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Murphy v. Amazon.Com, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 17, 2019

TOM MURPHY, Plaintiff,
v.
AMAZON.COM, INC. Defendant.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REMAND AND REQUEST FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES (DOC. NO. 6)

          BARBARA A. McAULIFFE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Tom Murphy's (“Plaintiff”) motion to remand and request for attorneys' fees. (Doc. No. 6.) The motion was referred to the undersigned for issuance of findings and recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 302(a). The Court deemed the matter suitable for resolution without oral argument and vacated the hearing set for December 13, 2019. Local Rule 230(g). Having considered the parties' briefing, and for the reasons that follow, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion to remand and request for attorneys' fees be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff originally filed this action in the Superior Court of California for the County of Stanislaus on November 5, 2018, naming Amazon.com, Inc. (“Defendant”) and USX Logistics aka U.S. Xpress as defendants.[1] (Doc. No. 1 at 2.) According to the complaint, Plaintiff is a long-haul driver who contracts with various companies to deliver loads throughout the United States. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A.) In February of 2018, Plaintiff was hired to pick up a load in Phoenix, Arizona using his tractor and trailer and deliver it to Tracy, California. (Id.) When Plaintiff delivered the load in Tracy, Defendant instructed him to disconnect and leave his trailer for unloading. (Id.) Plaintiff subsequently returned to pick up his trailer, and Defendant informed him it had been loaded with goods and was being driven to Hillsborough, Oregon by another driver. (Id.) Defendant allegedly refused to return the trailer to Plaintiff and kept it for more than thirty (30) days, resulting in a loss of income totaling $40, 000. (Id.) The trailer was also purportedly damaged and required repairs totaling $6, 200. (Id.) Plaintiff's complaint, which is entitled “Complaint for Conversion, ” seeks general damages according to proof, damage to the trailer in the sum of $6, 200, special damages for loss of income totaling $40, 000, punitive or exemplary damages in an amount to be determined at trial, for costs of suit, and other relief as may be just and proper. (Id.)

         Defendant removed the matter to this Court on November 4, 2019. (Doc. No. 1.) Defendant's notice of removal states that the matter was removed based on diversity jurisdiction as Plaintiff is a citizen of California or Missouri, and Defendant is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Seattle, Washington. (Id. at 2-3.) Further, the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, because Plaintiff seeks damages in an amount not less than $100, 000 consisting of lost income, damage to the trailer, punitive damages, and emotional distress damages. (Id.) Although the complaint did not state that Plaintiff sought damages in excess of $75, 000, Defendant received a Settlement Conference Statement on October 25, 2019, calculating Plaintiff's damages to be at least $100, 000. (Id. at 3.)

         On November 8, 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant motion to remand this action to state court. (Doc. No. 6.) Plaintiff also seeks an award of fees and costs incurred in bringing the motion to remand. (Id.) Defendant filed an opposition on November 27, 2019, and Plaintiff replied on December 3, 2019. (Doc. Nos. 9, 11.) On December 10, 2019, the Court took the matter under submission. (Doc. No. 13.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Removal of a state action may be based on either diversity jurisdiction or federal question jurisdiction. City of Chicago v. Int'l College of Surgeons, 552 U.S. 156, 163 (1997); Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987); Jordan v. Nationstar Mortgage, LLC, 781 F.3d 1178, 1181 (9th Cir. 2015). Diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) grants original jurisdiction to a district court when there is both complete diversity of citizenship and an amount in controversy exceeding $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). In a case that has been removed from state court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, the defendant has the burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that removal is proper. Geographic Expeditions, 599 F.3d 1102, 1106-07 (9th Cir. 2010); Hunter v. Phillip Morris USA, 582 F.3d 1039, 1042 (9th Cir. 2009) (noting defendant always has the burden of establishing that removal is proper). Federal courts “strictly construe the removal statute against removal jurisdiction.” Gaus v. Miles, 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Amount in Controversy

         Plaintiff's claim arises under California state law, and Defendant has removed the case to federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1441, predicated on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (See Doc. No. 1 at 2-3.) There is no dispute that complete diversity exists between the parties. Although unclear from Plaintiff's briefing, Plaintiff appears to seek remand on the basis that Defendant has not established the amount in controversy, and the Court therefore addresses this argument.

