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Buddy Hatcher and Holley Hatcher v. City of Porterville

February 9, 2012

BUDDY HATCHER AND HOLLEY HATCHER,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF PORTERVILLE, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sheila K. Oberto United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION TO REMAND (Docket No. 15)

ORDER DENYING AS MOOT DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO STAY (Docket No. 21)

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs Buddy and Holley Hatcher ("Plaintiffs") filed suit on October 27, 2011, in Tulare County Superior Court asserting claims against the City of Porterville (the "City"); the County of Tulare (the "County"); RailAmerica Operations Support Group, Inc.; RailAmerica Operations Shared Services, Inc.; RailAmerica, Inc.; San Joaquin Valley Railroad Company;*fn1 Union Pacific Railroad Company ("Union Pacific") (all railroad-entity defendants will be collectively referred to as the "Railroad Defendants"); and Does 1 through 1000. The claims arise out of the December 2010 flooding of Plaintiffs' property located in Porterville, California.

On December 6, 2011, the RailAmerica Defendants removed the matter to this Court. (Doc. 1.) On December 29, 2011, Plaintiffs filed a motion to remand. (Doc. 15.) On January 6, 2012, the RailAmerica Defendants filed a motion to stay (Doc. 21); Union Pacific filed a statement of non-opposition (Doc. 29). Plaintiffs opposed the motion to stay the proceedings. (Doc. 27.)

The Court has reviewed the parties' briefs and all supporting documents and finds that the motion to remand and the motion to stay are suitable for decision without oral argument pursuant to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Local Rule 230(g). Therefore, the hearing set for February 8, 2012, is VACATED. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs' motion to remand is GRANTED, and the RailAmerica Defendants' motion to stay the proceedings is DENIED as MOOT.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This case arisesout of flooding that occurred on residential property in Porterville, California, in December 2010.(See Doc. 1, Exhibit 1, Plaintiffs' complaint ("Cmplt").) Plaintiffs are the owners of real property located at 476 West Westfield Avenue in Porterville, California (the "Property"). (Cmplt., ¶ 1.) From 1890 to 2010, railroad tracks have been located on the northeast boundary of Plaintiffs' Property. (Cmplt., ¶ 12.) Running along the northeast side of the railroad tracks lies Pioneer Ditch. (Cmplt., ¶ 13.)

According to Plaintiffs, the most recent Tulare County "Master Flood Control Plan" (the "Plan") integrates the Pioneer Ditch as part of its plan to control surface water runoff from undeveloped land. (Cmplt., ¶ 14.) Plaintiffs' Property is included in the portion of the Plan that is to be protected by Pioneer Ditch in the event of flooding. (Cmplt., ¶ 14.)

The County also owns a storm drain located on the northwest corner of Main Street and West Westfield Avenue, which carries water roughly 100 to 200 yards in an underground pipe and diverts surface runoff from Main Street into Pioneer Ditch. (Cmplt., ¶ 15.) The most recent City of Porterville Storm Water Management Program requires the City to annually inspect and survey the City's storm drain system, including individual storm drains. (Cmplt., ¶ 16.) Although the City channeled surface water into the storm drain located on the northwest corner of Main Street and West Westfield Avenue, the storm drain does not appear on the City's survey and is not inspected annually by the City. (Cmplt., ¶ 16.)

Between May 2010 and December 2010, the railroad tracks running adjacent to Plaintiffs' Property were abandoned and removed. (Cmplt, ¶ 17.) In the process of removal, Pioneer Ditch was filled with earth and debris that blocked the historic drainage. (Cmplt., ¶ 18.) The storm drain that carried surface water from the northwest corner of West Westfield Avenue and Main Street was also blocked with earth and debris as a result of the removal of the railroad tracks. (Cmplt. ¶ 18.) During the track removal, the railroad bed was also graded, lowered, and widened. (Cmplt., ¶ 19.) As a result, the railroad bed no longer functioned to capture and divert surface water into Pioneer Ditch. (Cmplt., ¶ 19.) Finally, the railroad tracks that crossed West Westfield Avenue were removed. (Cmplt., ¶ 20.) Those tracks had created two grooves that diverted surface water from West Westfield Avenue into Pioneer Ditch. (Cmplt., ¶ 20.) When the tracks were removed, the section of road they crossed was leveled, and no infrastructure was put into place to divert surface water into Pioneer Ditch. (Cmplt., ¶ 20.)

