("Plaintiffs") initiated this action in Sacramento County Superior Court on January 14, 2011, and Defendant Target Corporation ("Defendant") removed the case to this Court on February 18, 2011. Presently before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion to Remand ("Motion"). For the following reasons, Plaintiffs' Motion is GRANTED.*fn1

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in state court, alleging causes of action arising out of Defendant's violation of California's Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("RFDCPA"), California Civil Code §§ 1788-1788.32, and Unfair Competition Law ("UCL"), Business and Professions Code § 17200, et seq. Plaintiffs generally allege that Defendant engaged in unlawful debt collection practices by, among other things, contacting Plaintiffs by telephone on numerous occasions, even after being advised that Plaintiffs were represented by counsel. According to Plaintiffs, Defendant's actions constitute violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., and thus also constitute violations of the RFDCPA. These alleged RFDCPA violations in turn establish violations of the UCL.

More specifically, Plaintiffs allege that prior to November 2010, they incurred financial obligations owing to Defendant and qualifying as "debt" and "consumer debt" under California Civil Code § 1788.2(d), (f). Complaint, ¶ 16. Because these obligations were incurred for "personal, family or household purposes," they also constitute "debt(s)" under 15 U.S.C. ¶ 1692a(5). Id., ¶ 17.

Plaintiffs became delinquent on their payments and, on approximately November 21, 2010, Defendant called one of the Plaintiff's*fn2 cell phones to demand payment. Id., ¶¶ 18-19. That Plaintiff provided the caller with the name of the attorney Plaintiffs had retained to assist them with their financial difficulties. Id., ¶ 19. According to Plaintiffs, this call from Defendant constituted a "communication" under 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(2), a "debt collection" under California Civil Code § 1788.2(b), and an "initial communication" under 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a). Id., ¶ 20.

Despite having been provided with the name of Plaintiffs' counsel, Defendant informed Plaintiffs it would continue to call Plaintiffs directly, and, over approximately the next month, proceeded to do so. Id., ¶¶ 21-22. For example, on December 28, 2010, Defendant's employee contacted Mr. Huffman demanding information from him and informing him that "Target does not call lawyers." Id., ¶ 25. Defendant then continued to make additional calls, including three calls on January 2, 2011, and two calls the following day. Id., ¶ 28.

Plaintiffs notified their counsel of the calls, and one of the attorney's staff members attempted to provide verbal notice to Defendant that counsel had been retained. Id., ¶ 30. Defendant indicated to that staff member that it was aware Plaintiffs were represented and that it already had counsel's contact information. Id.

Plaintiffs thus complain as follows: These calls made by Defendant despite Defendant's knowledge of Plaintiff's retention of an attorney in addition to having that attorney's name, address and communication information is a direct violation of 15 U.S.C. 1692c(a)(2). Id., ¶ 23.

Because these acts violated certain provisions of 15 U.S.C. 1692c(a)(2), the acts are also a violation of Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.17. Id., ¶ 24.

The natural consequence of this and every other call made once Defendant was aware Plaintiff was represented by counsel can only be interpreted as having the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing or abusing Plaintiff, and thus in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1692d, et seq. Id., ¶ 26.

Because these acts violated certain provisions of 15 U.S.C. 1692d, the acts are also a violation of Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.17. Id., ¶ 27.

Again, these calls equate to violations of Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.17, as they violate certain provisions of 15 U.S.C. 1692, et seq. Id., ¶ 29.

Defendant's continued and relentless collection efforts upon Plaintiff has caused Plaintiff worry, confusion, and distress concerning their right to be free from these calls when represented by an attorney. Id., ¶ 32.

According to Plaintiffs, Defendant's above conduct resulted in "numerous and multiple violations" of the RFDCPA and the UCL. Id., ¶¶ 34, 37. Despite specifically bringing only state law claims, Plaintiffs nonetheless allege that jurisdiction over their action "arises pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(d), and 28 U.S.C. § 1367 for supplemental state law claims" and that "[v]enue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391." Id., ¶¶ 4, 6.

Defendant thus removed the action to this Court reasoning that: 1)"[t]he Complaint states that jurisdiction arises under Federal law"; 2) "Federal law is a necessary element of the Plaintiffs' claim for damages pursuant to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act"; and 3) Plaintiffs' "claim for damages cannot be supported by an alternative and independent theory under state law." Notice of Removal, Id., ¶ 3. Plaintiffs subsequently filed the instant Motion seeking to remand this action to state court because, contrary to Defendant's assertions, Plaintiffs' claims are supported by an "alternative and independent" state law theory and thus federal question jurisdiction is lacking. Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion to Remand ("Memorandum"), p. 10-11.

STANDARD

A defendant may remove any civil action from state court to federal district court if the district court has original jurisdiction over the matter. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Generally, district courts have original jurisdiction over civil actions in two instances: (1) where there is complete diversity between the parties, or (2) where a federal question is presented in an action arising under the Constitution, federal law, or treaty.

28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1332.

The removing party bears the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction. Ethridge v. Harbor House Rest., 861 F.2d 1389, 1393 (9th Cir. 1988). Furthermore, courts construe the removal statute strictly against removal.

Gaus v. Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). If there is any doubt as to the right of removal in the first instance, remand must be granted. See id. at 566. Therefore, if it appears before final judgment that a district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded to state court. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).

