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Wheatley v. MasterBrand Cabinets, Inc.

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 16, 2017

Erica Wheatley
v.
MasterBrand Cabinets, Inc

          Present: The Honorable Fernando M. Olguin, United States District Judge.

          CIVIL MINUTES - GENERAL

         Proceedings: (In Chambers) Order Remanding Action

         On December 15, 2016, Erica Wheatley (“plaintiff”) filed a Complaint in the San Bernardino County Superior Court against MasterBrand Cabinets, LLC (“defendant”). (See Dkt. 1, Notice of Removal (“NOR”) at ¶ 1; Dkt. 1-1, Exhibit 1 (“Complaint”)). On January 26, 2017, defendant removed that action on diversity jurisdiction grounds pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332 and 1441. (See Dkt. 1, NOR at ¶ 5). Having reviewed the pleadings, the court hereby remands this action to state court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “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). The courts are presumed to lack jurisdiction unless the contrary appears affirmatively from the record. See DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 342 n. 3, 126 S.Ct. 1854, 1861 (2006). Federal courts have a duty to examine jurisdiction sua sponte before proceeding to the merits of a case, see Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co., 526 U.S. 574, 583, 119 S.Ct. 1563, 1569 (1999), “even in the absence of a challenge from any party.” Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514, 126 S.Ct. 1235, 1244 (2006).

         “The right of removal is entirely a creature of statute and a suit commenced in a state court must remain there until cause is shown for its transfer under some act of Congress.” Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc. v. Henson, 537 U.S. 28, 32, 123 S.Ct. 366, 369 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). Where Congress has acted to create a right of removal, those statutes, unless otherwise stated, are strictly construed against removal jurisdiction.[1] See id. Unless otherwise expressly provided by 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[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a); see Dennis v. Hart, 724 F.3d 1249, 1252 (9th Cir. 2013) (same). A removing defendant bears the burden of establishing that removal is proper. See 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”); 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). Moreover, 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.”).

         “Under the plain terms of § 1441(a), in order properly to remove [an] action pursuant to that provision, [the removing defendant] must demonstrate that original subject-matter jurisdiction lies in the federal courts.” Syngenta Crop Protection, 537 U.S. at 33, 123 S.Ct. at 370. Failure to do so requires that the case be remanded, as “[s]ubject matter jurisdiction may not be waived, and. . . the district court must remand if it lacks jurisdiction.” Kelton Arms Condo. Owners Ass'n, Inc. v. Homestead Ins. Co., 346 F.3d 1190, 1192 (9th Cir. 2003). 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 Emrich v. Touche Ross & Co., 846 F.2d 1190, 1194 n. 2 (9th Cir. 1988) (“It is elementary that the subject matter jurisdiction of the district court is not a waivable matter and may be raised at anytime by one of the parties, by motion or in the responsive pleadings, or sua sponte by the trial or reviewing court.”); Washington v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 2009 WL 1519894, *1 (C.D. Cal. 2009) (a district court may remand an action where the court finds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction either by motion or sua sponte).

         DISCUSSION

         The court's review of the NOR and the attached state court Complaint makes clear that this court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the instant matter.[2] In other words, plaintiff could not have originally brought this action in federal court, as plaintiff does not competently allege facts supplying diversity jurisdiction. Therefore, removal was improper. See 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a); Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392, 107 S.Ct. 2425, 2429 (1987) (“Only state-court actions that originally could have been filed in federal court may be removed to federal court by the defendant.”) (footnote omitted).

         Defendant bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy meets the jurisdictional threshold. See Valdez v. Allstate Ins. Co., 372 F.3d 1115, 1117 (9th Cir. 2004); Matheson v. Progressive Specialty Ins. Co., 319 F.3d 1089, 1090 (9th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“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. Where doubt regarding the right to removal exists, a case should be remanded to state court.”) (footnotes omitted). Here, there is no basis for diversity jurisdiction because the amount in controversy does not appear to exceed the diversity jurisdiction threshold of $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332.[3] The amount of damages plaintiff seeks cannot be determined from the Complaint, as the Complaint does not set forth a specific amount. (See Dkt. 1-1, Complaint at 16-17, “Prayer for Relief”).

