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Holzer v. Athene Annuity & Life Assurance Co.

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

October 3, 2017




         Defendant Athene Annuity & Life Assurance Company (“Athene”) removed this case from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, asserting federal diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiffs Jack A. Holzer and Mary F. Bruesh-Holzer (the “Holzers”) promptly moved to remand this action to state court, arguing that two defendants sharing Kansas citizenship with the Holzers destroy diversity. Defendants insist that the two Kansas defendants were fraudulently joined, and that removal therefore was proper.

         Because the Holzers have a basis in law and fact for suing at least one Kansas-based defendant, the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this case and must remand it to state court.

         I. Background

         The Holzers filed this action in the Circuit Court of Jackson County on September 12, 2016, alleging that Mr. Holzer contracted mesothelioma and asbestosis from his exposure to asbestos fibers emanating from products manufactured, sold, distributed, and/or installed by the defendants. The Holzers are residents of Kansas, but brought suit in Missouri because Mr. Holzer allegedly was first exposed to asbestos while he worked in the state. Two of the defendants named in the most recent state court petition, KCG, Inc. (“KCG”) and Fuhrco, Inc. f/k/a Schutte Lumber Company (“Fuhrco”) are citizens of Kansas. The other defendants, including Athene, are citizens of other states.

         Athene removed this case on the basis of diversity, asserting that the Holzers on the one hand and the defendants on the other are citizens of different states, and that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. There is no dispute regarding the amount in controversy. However, the Holzers insist that both KCG and Fuhrco, as fellow citizens of Kansas, destroy diversity. Athene insists that the Holzers have no basis in fact or law to sue KCG, and that the Holzers never intended to prosecute their claims against either KCG or Fuhrco. The Holzers deny that they filed suit against either of the Kansas-based defendants with improper purpose and maintain that they intend to seek a default judgment against Fuhrco.

         II. Standard

         A defendant in a state court action may, under certain conditions, remove to federal district court a case over which the federal court has original jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). A federal district court has diversity jurisdiction if (i) the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, and (ii) the plaintiffs' state of citizenship is different from the state of citizenship of each of the defendants. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). “In a case with multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants, the presence in the action of a single plaintiff from the same State as a single defendant deprives the district court of original diversity jurisdiction over the entire action.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 553 (2005). The Court must remand a case over which it lacks subject matter jurisdiction. See In re Prempro Prod. Liab. Litig., 591 F.3d 613, 620 (8th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he case should be remanded if it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.”) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c)).

         If a non-diverse defendant was joined solely to prevent removal of a case from state court, the joinder is fraudulent and will not destroy the court's subject matter jurisdiction. See Prempro, 591 F.3d at 620 (“Courts have long recognized fraudulent joinder as an exception to the complete diversity rule. Fraudulent joinder occurs when a plaintiff files a frivolous or illegitimate claim against a non-diverse defendant solely to prevent removal.”) (citations omitted). However, if a plaintiff has a “colorable” claim against a non-diverse defendant, joinder is not fraudulent. Filla v. Norfolk Southern. Ry. Co., 336 F.3d 806, 810 (8th Cir. 2003) (“[I]f there is a ‘colorable' cause of action-that is, if the state law might impose liability on the resident defendant under the facts alleged-then there is no fraudulent joinder.”).

         As the party seeking to remove the case, Athene bears the burden of establishing that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this case. See Griffioen v. Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Ry. Co., 785 F.3d 1182, 1192 (8th Cir. 2015) (“The party seeking removal has the burden to establish federal subject matter jurisdiction . . . .”) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Any doubt concerning whether the Court has jurisdiction “must be resolved in favor of remand.” Cent. Iowa Power Co-op. v. Midwest Indep. Transmission Sys. Operator, Inc., 561 F.3d 904, 912 (8th Cir. 2009).

