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Huitron v. U.S. Foods, Inc.

United States District Court, C.D. California

March 31, 2015

RICARDO HUITRON, an individual, Plaintiff,
U.S. FOODS, INC., a Delaware corporation; U.S. FOODSERVICE, INC., a Delaware corporation; HUGO JIMENEZ, a individuals; and DOES 1 to 50, inclusive, Defendants.


MARGARET M. MORROW, District Judge.

On January 14, 2014, Ricardo Huitron filed the action against U.S. Foods, Inc. ("US Foods"), U.S. Foodservice, Inc., Hugo Jimenez (collectively, "defendants"), and certain fictitious defendants.[1] He filed a first amended complaint on February 10, 2014, alleging claims for violation of California Labor Code § 6310; wrongful termination in violation of public policy; slander; and libel.[2] On July 14, 2014, defendants removed the action to this court, invoking the court's diversity jurisdiction on the ground that Jimenez had been fraudulently joined.[3] On July 24, 2014, the court issued an order to show cause why the case should not be dismissed for lack of complete diversity, noting that it was unclear Jimenez had been fraudulently joined.[4] Defendants filed a response to the order to show cause, and Huitron filed a reply, requesting remand.[5] On August 25, 2014, the court issued an order remanding the action to Los Angeles Superior Court after finding that defendants had failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that Jimenez had been fraudulently joined.[6]

On December 5, 2014, defendants filed a second notice of removal, asserting that Huitron's claims were completely preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA") and invoking the court's federal question jurisdiction. Section 301 gives federal courts exclusive jurisdiction to hear "[s]uits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization." 29 U.S.C. § 185(a).[7] On January 5, 2015, Huitron filed a motion to remand.[8] Defendants oppose the motion.[9] Pursuant to Rule 78 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Local Rule 7-15, the court finds this matter appropriate for decision without oral argument; the hearing calendared for April 6, 2015, is therefore vacated, and the matter taken off calendar.


Huitron alleges that U.S. Foods hired him in July 2010 to work as an order selector in its warehouse and distribution center in La Mirada, California.[10] He contends that beginning in or about May 2013, he became concerned about the warehouse's use of "triple jacks, " "a type of... extra long forklift used to move pallets."[11] Huitron alleges that his experience caused him to know or reasonably believe that the triple jacks were not being used properly within the warehouse, and that they "posed an immediate threat to his own physical safety and the safety of his co-workers."[12] Huitron contends he alerted U.S. Foods' management to the issue, but his concerns went unaddressed.[13]

Huitron maintains that he subsequently called U.S. Foods' "purportedly anonymous integrity hotline" to report these workplace safety issues on May 23, 2013.[14] He states that during this call, he informed U.S. Foods that he intended to contact California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health ("OSHA") as well.[15] Huitron subsequently did report his concerns to OSHA; he purportedly received a written confirmation dated May 30, 2013.[16]

Huitron contends that shortly after his May 23, 2013 complaint to management, he was singled out for poor treatment. The first amended complaint describes three primary incidents that purportedly evidence this. First, on May 29, 2013, Huitron's manager, Jimenez, allegedly "made negative remarks to [Huitron] and expressed his dissatisfaction and anger with... [Huitron] because [Huitron] had made the complaints to [OSHA]."[17] On approximately September 17, 2013, Huitron assisted a coworker with a work assignment. He contends that "when Jimenez saw that [Huitron] was performing this additional work out of order... he accused him of cherry picking.'"[18] Huitron was purportedly suspended without pay "immediately." According to Huitron, Jimenez made false statements about Huitron "on the same and/or the following day."[19] He also asserts that Jimenez made additional false statements about him to the union shop steward at a grievance meeting held on October 21, 2013, purportedly telling the steward and other attendees that Huitron "was dishonest, a liar and/or that [Huitron] had lied to Jimenez about where and/or how he received the additional work assignment" that was the subject of the "cherry picking" incident.[20] Huitron also contends that Jimenez's purportedly false statements were "repeated... by Jimenez and other employees and/or agents of [US Foods]"; Huitron contends such statements were also "re-stated and re-published in company documents discussing the reasons for [Huitron's] termination."[21]

Just over a week after the "cherry picking" comment, on September 28, 2013, U.S. Foods terminated Huitron purportedly "in retaliation for... having made... health and safety complaints."[22] Huitron contends he was not notified of the termination decision until October 2, 2013.[23]


A. Legal Standard Governing Removal Jurisdiction

The right to remove a case to federal court is entirely a creature of statute. See Libhart v. Santa Monica Dairy Co., 592 F.2d 1062, 1064 (9th Cir. 1979). The removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1441, allows defendants to remove when a case originally filed in state court presents a federal question or is between citizens of different states and involves an amount in controversy that exceeds $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441(a), (b); see also 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332(a). A case presents a "federal question" if a claim "aris[es] under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.'" Sullivan v. First Affiliated Securities, Inc., 813 F.2d 1368, 1371 (9th Cir. 1987) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1331). Only state court actions that could originally have been filed in federal court may be removed. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a); see Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987); Ethridge v. Harbor House Rest., 861 F.2d 1389, 1393 (9th Cir. 1988). Whether removal jurisdiction exists must be determined by reference to the "well-pleaded complaint." Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 808 (1986). The well-pleaded complaint rule makes plaintiff the "master of the claim." Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 392. Thus, where plaintiff can state claims under both federal and state law, he can prevent removal by ignoring the federal claim and alleging only state law claims. Rains v. Criterion Systems, Inc., 80 F.3d 339, 344 (9th Cir. 1996).[24]

