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Dao v. Huntley

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 21, 2015

DUNG C. DAO, Plaintiff,
SASHA HUNTLEY, et al., Defendants.


KENDALL J. NEWMAN, Magistrate Judge.

On May 19, 2015, defendants Sasha Huntley and Michael Huntley ("defendants"), who are proceeding without counsel, removed this unlawful detainer action from the Sacramento County Superior Court.[1] (ECF No. 1.) Both defendants also filed motions to proceed in forma pauperis. (ECF Nos. 2, 3.)

A federal court has an independent duty to assess whether federal subject matter jurisdiction exists, whether or not the parties raise the issue. See United Investors Life Ins. Co. v. Waddell & Reed Inc., 360 F.3d 960, 967 (9th Cir. 2004) (stating that "the district court had a duty to establish subject matter jurisdiction over the removed action sua sponte, whether the parties raised the issue or not"); accord Rains v. Criterion Sys., Inc., 80 F.3d 339, 342 (9th Cir. 1996). Because subject matter jurisdiction may not be waived by the parties, a district court must remand a case if it lacks jurisdiction over the matter. Kelton Arms Condominium Owners Ass'n, Inc. v. Homestead Ins. Co., 346 F.3d 1190, 1192 (9th Cir. 2003) (citing Sparta Surgical Corp. v. Nat'l Ass'n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 159 F.3d 1209, 1211 (9th Cir. 1998)); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) ("If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded"). For the reasons outlined below, the court finds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the action and recommends that the action be remanded to state court.[2]

In relevant part, the federal removal statute provides:

(a) Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.

28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). "The defendant bears the burden of establishing that removal is proper." Provincial Gov't of Marinduque v. Placer Dome, Inc., 582 F.3d 1083, 1087 (9th Cir. 2009). "The removal statute is strictly construed against removal jurisdiction, " id., and removal jurisdiction "must be rejected if there is any doubt as to the right of removal in the first instance, " Geographic Expeditions, Inc. v. Estate of Lhotka, 599 F.3d 1102, 1107 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

A federal district court generally has original jurisdiction over a civil action when: (1) a federal question is presented in an action "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States;" or (2) there is complete diversity of citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332(a).

District courts have diversity jurisdiction over "all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, " and the action is between: "(1) citizens of different States; (2) citizens of a State and citizens or subjects of a foreign state; (3) citizens of different States and in which citizens or subjects of a foreign state are additional parties; and (4) a foreign state... as plaintiff and citizens of a State or of different States." 28 U.S.C. § 1332; see also Geographic Expeditions, Inc., 599 F.3d at 1106.

In regards to federal question jurisdiction, federal courts have "jurisdiction to hear, originally or by removal from a state court, only those cases in which a well-pleaded complaint establishes either that federal law creates the cause of action, or that the plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal law." Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 27-28 (1983); see also Republican Party of Guam v. Gutierrez, 277 F.3d 1086, 1088-89 (9th Cir. 2002). "[T]he presence or absence of federal-question jurisdiction is governed by the well-pleaded complaint rule, ' which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint." Placer Dome, Inc., 582 F.3d at 1091 (citation and quotation marks omitted). "In determining the existence of removal jurisdiction, based upon a federal question, the court must look to the complaint as of the time the removal petition was filed." Abada v. Charles Schwab & Co., 300 F.3d 1112, 1117 (9th Cir. 2002) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Mere reference to federal law is insufficient to permit removal. See Smith v. Indus. Valley Title Ins. Co., 957 F.2d 90, 93 (3d Cir. 1992) ("[T]he mere presence of a federal issue in a state cause of action does not automatically confer federal question jurisdiction"). Also, defenses and counterclaims cannot provide a sufficient basis to remove an action to federal court. See Vaden v. Discover Bank, 556 U.S. 49, 60 (2009); Berg v. Leason, 32 F.3d 422, 426 (9th Cir. 1994); Takeda v. Northwestern Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 765 F.2d 815, 821-22 (9th Cir. 1985).

