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Rutherford v. LA Jolla Riviera Apartment House LLC

United States District Court, S.D. California

November 19, 2019




         Plaintiff James Rutherford (“Plaintiff”) moves to remand this action to the Superior Court of California for the County of San Diego. (Doc. No. 6.) Defendant La Jolla Riviera Apartment House LLC (“Defendant”) opposes the motion. (Doc. No. 7.) The motion has been fully briefed and the court finds it suitable for submission on the papers and without oral argument in accordance with Civil Local Rule 7.1(d)(1). For the reasons stated below, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action, originally filed in the San Diego Superior Court, consists of two claims brought under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, California Civil Code §§ 51-52, and sets forth the following material facts. Plaintiff is mobility impaired. (Doc. No. 1-2 at 17.) At times, he relies on a wheelchair. (Id. at 20.) Defendant is a business entity that operates a hotel. (Id.) On or about January 14, 2019, Plaintiff visited Defendant's website to make a reservation. (Id. at 21.) Plaintiff could not make a reservation using the website because there was no information about “the features of the accessible rooms and the hotel.” (Id.) Plaintiff seeks only statutory damages, attorney's fees and costs, and injunctive relief. After Plaintiff filed his Complaint on February 19, 2019 and Defendant was served in June 2019, Defendant filed a timely Notice of Removal based on federal question jurisdiction. On August 20, 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant Motion to Remand.


         Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). “A federal court is presumed to lack jurisdiction in a particular case unless the contrary affirmatively appears.” Stock West, Inc. v. Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation, 873 F.2d 1221, 1225 (9th Cir. 1989). An action in state court can generally be removed to federal court when the case could have originally been brought in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441; see Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Services, Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 563 (2005). The defendant bears the burden of proving removal jurisdiction. Leite v. Crane Co., 749 F.3d 1117, 1121-22 (9th Cir. 2014). Any doubt regarding removal jurisdiction is construed against the defendant and in favor of remanding the case to state court. Gaus v. Miles, Inc. 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992); see also Hunter v. Philip Morris USA, 582 F.3d 1039, 1042 (9th Cir. 2009) (“[T]he court resolves all ambiguity in favor of remand to state court.”).

         Federal courts have original jurisdiction over all civil actions that arise under federal law. 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A case may arise under federal law where “it appears that some substantial, disputed question of federal law is a necessary element of one of the well-pleaded state claims.” Franchise Tax Bd. of State of Cal. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Tr. for Southern Cal., 463 U.S. 1, 13 (1983); see also Armstrong v. N. Mariana Islands, 576 F.3d 950, 955 (9th Cir. 2009). “When a claim can be supported by alternative and independent theories - one of which is a state law theory and one of which is a federal law theory - federal question jurisdiction does not attach because federal law is not a necessary element of the claim.” Rains v. Criterion Sys., Inc., 80 F.3d 339, 346 (9th Cir. 1996).

         Under the well-pleaded complaint rule, “federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). “[A] case will not be removable if the complaint does not affirmatively allege a federal claim.” Beneficial Nat'l Bank v. Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 6 (2003). “The plaintiff is the master of his or her complaint and may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state law.” Easton v. Crossland Mortg. Corp., 114 F.3d 979, 982 (9th Cir. 1997); see also ARCO Envt'l. Remediation, L.L.C. v. Dep't. of Health and Envt'l Quality of the State of Mont., 213 F.3d 1108, 1114 (9th Cir. 2000).


         The parties dispute whether removal based on federal question jurisdiction was proper. Plaintiff argues that removal was improper even though his state claims are premised, at least in part, on Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“the ADA”). (Doc. No. 6 at 4.) Defendant argues that removal was proper because it “appears from the Complaint that this is a civil rights action alleging violations of the [ADA], ” (Doc. No. 1 at 2), and because Plaintiff's claims are based “exclusively” and “solely” on the ADA, (Doc. No. 7 at 5, 6, 13, 14). Defendant further argues that federal question jurisdiction exists because: (1) Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief; (2) Defendant could have sought its own declaratory judgment in federal court; and (3) Plaintiff does not allege intentional discrimination. (Id.) For the reasons stated below, removal was improper.

         A. Plaintiff's Complaint

         The face of Plaintiff's Complaint does not include or affirmatively allege a claim under federal law as a separate cause of action. See Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 392 (noting that federal-question jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of “[a] properly pleaded complaint” and “[t]he rule makes the plaintiff the master of the claim; he or she may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state law.”) (citation omitted). Plaintiff's first cause of action exclusively relies on the Unruh Act, while seeking injunctive relief and damages. (Doc. No. 1-2 at 23-24.) While section 51(f) of the Unruh Act states that a violation of the ADA constitutes a violation of the Unruh Act, section 51(b) guarantees specific rights to persons with disabilities and can serve as a basis for a claim independent of the ADA.[1] Munson v. Del Taco, Inc., 208 P.3d 623, 627 (Cal. 2009); Cullen v. Netflix, Inc., 880 F.Supp.2d 1017, 1024 (N.D. Cal. 2012). Injunctive relief and damages are both available under the Unruh Act. See Cal. Civ. Code § 51(b); Turner v. Assoc. of Am. Med. Colls., 85 Cal.Rptr.3d 94, 100 (Ct. App. 2008).

         Plaintiff's second cause of action is for declaratory relief based on violation of both the Unruh Act and the ADA. (Doc. No. 1-2 at 25.) Actions for declaratory relief are available under California law. See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 22, 30, 1060. The fact that Plaintiff seeks a declaration from a state court that Defendant violated the Unruh Act, as well as the ADA, does not create federal question jurisdiction. “[F]ederal courts do not have original jurisdiction, nor do they acquire jurisdiction on removal, when a federal question is presented by a complaint for a state declaratory judgment[.]” Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Tr., 463 U.S. 1, 19 (1983); see also Merrell Dow Pharms. Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 808 (1986) (“[T]he mere presence of a federal issue in a state cause of action does not automatically confer federal-question jurisdiction.”). Given that the Unruh Act is premised, in part, on the ADA, a state court could issue declaratory relief based on both the ADA and Unruh Act as a matter of state law.

         B. ...

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