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Duncan v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

United States District Court, E.D. California

November 20, 2019

RAVEN DUNCAN, Plaintiffs,
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, et al, Defendants.

          ORDER

         In this insurance coverage case, plaintiff moves to remand on the basis that the amount in controversy does not meet the jurisdictional minimum. For the reasons below, the court DENIES the motion.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to remand is the proper procedure to challenge a removal based on lack of jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).[1] Removal is only proper when (1) the case presents a federal question or (2) there is diversity of citizenship between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332(a).

         The amount in controversy is an “estimate of the total amount in dispute.” Lewis v. Verizon Communications, Inc., 627 F.3d 395, 400 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). In this circuit, when the amount of damages is unspecified, the removing party must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional threshold. Id. at 397; Sanchez v. Monumental Life Ins. Co., 102 F.3d 398, 404 (9th Cir. 1996) (“Under this burden, the defendant must provide evidence establishing that it is ‘more likely than not' that the amount in controversy exceeds [the jurisdictional amount].”). To determine if the amount in controversy is met, the district court considers the complaint, allegations in the removal petition, and “summary-judgment-type evidence relevant to the amount in controversy, ” Kroske v. U.S. Bank Corp., 432 F.3d 976, 980 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted); see also Fritsch v. Swift Transportation Co. of Arizona, LLC, 899 F.3d 785, 788 (9th Cir. 2018) (clarifying amount in controversy not limited to amount at time of removal, at least with respect to future attorneys' fees), as well as evidence filed in opposition to the motion to remand, Lenau v. Bank of Am., N.A., 131 F.Supp.3d 1003, 1005 (E.D. Cal. 2015) (citing Cohn v. Petsmart, Inc., 281 F.3d 837, 840 n.1 (9th Cir. 2002) (per curiam)). Ultimately, “[w]here doubt regarding the right to removal exists, a case should be remanded to state court.” Matheson v. Progressive Specialty Ins. Co., 319 F.3d 1089, 1090 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted).

         II. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff, Raven Duncan, does not specify an amount of damages in her complaint. Compl, ECF No. 1, at 12. Therefore, defendant must show it is more likely than not that the total amount in dispute exceeds $75, 000.

         In the complaint, plaintiff alleges defendant breached the parties' contract and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing when it denied plaintiff's insurance claim after her vehicle was stolen. Id. ¶¶ 18-37. Plaintiff alleges the value of her vehicle was $33, 000. Id. ¶ 21. In addition to compensatory damages, plaintiff asks for punitive damages, emotional and mental distress damages, and attorneys' fees. Id. at 12.

         A. Punitive Damages

         Defendant argues plaintiff's claim for emotional distress and punitive damages causes the amount in controversy to exceed $75, 000. ECF No. 14 at 6. Punitive damages may be considered in amount in controversy calculations if they are recoverable under state law. Gibson v. Chrysler Corp., 261 F.3d 927, 945 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing, inter alia, Bell v. Preferred Life Assur. Society, 320 U.S. 238, 240 (1943)). In California, punitive damages are recoverable for implied breach of covenant claims, such as plaintiff's second claim for violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Campbell v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., 825 F.Supp.2d 1005, 1008 (E.D. Cal. 2011) (citing Cal. Civ. Code § 3294).

         “When assessing the probable amount of unspecified punitive damages for jurisdictional purposes, courts may look to verdicts in analogous cases as a reasonable approximation.” Id. (citing Simmons v. PCR Technology, 209 F.Supp.2d 1029, 1033 (N.D. Cal. 2002)). Defendant has identified only one similar case decided by a district court in the Ninth Circuit in which plaintiff's breach of contract damages were relatively small, and a jury awarded punitive damages in excess of the jurisdictional minimum. Opp'n at 9-10 (citing, inter alia, McCoy v. Progressive West Insurance Company, 2007 WL 2068578 (Mar. 29, 2007) (jury awarded $17, 175 on breach of contract and $100, 000 in punitive damages)). The other cases defendant cites either do not involve punitive damages or do not contain enough information to determine what portion of the judgment was for punitive damages specifically. See Ellingson Decl., Ex. 2-7. Moreover, defendant has not articulated why the “particular facts that are alleged in the instant case might warrant extraordinary damages.” Scalzo v. Allied Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., No. 1:11-CV-00612 LJO, 2011 WL 2709001, at *3 (E.D. Cal. July 11, 2011) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted), report and recommendation adopted, 2011 WL 3418806 (E.D. Cal. July 27, 2011). The record here is insufficient for the court to find that the amount in controversy is met by a preponderance of the evidence based on punitive damages.

         B. Emotional Distress Damages

         To establish the requisite amount in controversy through emotional distress damages, the defendant bears the same burden as above for punitive damages. Cain v. Hartford Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 890 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1250 (2012) (defendant may show emotional distress damages will satisfy jurisdictional threshold by preponderance of evidence by analogizing to verdicts in other similar cases). When sufficiently analogous to the case at hand, “settlements and jury verdicts in similar cases can provide evidence of the amount in controversy.” Mireles v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 845 F.Supp.2d 1034, 1055 (C.D. Cal. 2012) (citations omitted).

         Of the cases defendant cites, two involve jury awards in which emotional distress damages were independently quantified. Opp'n at 9-10 (citing White v. Geico Indemnity Co., 13 Trials Digest 17th 17, 2014 WL 1394317 (Cal. Super. Ct. Mar. 18, 2014); Martinez v. Mercury Ins. Co., 30 Trials Digest 17th 28, 2014 WL 3845738 (Cal. Super. Ct., June 16, 2014)). One of those awards was overturned on appeal, Martinez v. Mercury Ins. Co., No. B261003, 2016 WL 4446576, at *6-7 (Cal.Ct.App., Aug. 24, 2016) (unpublished) (reversing award of $600, 000 for emotional distress damages). The court looks to the remaining case, White, as well as an additional case defendant cites in which plaintiff's claim for the value of his 2001 Dodge Ram pickup truck and emotional distress damages was settled for $190, 000. Cortez vs. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 15 Trials Digest 10th 8, 2007 WL 968427, at *1-2 (Cal. Super. Ct. Jan. 3, 2007); see also White v. Geico Indemnity Co., 2014 WL 1394317, at *1-2 (Cal. Super. Ct. Mar. 18, 2014) ($326, 000 in emotional distress damages awarded where plaintiff's small claim for vehicle damage wrongfully denied and plaintiff sought treatment for emotional distress). These cases, in which defendants denied insurance claims for vehicle-related loss based on the allegedly erroneous conclusion plaintiff made material misrepresentations, are adequately analogous to the case at hand to signal that emotional distress damages are likely to exceed $42, 000 if plaintiff is successful here. See Cain v. Hartford Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 890 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1250 (C.D. Cal. 2012) (finding three somewhat analogous cases showing emotional distress damages sufficient to meet preponderance of the evidence standard for amount in controversy). Accordingly, defendant has shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, including $33, 000 for compensatory damages and more than $42, 000 for emotional distress damages.

         C. Attorn ...


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