Here, defendants appear to contend that federal question jurisdiction exists because plaintiff's claim is framed "in the language of the [Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009, 12 U.S.C. § 5201]." (ECF No. 1 at 6-7.) Defendants further contend that 12 U.S.C. § 5201 is drawn into controversy in this action because the federal statute provides for a 90-day notice period prior to the filing of any state eviction proceeding and defendants assert that plaintiff "serv[ed] only a 3 day notice to quit" before filing an unlawful detainer action in state court. (Id. at 3.) Finally, defendants assert that they are not raising a defense under 12 U.S.C. § 5201, but that plaintiff has purposefully omitted a claim under this statute in order to characterize this action as a state law unlawful detainer action and failed to reference the statute's 90-day notice provision. ( 6-7.)

Defendants have not shown that removal is proper on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. The state court pleadings and papers accompanying the removal notice establish that the state court action is nothing more than an unlawful detainer action, and is titled as such. (See ECF No. 1 at 10-12.) Plaintiff, the apparent owner of the subject real property in Sacramento County, California, filed suit in the Sacramento County Superior Court on April 23, 2015, seeking to evict defendants from the property. (Id.) This court has no jurisdiction over unlawful detainer actions, which are brought pursuant to state law and fall strictly within the province of the state court. While defendants may seek to raise a defense based on federal law in response to plaintiff's unlawful detainer claim, any defenses based on federal law must generally be raised in the state court action and do not provide a basis for removal. "A case may not be removed to federal court on the basis of a federal defense... even if the defense is anticipated in the plaintiff's complaint, and even if both parties admit that the defense is the only question truly at issue in the case." ARCO Envtl. Remediation, LLC v. Dep't. of Health & Envtl. Quality of the State of Montana, 213 F.3d 1108, 1113 (9th Cir. 2000) (citation and quotation marks omitted); see also Valles v. Ivy Hill Corp., 410 F.3d 1071, 1075 (9th Cir. 2005) ("A federal law defense to a state-law claim does not confer jurisdiction on a federal court, even if the defense is that of federal preemption and is anticipated in the plaintiff's complaint."). Furthermore, defendants appear to assert that plaintiff states a federal cause of action under 12 U.S.C. § 5201. However, it appears from the face of plaintiff's complaint that no federal cause of action has been stated. (See ECF No. 1 at 10-12.) Rather, plaintiff's complaint states only a claim for unlawful detainer under California state law.

Furthermore, defendants do not argue or otherwise demonstrate that removal is proper on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. In the notice of removal, defendants fail to state plaintiff's state of residence, and the complaint likewise provides no indication of plaintiff's residence. Similarly, defendants do not provide information in their notice of removal regarding their own residencies, and the complaint also does not provide such information. While the court has insufficient information to determine whether complete diversity is present at this juncture, defendants may not remove this action on the basis of this court's diversity jurisdiction because they have failed to meet their burden that such jurisdiction exists over this case. Holcomb v. Bingham Toyota, 871 F.2d 109, 110 (9th Cir. 1989) ("The party invoking the removal statute has the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction.").

Moreover, even assuming that the parties are citizens of different states and defendants are not California residents, defendants have not demonstrated that the amount in controversy in this case exceeds $75, 000. A review of plaintiff's complaint confirms that the action was filed as a "limited" civil case where the damages at stake are less than $10, 000. (ECF No. 1 at 10.) When the plaintiff has alleged a specific amount in damages or alleged that damages do not exceed $10, 000, those damages allegations govern the propriety of removal. "Where it is not facially evident from the complaint that more than $75, 000 is in controversy, the removing party must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy meets the jurisdictional threshold."[3] Matheson v. Progressive Specialty Ins. Co., 319 F.3d 1089, 1090 (9th Cir. 2003) (per curiam). Here, defendants have not established that this court can maintain diversity jurisdiction given that, on its face, plaintiff's complaint conspicuously states that the "amount demanded does not exceed $10, 000, " that "[t]he fair rental value of the premises is $40.00 per day, " and that defendants owe "past-due rent of $4100.00." (ECF No. 1 at 10, 12.)

Based on the foregoing analysis, the court finds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's unlawful detainer action brought pursuant to California law. Accordingly, this case should be remanded back to the Sacramento County Superior Court. Furthermore, because this action should be ...

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