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Thurston v. The Container Store, Inc.

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 16, 2017

Cheryl Thurston
v.
The Container Store, Inc.; Does 1-10

          CIVIL MINUTES - GENERAL

          Honorable STEPHEN V. WILSON, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Proceedings: IN CHAMBERS ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO REMAND [10].

         On November 14, 2016, Plaintiff Cheryl Thurston (“Plaintiff”) filed this action for violation of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, California Civil Code § 51 et seq., in the Superior Court for the County of San Bernardino against Defendant The Container Store, Inc. (“Defendant”), a Texas corporation. See Dkt. 1, Ex. A. On December 28, 2016, the Defendant removed the case to federal court. Dkt. 1. In removing the case, the Defendant contended that the Court has federal question jurisdiction because the Plaintiff's claim, although not brought under a federal cause of action, arises under the laws of the United States. Dkt. 1 at 1. Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Remand. Dkt. 10. For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS the motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleges that she is a blind individual who requires screen reading software to read website content and access the internet. Complaint, Dkt. 1, Ex. A (“Complaint”), ¶ 1. The Defendant maintains a website, containerstore.com, in order to sell its products. Id. The Plaintiff alleges that the Defendant maintains its website in such a way that it presents numerous access barriers that prevent the Plaintiff and other blind individuals from gaining equal access to the website. Id. The Plaintiff contends that these barriers violate the Plaintiff's rights under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act. The Plaintiff seeks both injunctive relief and an award of damages. Id. at p. 6.

         The Plaintiff alleges that the Defendant's website violates the Unruh Act for two reasons. First, the Plaintiff alleges that containerstore.com is inaccessible to visually-impaired patrons, which denies those patrons full and equal access to the facilities, goods, and services that the Defendant makes available to the non-disabled public. Id. at ¶¶ 19-20. Second, the Plaintiff alleges that the Defendant's conduct constitutes a violation of various provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §12101 et seq. Id. at ¶ 21. Such a violation also qualifies as a violation of the Unruh Act because § 51(f) of the Unruh Act provides that a violation of the right of any individual under the ADA shall also constitute a violation of the Unruh Act. Id.

         II. Legal Standard

         “‘Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, ' possessing ‘only that power authorized by Constitution and statute.'” Gunn v. Minton, 133 S.Ct. 1059, 1064 (2013) (quoting Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). “The burden of establishing jurisdiction falls on the party invoking the removal statute … which is strictly construed against removal.” Sullivan v. First Affiliated Sec., Inc., 813 F.2d 1368, 1371 (9th Cir. 1987). Further, “the court resolves all ambiguity in favor of remand to state court.” Hunter v. Philip Morris USA, 582 F.3d 1039, 1042 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing Gaus v. Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992)). However, removal is proper if the case could have been filed in federal court originally. 28 U.S.C. § 1441.

         III. Discussion

         This case is procedurally unusual because the Plaintiff has alleged a violation of California's Unruh Act by the Defendant, but she has not alleged a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the closely related federal statute. In fact, one of the Plaintiff's theories for the Defendant's violations of the state statute is that any violation of the ADA also constitutes a violation of state law. Therefore, although the Plaintiff's cause of action is brought under the state law and not federal law, part of the Plaintiff's case may still depend upon proving a violation of federal law.

         The Defendant contends that removal is proper under federal question jurisdiction because violations of the ADA are a federal question, and proving such a violation would be a necessary element of the Plaintiff's state law claim. It is clearly established that federal question jurisdiction may exist even if the right to relief is brought under state law if deciding the dispute “requires resolution of a substantial question of federal law in dispute between the parties.” Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 13 (1983). In other words, “original federal jurisdiction is unavailable unless it appears

         that some substantial, disputed question of federal law is a necessary element of one of the well-pleaded state claims, or that one or the other claim is ‘really' one of federal law.” Id. At first look, it appears that the Defendant's argument has some merit. The resolution of the case might involve whether the Defendant violated the ADA, a federal law, and therefore a necessary element of the Plaintiff's cause of action would require resolving that federal dispute.

         In response, the Plaintiff puts forward two main reasons why the case should be remanded. First, she argues that the Ninth Circuit has issued binding authority directly on point. The Ninth Circuit has held that “there is no federal-question jurisdiction over a lawsuit for damages brought under [a California statute], even though the California statute makes a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act a violation of state law. Congress intended that there be no federal cause of action for damages for a violation of Title III of the ADA. To exercise federal-question jurisdiction in these circumstances would circumvent the intent of Congress. Federal-question jurisdiction is not created merely because a violation of federal law is an element of a state law claim.” Wander v. Kaus, 304 F.3d 856, 857 (9th Cir. 2002). The Plaintiff argues that Wander represents binding authority that no federal jurisdiction exists when only a state law claim is brought in the context of disability civil rights, even if an element of the state law claim is a violation of the ADA.

         However, it is clear to the Court that Wander is not directly applicable to this case. The Ninth Circuit based its decision that exercising federal jurisdiction would defeat the intent of Congress under those particular circumstances on the fact that the Plaintiff was not seeking injunctive relief under the relevant state law because such relief had already been rendered moot. Wander, 304 F.3d at 857-58. Additionally, Congress had specifically declined to allow for the recovery of damages under the ADA. See 42 U.S.C. § 12188(a)(1). Therefore, allowing a federal court to hear an ADA-related claim solely for damages would defeat Congress's clear intent to not allow a federal cause of action for such cases. Wander, 304 F.3d at 857. However, this case clearly does not present such a scenario, as the Plaintiff currently seeks both injunctive and monetary relief. Thus, the holding in Wander is not directly relevant here, and it remains an open question in this circuit ...


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