         Defendant contends that the amount in controversy threshold is met “[b]ased upon the damages sought in the Complaint[.]” (See Dkt. 1, NOR at ¶ 9). However, defendant proffers no evidence that might help the court determine whether plaintiff's claims would fulfill the amount in controversy requirement. (See, generally, id.). Defendant merely cites to plaintiff's alleged injuries and requested forms of relief as proof, ipso facto, that the amount plaintiff seeks would meet the amount in controversy requirement. (See id. at ¶ 9). Such an unsubstantiated assertion, untethered to any evidence, cannot satisfy the amount in controversy requirement of § 1332(a). See Gaus, 980 F.2d at 567 (remanding for lack of diversity jurisdiction where defendant “offered no facts whatsoever . . . [to] overcome[ ] the strong presumption against removal jurisdiction, [and did not] satisf[y] [defendant's] burden of setting forth . . . the underlying facts supporting its assertion that the amount in controversy exceeds [$75, 000].”) (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis in the original).

         Defendant's reliance on plaintiff's request for emotional distress damages, (see Dkt. 1, NOR at ¶ 9), is similarly unpersuasive. Even if emotional distress damages are recoverable, plaintiff's Complaint does not allege any specific amount for her emotional distress claims (or as general damages), (see, generally, Dkt. 1-1, Complaint), and therefore it would be speculative to include these damages in the total amount in controversy. See Cable v. Merit Life Ins. Co., 2006 WL 1991664, *3 (E.D. Cal. 2006) (Defendant's argument that emotional distress damages exceeded the jurisdictional threshold was insufficient when “[d]efendant provide[d] no reliable basis for determining the amount of emotional distress damages likely to be recovered in this case.”). Further, defendant fails to provide any analogous cases with substantially similar factual scenarios to guide the court as to the amount of emotional distress damages that might be recovered in this case. (See, generally, Dkt. 1, NOR at ¶ 9); see also Mireles v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 845 F.Supp.2d 1034, 1055 (C.D. Cal. 2012) (remanding where defendants “proffer[ed] no evidence that the lawsuits and settlements alleged in the complaint are factually or legally similar to plaintiffs' claims.”); Dawson v. Richmond Am. Homes of Nevada, Inc., 2013 WL 1405338, *3 (D. Nev. 2013) (remanding where defendant “offered no facts to demonstrate that the [proffered analogous] suit is factually identical [to plaintiffs' suit.]”).

         Defendant also refers to the fact that plaintiff seeks punitive damages, which it suggests should be considered in the amount in controversy determination. (See Dkt. 1, NOR at ¶ 9). While punitive damages may be included in the amount in controversy calculation, see Gibson v. Chrysler Corp., 261 F.3d 927, 945 (9th Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1104 (2002), plaintiff's request for such damages does not aid defendant. “[T]he mere possibility of a punitive damages award is insufficient to prove that the amount in controversy requirement has been met.” Burk v. Med. Savs. Ins. Co., 348 F.Supp.2d 1063, 1069 (D. Ariz. 2004); accord Geller v. Hai Ngoc Duong, 2010 WL 5089018, *2 (S.D. Cal. 2010); J. Marymount, Inc. v. Bayer Healthcare, LLC, 2009 WL 4510126, *4 (N.D. Cal. 2009). Rather, a defendant “must present evidence that punitive damages will more likely than not exceed the amount needed to increase the amount in controversy to $75, 000.” Burk, 348 F.Supp.2d at 1069. A removing defendant may establish “probable punitive damages, for example, by introducing evidence of jury verdicts in analogous cases.” Id.

         Here, because defendant has not provided evidence of punitive damages awards in factually similar cases, (see, generally, Dkt. 1, NOR at ¶ 9), inclusion of punitive damages in the amount in controversy would be improper. See Burk, 348 F.Supp.2d at 1070 (defendant “failed to compare the facts of Plaintiff's case with the facts of other cases where punitive damages have been awarded in excess of the jurisdictional amount”); Killion v. AutoZone Stores Inc., 2011 WL 590292, *2 (C.D. Cal. 2011) (‚ÄúDefendants cite two cases . . . in which punitive damages were awarded, but make no attempt to analogize or explain how these cases are similar to the instant action. . . . Simply citing these cases merely illustrate[s] that punitive damages are possible, but in no way ...


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