The district court determines whether removal is proper by first determining whether a federal question exists on the face of the plaintiff's well-pleaded complaint. Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). If a complaint alleges only state-law claims and lacks a federal question on its face, then the federal court must grant the motion to remand. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c); Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 392. Nonetheless, there are rare exceptions when a well--pleaded state-law cause of action will be deemed to arise under federal law and support removal. They are "(1) where federal law completely preempts state law, (2) where the claim is necessarily federal in character, or (3) where the right to relief depends on the resolution of a substantial, disputed federal question." ARCO Envtl. Remediation L.L.C. v. Dep't of Health & Envtl. Quality of Mont., 213 F.3d 1108, 1114 (9th Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted).

ANALYSIS

The parties' only relevant jurisdictional dispute in this case goes to whether, under the final exception just mentioned, Plaintiffs' state law claims "depend[] on the resolution of a substantial, disputed federal question." Id.

"[W]here, as here, state law creates the cause of action, and no federal law completely preempts it, federal jurisdiction may still lie if 'it appears that some substantial, disputed question of federal law is a necessary element of one of the well-pleaded state claims[.]" Rains v. Criterion Systems, Inc., 80 F.3d 339, 345 (1996) (emphasis in original) (quotations and citations omitted). "When a claim can be supported by alternative and independent theories-one of which is a state law theory and one of which is a federal law theory-federal question jurisdiction does not attach because federal law is not a necessary element of the claim." Id. at 346. Plaintiffs and Defendant fundamentally disagree as to whether Defendant's alleged violations of the FDCPA are "necessary elements" of Plaintiffs' state law claims or whether those state law claims can be supported by alternative and independent state law grounds.*fn3

According to Defendant, Plaintiffs' state law claims necessarily turn on violations of federal law because Plaintiffs only specifically reference California Civil Code § 1788.17 as the basis for their RFDCPA claim. Section 1788.17 incorporates by reference provisions of the FDCPA and makes violations of federal law a violation of state law as well. Defendant thus argues that Plaintiffs' multiple references to Defendant's violations of federal law are dispositive of the parties' jurisdictional dispute.

In addition, Defendant cites to Plaintiffs' jurisdictional statement, where Plaintiffs assert that jurisdiction and venue arise under federal law, as further support for a finding that federal jurisdiction exists. Accordingly, based on Plaintiffs' jurisdictional statements, and because Plaintiffs only make specific references to federal law and the state provision incorporating that law into the RFDCPA, Defendant argues that Plaintiffs' state law claims necessarily turn on the interpretation of federal law.

For their part, Plaintiffs argue that their assertions of jurisdiction should be ignored, and stricken if necessary, because they are improper. Plaintiffs also argue that, despite their reference to federal law and to Section 1788.17, Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to state claims for direct violations of the RFDCPA. For example, Plaintiffs claim they alleged facts indicating the frequency of the calls made was unreasonable directly under the RFDCPA without reference to federal law. See Memorandum, 10:19-21 ("Plaintiff could prevail by showing that the nature of Defendant's collection calls were made to annoy Plaintiff pursuant to Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.11(d) or (e) that the frequency of calls was unreasonable."). According to Plaintiffs, because they can successfully prove a RFDCPA violation (and thus a UCL violation) strictly under state law, their claims are supported by an "alternative and independent theory" distinct from their federal law theories.

First and foremost, Plaintiffs' assertions of jurisdiction do not render such jurisdiction proper. See Rains, 80 F.3d at 343. In addition, Plaintiffs are not required to cite to specific statutory sections in their Complaint so long as the basis for their claims remains clear. Alvarez v. Hill, 518 F.3d 1152, 1157 (9th Cir. 2008) ("Notice pleading requires the plaintiff to set forth in his complaint claims for relief, not causes of action, statutes or legal theories.") (emphasis in original); see also Self Directed Placement Corp. v. Control Data Corp., 908 F.2d 462, 466 (9th Cir. 1990) (determining complaint put defendant on notice of plaintiff's unfair competition law claim even though no explicit "unfair competition" claim was listed when plaintiff referred to unfair competition in its jurisdictional statement, other claims and its prayer for relief and when plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to give rise to such a claim). Therefore, neither Plaintiffs' multiple citations to federal law without reference to similar state statutes, nor their jurisdictional statements, affect the Court's jurisdiction.

Moreover, Plaintiffs specifically allege that, even after notifying Defendant they were represented by counsel, Plaintiffs continued to receive multiple calls, in some cases repeatedly within the same day. These allegations are sufficient to state a claim under the RFDCPA, California Civil Code § 1788.11(d)-(e), without reference to federal law. Joseph v. J.J. Mac Intyre Companies, L.L.C., 238 F. Supp. 2d 1158, 1167-69 (N.D. Cal. 2002); Simmons v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 2010 WL 2635220, *6 (S.D. Cal.).

Accordingly, because Plaintiffs, by citing to Civil Code Sections 1788-1788.32, make clear in their Complaint that they are proceeding under multiple provisions of the RFDCPA, and because Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support independent violations of state law absent their simultaneous reliance on federal law, federal jurisdiction does not provide a "necessary" element of Plaintiffs' claims, and this Court lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' Complaint.

CONCLUSION

Based on the foregoing, the Court finds this case should be remanded to the originating state court, the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Sacramento, for final adjudication. Plaintiffs' Motion to Remand (ECF No. 8) is accordingly GRANTED. The Clerk is ordered to close the case.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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