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City of Santa Monica v. Levy

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 13, 2015

CITY of SANTA MONICA, a charter city and municipal corporation; et al., Plaintiffs,
CHARLES M. LEVY, an individual, et al., Defendants.


FERNANDO M. OLGUIN, District Judge.

Having reviewed and considered the record and all the briefing filed with respect to plaintiffs' Motion for Remand ("Motion"), the court concludes that oral argument is not necessary to resolve the Motion. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 78; Local Rule 7-15; Willis v. P. Mar. Ass'n, 244 F.3d 675, 684 n. 2 (9th Cir. 2001).


On May 6, 2015, the State of California, acting through the State Lands Commission and the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the City of Santa Monica ("City") (collectively, "plaintiffs"), filed a Complaint in Los Angeles County Superior Court ("state court") against Charles M. Levy, Lydia A. Levy, Grant Allan Levy, as Trustee of the C & L Levy 2012 Irrevocable Trust (collectively, "Levy Defendants"), American Securities Company, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., and Fidelity National Title Insurance Co., asserting state-law claims for: (1) quiet title; (2) injunctive relief; (3) ejectment and damages for wrongful occupation; and (4) declaratory relief. (See Complaint at ¶¶ 31-47). Plaintiffs' central allegation is that the Levy Defendants, as owners, beneficiaries, or residents of the property located on Palisades Beach Road, in the City of Santa Monica, ("Levy Property"), have wrongfully maintained encroachments on or within Santa Monica State Beach. (See id. at ¶¶ 4-6 & 30). Specifically, plaintiffs allege that the Levy Defendants have excluded public access to Santa Monica State Beach by maintaining encroachments consisting of a private patio and glass fencing on approximately 1, 215 square feet of Santa Monica State Beach adjacent to the Levy Property.[1] (See id. at ¶ 30).

On May 26, 2015, the Levy Defendants removed the action on federal question jurisdiction grounds pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1441. (See Notice of Removal of Action Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) ("NOR") at ¶ 3). Plaintiffs filed the instant Motion on June 16, 2015. On June 24, 2015, the Levy Defendants filed their corrected Opposition to Motion for Remand ("Opp'n"). Plaintiffs filed their Reply on June 25, 2015. (See Plaintiffs' Reply to Opposition to Motion for Remand ("Reply")).


"Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute[.]" Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377, 114 S.Ct. 1673, 1675 (1994). "[A]ny 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[.]" 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a).[2] District courts have original jurisdiction over "all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

Although federal question jurisdiction "[m]ost directly... arises under federal law when federal law creates the cause of action asserted[, ]" Gunn v. Minton, 133 S.Ct. 1059, 1064 (2013), there is "another longstanding, if less frequently encountered, variety of federal arising under' jurisdiction" in which "federal-question jurisdiction will lie over state-law claims[.]" Grable & Sons Metal Prods. v. Darue Eng'g & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 312, 125 S.Ct. 2363, 2366-67 (2005); see Gunn 133 S.Ct. at 1064 ("[E]ven where a claim finds its origins in state rather than federal law... a special and small category of cases exist in which arising under jurisdiction still lies.") (internal quotation marks omitted). In such cases, "federal jurisdiction over a state law claim will lie if a federal issue is: (1) necessarily raised, (2) actually disputed, (3) substantial, and (4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance approved by Congress." Gunn, 133 S.Ct. at 1065.

For purposes of removal based on federal question jurisdiction, the well-pleaded complaint rule "provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint." Smallwood v. Allied Van Lines, Inc., 660 F.3d 1115, 1120 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392, 107 S.Ct. 2425, 2429 (1987)). "As the master of the complaint, a plaintiff may defeat removal by choosing not to plead independent federal claims." ARCO Envt'l Remediation, L.L.C. v. Dep't of Health and Envt'l Quality of Montana, 213 F.3d 1108, 1114 (9th Cir. 2000). The Ninth Circuit has clarified that the Grable test does not dispense with the well-pleaded complaint rule. See Cal. Shock Trauma Air Rescue v. State Compensation Ins. Fund, 636 F.3d 538, 542 (9th Cir. 2011). As such, under the settled principles of the well-pleaded complaint rule, the existence of a federal defense is not enough to justify removal to federal court. See Caterpillar 482 U.S. at 393, 107 S.Ct. at 2430 ("[I]t is now settled law that 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[.]") (emphasis in original).