         III. Discussion

         Athene does not contend that the Holzers' claims against Fuhrco are without a factual or legal basis.[1] See Defendant Athene's Amended Suggestions Opposing Plaintiff's Motion to Remand, Doc. 31 at 14 (“To be clear, Athene is not asserting that Fuhrco, Inc. was fraudulently joined under the Filla prong.”). Instead, Athene argues that the Holzers have no intention of prosecuting their claims against Fuhrco. In other words, Athene does not argue that the Holzers cannot prosecute their claims against Fuhrco; Athene argues merely that the Holzers will not prosecute those claims. Under Filla, however, the Holzers' intention is irrelevant; the fraudulent-joinder determination turns only on the legal and factual basis for the Holzers' claims. See Filla, 336 F.3d at 810. If the Holzers have a reasonable basis for their claims against Fuhrco, joinder of Fuhrco was not fraudulent.

         Athene argues that Filla addresses only one of two factors considered in assessing whether joinder was fraudulent, and that an 80-year old Eighth Circuit case requires the Court to consider not just whether there is a legal and factual basis for a claim against a non-diverse defendant, but also “whether there is a real intention on the part of the plaintiff to secure a joint judgment . . . .” Leonard v. St. Joseph Lead Co., 75 F.2d 390, 396-97 (8th Cir. 1935). However, the intent-focused language in Leonard that Athene quotes is mere dicta. In Leonard, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to remand because there was no basis in law or fact for the allegations against the non-diverse defendants. See Id. at 395 (“[I]t is clear that the court properly held that [the directors] were fraudulently joined . . . . [T]he directors had nothing to do with the management, operation, manner of conducting or controlling the work of the plaintiff, knew nothing of the conditions under which he worked, and had nothing to do with the actual working of the mine. The general rule governing the personal liability of an officer or director of a corporation for torts committed by the corporation is that he is not liable where he has not participated therein, nor had any knowledge of, nor given any content to the act or transaction.”); id. at 396-97 (“It is conceivable that under the law of Missouri, the two corporations might have been jointly liable to plaintiff if the negligence of both concurred in producing his injury, but . . . in fact, it conclusively appears that there was no such concurrent negligence.”). Leonard did not turn on the plaintiff's intent. Thus, the holding of Leonard is in essence no different from the holding in Filla. Compare Leonard, 75 F.2d at 396 (noting that “the record justifies the conclusion of the lower court that this allegation is without foundation in fact and fraudulent in law”) with Filla, 336 F.3d at 810 (“[J]oinder is fraudulent when there exists no reasonable basis in fact and law supporting a claim against the resident defendants. Conversely, if there is a reasonable basis in fact and law supporting the claim, the joinder is not fraudulent.”) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The other cases that Athene cites in support of the argument that the Court should consider the Holzers' “real intention” in determining whether joinder was fraudulent also turned not on the question of intent, but on whether there was a reasonable basis for the claims. See Walker v. Lanoga Corp., No. 06-0148, 2006 WL 1594451, at **4-5 (W.D. Mo. June 9, 2006) (denying motion to remand because plaintiff was “unable to state a cognizable claim” against the non-diverse defendant); Starman v. Peoples Ben. Life Ins. Co., No. 05-0018, 2005 WL 2123727, at *3 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 1, 2005) (denying motion to remand because “Plaintiff fail[ed] to state a cause of action against [the non-diverse] [d]efendant”); Garner v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., No. 15-00733, 2015 WL 7352281, at *7 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 20, 2015) (finding fraudulent joinder “[b]ecause there is no reasonable basis for predicting that Kansas law might impose liability on [in-state defendant] based upon the facts Plaintiffs allege”); Scientific Computers, Inc. v. Edudata Corp., 596 F.Supp. 1290, 1292-93 (D. Minn. 1984) (finding, where plaintiff could have obtained full relief without joinder of the in-state defendant, and where the in-state defendant was the only one of several brokers to be named in the suit, that joinder was fraudulent). Indeed, in two of the cases that Athene cites, Jameson v. Gough, No. 09-2021, 2010 WL 716107 (E.D. Mo. Feb. 24, 2010) and Maddux v. Great Am. Ins. Co., No. 08-0461, 2009 WL 10671556 (W.D. Mo. Mar. 20, 2009), the court found that there was a basis for the claims against the ...

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