Following completion of the track removal, neither the City nor the County adequately inspected the track removal or reviewed the impact of the removal on the Master Drainage Plans. (Cmplt., ¶ 22.) Neither entity inspected the storm drain or provided any maintenance to the storm drain. (Cmplt., ¶ 22.)

On December 20, 2010, Plaintiffs' property became flooded with surface water. (Cmplt., ¶ 25.) Although surface water was directed to the storm drain on the northwest corner of West Westfield Avenue, that storm drain was blocked causing water to run into West Westfield Avenue. (Cmplt., ¶ 27.) At the historic railroad bed, water flowed across the bed into Plaintiff's property. (Cmplt., ¶ 27.) Plaintiffs attempted to clear the debris from West Westfield Avenue and tried to re-establish the historic drainage system; they called the City and the County to request help in redirecting the water, and they rented a pump and purchased materials in an effort to lower the water level on their Property. (Cmplt., ¶ 30.) However, the pump was unable to keep up with the water flow, and the City and the County did not send anyone to assist Plaintiffs in redirecting the water. (Cmplt., ¶ 31.)

As a result, the ground floor of Plaintiffs' home was flooded with approximately two and a half feet of water, Plaintiffs' garage was flooded with two feet of water, and Plaintiffs' storage shed was filled with over three feet of water. (Cmplt., ¶ 32.) Plaintiffs were forced to relocate to a hotel, and Plaintiffs' home and personal property were damaged or destroyed. (Cmplt., ¶ 38.)

On June 3, 2011, Plaintiffs submitted a claim for damages to the City; Plaintiffs submitted an amended claim on June 8, 2011. (Cmplt., ¶ 40.) The amended claim was rejected by the City on July 7, 2011. (Cmplt., ¶ 40.) On June 3, 2011, Plaintiffs submitted a claim for damages to the County; Plaintiffs submitted an amended claim on June 8, 2011. (Cmplt., ¶ 41.) The amended claim was rejected by the County on August 1, 2011. (Cmplt., ¶ 41.)

On June 14, 2011, Plaintiffs also sent notice of the impending action to San Joaquin Railroad Company and RailAmerica, Inc. (Cmplt., ¶ 42.) On September 6, 2011, Plaintiffs received notice from Rail America, Inc., who purported to be answering on behalf of all related railroad-entity defendants, with the exception of Union Pacific, and denied all liability associated with Plaintiffs' claim.(Cmplt., ¶ 42.)

III. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On December 6, 2011, the RailAmerica Defendants removed the matter to this Court. (Doc. 1.) As the basis for federal court subject matter jurisdiction, the RailAmerica Defendants asserted that the state-law claims against them, including those against Union Pacific, are completely preempted by federal law. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 6-11.) Specifically, the Railroad Defendants assert that the Interstate Commerce Commissioner Termination Act of 1995 ("ICCTA") contains an express preemption provision codified at 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b)(2). (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 6-11.) According to the Railroad Defendants, Section 10501(b)(2) completely preempts state law and thus creates a federal question for purposes of federal subject matter jurisdiction. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 7-8.)

On December 9, 2011, in view of Defendants' removal, Plaintiffs proceeded to file a Petition for a declaratory order and a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board ("STB"), seeking a determination as to whether the STB has exclusive jurisdiction over the claims asserted in Plaintiffs' civil action against the Railroad Defendants pursuant to the ICCTA. (See Doc. 22, Exhibit A.)*fn2

Both Union Pacific and the RailAmerica Defendants filed responses to Plaintiffs' petition with the STB. (See Doc. 22, Exhibits B, C.)

On December 29, 2011, Plaintiffs filed a motion to remand. (Doc. 15.) Plaintiffs assert, in part, that the claims against the County and the City were not separate and independent from the claims against the Railroad Defendants. (Doc. 16, 12:23-14:10.) As a result, the RailAmerica Defendants' failure to obtain the consent of the City and the County ...


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