Finally, a removing defendant bears the burden of establishing that removal is proper. See Gaus v. Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992) ("The strong presumption against removal jurisdiction means that the defendant always has the burden of establishing that removal is proper.") (internal quotation marks omitted); Abrego Abrego v. The Dow Chem. Co., 443 F.3d 676, 684 (9th Cir. 2006) (per curiam) (noting the "longstanding, near-canonical rule that the burden on removal rests with the removing defendant"). Moreover, the removal statute is strictly construed against removal, Moore-Thomas v. Alaska Airlines, Inc., 553 F.3d 1241, 1244 (9th Cir. 2009), and if there is any doubt regarding the existence of subject matter jurisdiction, the court must resolve those doubts in favor of remanding the action to state court. See Gaus 980 F.2d at 566 ("Federal jurisdiction must be rejected if there is any doubt as to the right of removal in the first instance."). Indeed, "[i]f at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded." 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c); see Kelton Arms Condo. Owners Ass'n, Inc. v. Homestead Ins. Co., 346 F.3d 1190, 1192 (9th Cir. 2003) ("Subject matter jurisdiction may not be waived, and, indeed, we have held that the district court must remand if it lacks jurisdiction."); Snell v. Cleveland, Inc., 316 F.3d 822, 826 (9th Cir. 2002) ("Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3) provides that a court may raise the question of subject matter jurisdiction, sua sponte, at any time during the pendency of the action, even on appeal.") (footnote omitted).



The Levy Defendants' NOR asserts that federal question jurisdiction exists because the case: (1) "involves the interpretation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, " (NOR at ¶ 3(a)); (2) "pertains to the interpretation and application of the 1854 decision of the U.S. District Court to confirm title to the subject property to the Mexican land grantee Ramona Sepulveda, " (id. at ¶ 3(b)); and (3) "[t]here is federal question jurisdiction over quiet title actions which involve the interpretation of federal documents." (Id. at ¶ 3(c)). However, the NOR fails to specify in what manner the court would be required to interpret the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, what portion(s) the court would be required to interpret, and which district court decision and federal documents need to be interpreted to resolve this dispute. (See, generally, NOR). Where, as here, removal is based on federal-question jurisdiction, the notice of removal must state that removal is based on a claim under federal law and identify the specific statute (or treaty provision) and explain why the claim arises under federal law. See 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a); see also 14C Wright & Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 3733, at 642 (4th ed. 2009) ("the removal notice must make the basis for federal jurisdiction clear, and contain enough information so that the district judge can determine whether jurisdiction exists."). Here, the lack of specificity and vague and conclusory assertions in the subject NOR is insufficient to establish a basis for federal question jurisdiction. See, e.g., Barringer v. Parker Bros. Empl. Ret. Fund, 877 F.Supp. 358, 360 (S.D. Tex 1995) (motion to remand granted when defendant's notice of removal was vague and included only conclusory contentions of federal-question jurisdiction, stating: "it is a basic rule of removal practice that when the removing party claims that a federal question exists, it must allege all facts essential to the existence of that federal claim; a bare-bones contention that a federal question exists is clearly insufficient.") (emphasis in original). Under the circumstances, the court is persuaded that the Levy Defendants - as the parties seeking to invoke this court's jurisdiction - have failed to meet their burden of establishing that removal is proper. See Gaus, 980 F.2d at 566.

Even assuming that the NOR provided sufficient information, a consideration of the NOR on the merits confirms that remand is appropriate. Relying on Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. City of Los Angeles, 296 U.S. 10, 56 S.Ct. 23 (1935), the Levy Defendants contend that the type of boundary dispute at issue here is "necessarily a federal question." (See Opp'n at 3) (quoting Borax, 296 U.S. at 22, 56 S.Ct. at 29). Defendants' contentions and reliance on Borax are misplaced and misconstrue the nature of the underlying action.[3] This case is not about determining the boundaries of a federal patent, or the San Vicente y Santa Monica rancho. Rather, this case is governed by a boundary line agreement ("BLA") in the form of a joint Quitclaim Deed. (See Complaint at ¶ 25). Plaintiffs allege in the Complaint that in August 1921, the City and the Santa Monica Land Company ("SMLC"), the Levy Defendants' predecessor in interest, entered into the BLA, which used the mean high tide line ("MHTL"), previously established and adopted by the City as Ordinance No. 188 (Commissioners' Series), as the common and fixed boundary line between Santa Monica State Beach and SMLC property. (See id. at ¶¶ 18 & 25); see also Muchenberger v. City of Santa Monica, 206 Cal. 635, 645 (1929) (affirming the constitutionality and validity of Ordinance No. 188 and the resulting BLA). Ordinance No. 188 was validly adopted, and the Quitclaim Deed was recorded and delivered. See Muchenberger, 206 Cal. at 643. Significantly, the grant deed to the Levy Property refers to the boundaries established by Ordinance No. 188 and ...

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