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Luwisa Seely; Luanna Seely; and Dennis Seely v. Harrah's Rincon Casino

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


June 30, 2011

LUWISA SEELY; LUANNA SEELY; AND DENNIS SEELY,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
HARRAH'S RINCON CASINO, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Michael M. Anello United States District Judge

ORDER OF REMAND

Currently pending before the Court is Specially Appearing Defendant Harrah's Rincon Casino's motion to dismiss Plaintiffs Luwisa Seely, Luanna Seely, and Dennis Seely's complaint for property damage and loss of use. [Doc. No. 1.] Plaintiffs originally filed their complaint on January 28, 2011, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Diego, North County Division. [Doc. No. 1, Exh. 1.] Plaintiffs filed a certificate of service on February 28, 2011. [Id.] Defendant removed the state action to this Court on March 25, 2011, purportedly on diversity and federal question grounds. [Doc. No. 1.] On March 31, 2011, Defendant filed the present motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and failure to join a necessary and indispensable party. [Doc. No. 5.] On May 4, 2011, the Court determined the matter suitable for decision on the papers and without oral argument, and took the motion under submission pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7.1(d)(1). For the following reasons, the Court declines to rule on Defendant's motion and REMANDS this matter to state court.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs' brief state complaint alleges that on or about September 25, 2008, Plaintiffs traveled to Defendant Harrah's Rincon Casino's ("Defendant" or "Harrah's Casino") principal place of business, located at 777 Harrah's Rincon Way, Valley Center, California 92082. [Doc. No. 1, Exh. 1, ¶¶1, 4.] Upon arrival, Plaintiffs left their automobile, a 1995 Mazda 626, with Defendant's valet service. [Id. ¶4.] Plaintiffs informed Defendant they were staying at Defendant's hotel and that Plaintiffs had left valuable personal property in the vehicle. [Id. ¶5.] The following morning, Plaintiff Luwisa requested that Plaintiffs' car be retrieved from the valet. [Id. ¶6.] At that time, Defendant's security supervisor Michael Swift indicated the car had been stolen. [Id.]

Plaintiffs assert damages in excess of $30,000 for loss of their vehicle and the personal property that was in the vehicle when it was stolen, as well as damages for loss of use of the vehicle from September 25, 2008 to present. [Id at p.3.]

DISCUSSION

It is well-established that a federal court cannot reach the merits of any dispute until it confirms its own subject matter jurisdiction. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environ., 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998). "Without jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any cause. Jurisdiction is power to declare the law, and when it ceases to exist, the only function remaining to the court is that of announcing the fact and dismissing the cause." Id. (quoting Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506, 514 (1868)). Accordingly, federal courts are under a continuing duty to confirm their jurisdictional power and are "obliged to inquire sua sponte whenever a doubt arises as to [its] existence. . . ." Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 278 (1977) (citations omitted).

In the removal context, a district court must remand a case to state court if, at any time before final judgment, the court determines that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). District courts must construe the removal statutes strictly against removal and resolve any uncertainty as to removability in favor of remanding the case to state court. Takeda v. Northwestern Nat'l. Life Ins. Co., 765 F.2d 815, 818 (9th Cir.1985). Defendant removed this action to federal court on two grounds. First, diversity of citizenship, which requires complete diversity among opposing parties and an amount in controversy exceeding $75,000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Defendant states in its Notice of Removal that Plaintiffs are citizens of California and Defendant is not a legal entity, as it is located on the reservation of the Rincon San Luiseno Band of Mission Indians (the "Tribe") and owned and controlled by the Tribe. [Doc. No. 1, p.1-2.] The record, however, reveals that Plaintiffs have never alleged their citizenship; Defendant's assertion that Plaintiffs are residents of California is unsupported. [See generally, Complaint, Doc. No. 1, Exh. 1.] Further, Defendant is physically located in California, albeit on the Tribe's reservation. [Id. ¶1.] Without more, the Court finds Defendant's allegations insufficient to establish the parties are citizens of different states.

In addition, the amount in controversy is not satisfied. Plaintiffs' complaint alleges they are seeking $30,000 plus loss of use damages, an amount that clearly does not meet the $75,000 requirement under Section 1332. Although Defendant offers a demand letter from Plaintiffs, dated April 28, 2009, that seeks $300,000 to settle Plaintiffs' claims, the letter is not dispositive of the amount in controversy. Plaintiffs' unsupported demand for $300,000 does not convince the Court the potential damages in this case will meet the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum. Moreover, the demand amount is further undermined by Plaintiffs' more recent damages allegation of $30,000. Accordingly, the Court finds that the amount in controversy requirement is not met. This Court does not have diversity jurisdiction.

Second, Defendant asserts federal question jurisdiction exists because Plaintiffs' state-based claims are completely preempted by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act ("IGRA"), 25 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq. [Doc. No. 1, p.2-3.] This Court previously rejected the same complete preemption argument in Kersten v. Harrah's Casino-Valley Center, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14047 (S.D. Cal. Feb. 27, 2007). In Kersten, the plaintiff filed an action in state court for injuries arising out of a slip-and-fall injury at Harrah's Casino. Defendants removed the action to federal court on the ground that the plaintiff's claims were completely preempted by the IGRA. In remanding the action back to state court, this Court explained, "the scope of the IGRA's complete preemption is limited to any claim which would directly affect or interfere with a tribe's ability to conduct its own gaming license process." Id. at *6 (internal marks and citation omitted). "State law claims that do not potentially infringe on a tribe's governance of gaming are not subject to complete preemption." Id. (collecting cases). Like the slip-and-fall claim in Kersten, Plaintiffs' claims here for property damage and loss of use "do not in any way affect or interfere with the Rincon Tribe's governance of gaming activities." Id. at *7; see also Manoukian v. Harrah's Entertainment, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38532 (S.D. Cal. Apr. 7, 2011); Keim v. Harrah's Operating Co., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 908 (S.D. Cal. Jan. 5, 2010). Accordingly, Defendant has not demonstrated federal question jurisdiction exists. Because Defendant has failed to adequately establish any basis for this Court's jurisdiction, the action is properly remanded to state court.*fn1

CONCLUSION

For the reasons discussed above, the Court hereby REMANDS this case to the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Diego, North County Division. The Clerk of Court is instructed to close the case file.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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