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Stanley v. The Lafayette Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southwestern Division

May 4, 2015

STEWART M. STANLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
THE LAFAYETTE LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

ORDER

DOUGLAS HARPOOL, District Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Remand to State Court Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447. (Doc. 56). The Court stayed briefing on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment in order to allow the parties to address the threshold matter of subject matter jurisdiction. Carlson v. Arrowhead Concrete Works, Inc., 445 F.3d 1046, 1050 (8th Cir. 2006) ("In every federal case the court must be satisfied that it has jurisdiction before it turns to the merits of other legal arguments."). The Court ordered an expedited briefing schedule in light of the approaching trial date. After full and careful consideration, Plaintiff's motion to remand is hereby DENIED.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff initiated this suit in the Circuit Court of Jasper County, Missouri on September 16, 2013. Plaintiff asserts claims for breach of contract and vexatious refusal to pay arising from a long-term disability insurance policy issued by Defendant. Plaintiff alleges he was involved in an automobile accident at age 48 and suffered injuries that left him Totally Disabled. According to Plaintiff, Defendant acknowledged his Total Disability and paid him disability benefits until he reached age 65. Under the terms of the Policy, the maximum benefit period for Total Disability is "your lifetime if Total Disability commences before your 50th birthday, otherwise until your 65th birthday[.]"[1] Plaintiff claims Defendant breached the terms of the policy without reasonable cause or excuse by terminating Plaintiff's disability benefits at age 65.

On October 15, 2013, Defendant removed the case to federal district court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Defendant noted diversity of citizenship and argued the amount-in-controversy exceeds $75, 000. To calculate the amount in controversy, Defendant multiplied monthly benefits of $840 under the policy by the typical 13-year life expectancy of a 65 year old male. Defendant thereby calculated the value of Plaintiff's claim to be in excess of $131, 000 and in excess of $77, 000 even if discounted at Missouri's legal rate of 9%. Defendant noted that "Plaintiff also seeks attorney fees and penalties."

On April 9, 2015, nearly eighteen months after Defendant removed the case to federal court, Plaintiff filed a motion to remand. Plaintiff argues for the first time that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because future disability benefits are not includable in calculating the amount in controversy. Plaintiff alleges he turned 65 on April 9, 2013 and states his unpaid monthly benefits at removal were $5, 500 and through trial are $21, 000. Using this latter figure, Plaintiff calculates the amount of penalties under Missouri's vexatious refusal statute to equal $2, 250. Plaintiff argues that "[i]f attorneys' fees were awarded based on the contingency fee of 40%, then the amount in controversy threshold still would not be close to satisfied." Plaintiff argues Defendant lacked an objectively reasonable basis for seeking removal and requests a court order of $4, 225 in attorney fees and costs pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).

STANDARD

A party seeking to remand a case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction may do so at any time before final judgment is entered. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). Although the court's jurisdiction is measured as of the date the action was removed, post-removal events "may be relevant to prove the existence or nonexistence of diversity jurisdiction at the time of filing." Schubert v. Auto Owners Ins. Co., 649 F.3d 817, 822 (8th Cir. 2011). A defendant seeking removal "bears the burden of establishing that the district court ha[s] original jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence." Knudson v. Sys. Painters, Inc., 634 F.3d 968, 975 (8th Cir. 2011). "All doubts about federal jurisdiction should be resolved in favor of remand to state court." Junk v. Terminix Int'l Co., 628 F.3d 439, 446 (8th Cir. 2010).

In a diversity case, the removing party must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy satisfies the jurisdictional minimum. LaPree v. Prudential Fin., 385 F.Supp.2d 839, 842 (S.D. Iowa 2005) (citing Trimble v. Asarco, Inc., 232 F.3d 946, 959 (8th Cir. 2000)). In computing the amount in controversy, a removing party may include punitive damages and statutory attorney fees. Crawford v. F. Hoffman-La Roche Ltd., 267 F.3d 760, 766 (8th Cir. 2001). The preponderance standard requires the removing party to present "some specific facts or evidence demonstrating that the jurisdictional amount has been met" such as "responses to discovery requests or damage recoveries in similar cases." Hoffmann v. Empire Mach. & Tools Ltd., No. 4:10-CV-00201-NKL, 2010 WL 2216631, at *2 (W.D. Mo. May 28, 2010). "Once the removing party has established by a preponderance of the evidence that the jurisdictional minimum is satisfied, remand is only appropriate if the plaintiff can establish to a legal certainty that the claim is for less than the requisite amount." Hargis v. Access Capital Funding, LLC, 674 F.3d 783, 790 (8th Cir. 2012).

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff argues the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the amount in controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction is not satisfied. In calculating the amount in controversy, the parties dispute two issues: future potential benefits under the policy and the amount of reasonable attorney fees to include in the calculation.

A. Amount in Controversy: Future Benefits

The parties dispute whether potential future benefit payments should be included in the amount in controversy calculation. The clear federal rule permits a court to consider future benefit payments where the validity of the policy is at issue but not where the controversy concerns the mere extent of the insurer's obligation with respect to the benefits. Massachusetts Cas. Ins. Co. v. Harmon, 88 F.3d 415, 416-17 (6th Cir. 1996); Davis v. Mut. of Omaha Ins. Co., 290 F.Supp. 217, 219 (W.D. Mo. 1968); 14B Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice & Procedure § 3710 (3d ed. 1998). The parties acknowledge this rule but dispute whether the controversy at issue concerns the validity of the insurance policy or the presence/absence of conditions measuring Defendant's liability thereunder.

Upon review, the Court agrees with Plaintiff that the controversy in this case concerns the extent of Defendant's obligation with respect to Plaintiff's disability benefits. The parties do not dispute that Plaintiff purchased a valid policy of disability insurance from Defendant, that Plaintiff was covered by that policy at the time of his car accident, that Plaintiff was covered by that policy at the time he made a claim for disability, that Plaintiff was Totally Disabled under the policy, or that the policy provides lifetime benefits for Total Disability that commences prior to age 50. Instead, as stated by Defendant in its motion for summary ...


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