         Where, as here, the amount in controversy is not clear from the plaintiff's complaint, the burden is on the defendant to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. 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 [$75, 000].” Id. The removing party must initially file a notice of removal that includes "a plausible allegation that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional threshold." Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co., LLC v. Owens, 574 U.S. 81, 89 (2014). The defendant's amount in controversy allegation "should be accepted when not contested by the plaintiff or questioned by the court." Id. at 87. If, however, the "defendant's assertion of the amount in controversy is challenged . . . both sides submit proof and the court decides, by a preponderance of the evidence, whether the amount-in-controversy requirement has been satisfied." Id. at 88. This proof can include affidavits, declarations, or other "summary-judgment-type evidence relevant to the amount in controversy at the time of removal." Ibarra v. Manheim Investments, Inc., 775 F.3d 1193, 1197 (9th Cir. 2015) (quoting Singer v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 116 F.3d 373, 377 (9th Cir. 1997)). Additionally, the defendant may rely on "reasonable assumptions underlying the defendant's theory of damages exposure." Ibarra, 775 F.3d at 1198. The party seeking to invoke the jurisdiction of the court bears the burden of supporting its jurisdictional allegations with competent proof. See Gaus, 980 F.2d at 566.

         Plaintiff argues that the Court “has not been presented with any evidence, other than the settlement conference statement, to support the contention that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 at the time of removal. (Doc. No. 6-1 at 3-4.) However, “[a] settlement letter is relevant evidence of the amount in controversy if it appears to reflect a reasonable estimate of the plaintiff's claim.” Cohn v. Petsmart, Inc., 281 F.3d 837, 840 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Wilson v. Belin, 20 F.3d 644, 651 n. 8 (5th Cir. 1994) (“Because the record contains a letter, which plaintiff's counsel sent to defendants stating that the amount in controversy exceeded $50, 000, it is ‘apparent' that removal was proper.”)). In Babasa v. LensCrafters, Inc., 498 F.3d 972, 973-975 (9th Cir. 2007), the Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiff's pre-mediation settlement letter constituted § 1446 notice because the letter estimated damages at $9.5 million supported by details of the injuries. In Jiminez v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 2010 WL 653548 at *2-3 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 18, 2010), the district court held that an oral statement was not an “other paper, ” but acknowledged, “[s]ettlement letters or other documents provided during mediation may form a basis for removal.”

         Here, the complaint requests general damages according to proof, damage to the trailer in the sum of $6, 200, special damages for loss of income totaling $40, 000, punitive or exemplary damages in an amount to be determined at trial, for costs of suit, and other relief as may be just and proper. (See Doc. No. 1, Ex. A.) The notice of removal states that the Settlement Conference Statement contains a settlement demand for $100, 000, consisting of lost income, damage to Plaintiff's trailer, punitive damages for the alleged intentional conversion of the trailer, and emotional distress damages for the alleged intentional conversion of the trailer. (Doc. No. 1 at 2-3, Exhs. A, L.) Thus, the Settlement Conference Statement estimates emotional distress damages and punitive damages at a combined total of $53, 800, which is the amount that remains when the $46, 200 in lost income and trailer repairs listed in the complaint is subtracted from the $100, 000 settlement demand. A copy of the Settlement Conference Statement is attached to the Notice of Removal and referenced in the declaration of counsel for Plaintiff filed in support of the motion. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. L; Doc. No. 6-2 at 3.) Furthermore, according to counsel for Plaintiff, the Settlement Conference Statement was prepared the afternoon after counsel took the ...


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