There is an exception to the "well pleaded complaint" rule, however. Under the "artful pleading" doctrine, a plaintiff cannot defeat removal of a federal claim by disguising or pleading it artfully as a state law cause of action. If the claim arises under federal law, the federal court will recharacterize it and uphold removal. Federated Dept. Stores, Inc. v. Moitie, 452 U.S. 394, 398 n. 2 (1981); Schroeder v. TransWorld Airlines, Inc., 702 F.2d 189. 191 (9th Cir. 1983). The "artful pleading" doctrine applies to state claims that are completely preempted by federal law. See Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 393 ("Once an area of state law has been completely pre-empted, any claim purportedly based on that pre-empted state law is considered, from its inception, a federal claim, and therefore arises under federal law"); ARCO Environmental Remediation, L.L.C. v. Department of Health & Environmental Quality of Montana, 213 F.3d 1108, 1114 (9th Cir. 2000) ("A state-created cause of action can be deemed to arise under federal law... where federal law completely preempts state law").

To support a finding of complete preemption, the preemptive force of the federal statute at issue must be "extraordinary." See Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 481 U.S. at 65; Holman v. Laulo-Rowe Agency, 994 F.2d 666, 668 (9th Cir. 1993) ("The [complete preemption] doctrine applies in select cases where the preemptive force of federal law is so extraordinary' that it converts state common law claims into claims arising under federal law for purposes of jurisdiction, " citing Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 386). For this reason, the complete preemption doctrine is narrowly construed. See Holman, 994 F.2d at 668 ("The [complete preemption] doctrine does not have wide applicability; it is a narrow exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule'"); Gatton v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., No. SACV 03-130 DOC, 2003 WL 21530185, *5 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 18, 2003) ("The complete preemption doctrine is, however, extremely narrow, " citing TPS Utilicom Services, Inc. v. AT & T Corp., 223 F.Supp.2d 1089, 1097 (C.D. Cal. 2002)). "[O]nly three areas have been deemed areas of complete preemption by the United States Supreme Court: (1) claims under the [LMRA]; (2) claims under the Employment Retirement and Insurance Security Act (ERISA); and (3) certain Indian land grant rights." Gatton, 2003 WL 21531085 at *5; see also Robinson v. Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., Inc., 918 F.2d 579, 585 (9th Cir. 1990) ("complete preemption... is extremely limited, existing only where a claim is preempted by [the LMRA]; where a state law claim alleges a present right to possession of Indian tribal lands; and where state tort or contract claims are preempted by [ERISA]" (internal citations omitted)).

B. Whether the Court Has Federal Question Jurisdiction

1. Legal Standard Governing § 301 Preemption

Section 301(a) of the LMRA gives federal courts exclusive jurisdiction to hear "[s]uits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization." 29 U.S.C. § 185(a). See Franchise Tax Bd., 463 U.S. at 23 ("The preemptive force of § 301 is so powerful as to displace entirely any state cause of action for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization.' Any such suit is purely a creature of federal law, notwithstanding the fact that state law would provide a cause of action in the absence of § 301"); see also Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 394 ("Section 301 governs claims founded directly on rights created by collective-bargaining agreements, and also claims substantially dependent on analysis of a collective-bargaining agreement, '" quoting Electrical Workers v. Hechler, 481 U.S. 851, 859 n. 3 (1987)). Section 301 "mandate[s] resort to federal rules of law in order to ensure uniform interpretation of collective-bargaining agreements, and thus to promote the peaceable, consistent resolution of labor-management disputes." Lingle v. Norge Division of Magic Chef, Inc., 486 U.S. 399, 404 n. 3 (1988).

To further the goal of uniform interpretation of labor contracts, the preemptive effect of § 301 has been extended beyond suits that allege the violation of a collective bargaining agreement. See Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 210-11 (1985) ("The interests in interpretive uniformity and predictability that require that labor-contract disputes be resolved by reference to federal law also require that the meaning given a contract phrase or term be subject to uniform federal interpretation"). Thus, a state law claim will be preempted if it is so "inextricably intertwined" with the terms of a labor contract that its resolution will require judicial interpretation of those terms. Id. at 213 (holding that a claim for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing was preempted by § 301 because "good faith" and "fair dealing" had to be assessed with reference to the contractual obligations of the parties).

Despite the broad preemptive effect of § 301, a claim that seeks to vindicate "nonnegotiable state-law rights... independent of any right established by contract" is not within its scope. Allis-Chalmers Corp., 471 U.S. at 213; see also Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 123-24 (1994) ("[Section] 301 cannot be read broadly to pre-empt nonnegotiable rights conferred on individual employees as a matter of state law.... [I]t is the legal character of a claim, as independent' of rights under the collective-bargaining agreement... that decides whether a state cause of action may go forward" (citations omitted)).[25] As a result, if a state law cannot be waived or modified by private contract, and if the rights it creates can be enforced without resort to the particular terms, express or implied, of a labor contract, § 301 does not preempt the claim for violation of the law. See Miller v. AT & T Network Systems, 850 F.2d 543, 546 (9th Cir. 1988). "If the claim is plainly based on state law, § 301 preemption is not mandated simply because the defendant refers to the CBA in mounting a defense." Cramer v. Consolidated Freightways, Inc., 255 F.3d 683, 691 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc), cert. denied 534 U.S. 1078 (2002).

Nor can a defendant invoke preemption merely by alleging a "hypothetical connection between the claim and the terms of the CBA, " or a "creative linkage" between the subject matter of the suit and the wording of the CBA. Id. at 691-92. To prevail, "the proffered interpretation argument must reach a reasonable level of credibility." Id. at 692. A preemption argument is not credible "simply because the court may have to consult the CBA to evaluate [a plaintiff's claim]; [similarly, ] look[ing] to' the CBA ...

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