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Patton v. Primeflight Aviation Services, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, St. Joseph Division

December 15, 2017




         Before the Court is Plaintiff Desiree Patton's Motion to Remand.[1] (Doc. 15.) Defendants have filed suggestions in opposition arguing removal is proper based on fraudulent joinder. (Doc. 25.) Plaintiff did not file a reply. For the reasons below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED in part as to Plaintiff's request for remand and DENIED in part as to Plaintiff's request for attorney's fees and costs.

         I. Background

         On July 10, 2017, Plaintiff originally filed this action in the Circuit Court of Platte County, Missouri, and then on August 16, 2017, Defendant PrimeFlight Aviation Services, Inc. (“PrimeFlight”) removed the action to this Court on the grounds of diversity jurisdiction. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff brings this employment practices case, alleging her employer Defendant PrimeFlight and Defendant Vince Eason, “an agent and employer with” PrimeFlight, violated the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 213.010 et seq. (Doc. 1-2 at ¶¶ 3, 6.)

         Prior to filing this action, on or about February 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (“MCHR”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), claiming discrimination based on race, retaliation, sex, and hostile work environment. (Doc. 1-2 at ¶ 8.) “On or about April 12, 2017, the MCHR mailed to Plaintiff her Notice of Right to Sue[.]” (Doc. 1-2 at ¶ 9.)

         Plaintiff's petition consists of two counts: a claim of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and hostile work environment (Count I), and a claim of retaliation (Count II). Specific to Eason, Plaintiff claims “Eason constituted an ‘employer' within the meaning of the MHRA” and Eason “participated in the discrimination and retaliation . . . and/or ratified and condoned the misbehavior by failing to take remedial actions.” (Doc. 1-2 at ¶¶ 3, 6.) Plaintiff's remaining allegations in support of her claims refer to Defendants' mistreatment of Plaintiff in the conjunctive. Plaintiff seeks actual and punitive damages.

         On the face of the pleadings, this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over this case because Eason is a citizen of the forum state, Missouri. Otherwise, there would be complete diversity as between Plaintiff, who is a citizen of Missouri, and PrimeFlight, who is a citizen of Ohio and Tennessee. Plaintiff requests this Court enter an order remanding the case to state court in Platte County. However, PrimeFlight argues there is diversity jurisdiction because Eason was fraudulently joined and his citizenship must be ignored for purposes of diversity jurisdiction. The issue before the Court is whether Eason was fraudulently joined so that his citizenship is ignored for purposes of diversity jurisdiction.[2]

         II. Analysis

         A. Legal Standard

         Generally speaking, 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) governs removal and provides that “[a]ny civil action brought in a State court . . . may be removed by the defendant” if the federal court has original jurisdiction over the case. “The basic statutory grants of federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction are contained in 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 [federal question jurisdiction] and 1332 [diversity jurisdiction].” Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 513 (2006). To invoke the district court's diversity jurisdiction, the parties must be citizens of different states and the amount in controversy must exceed $75, 000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Removability based on diversity jurisdiction is subject to an exception known as the “forum-defendant rule” which is codified in 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2). The forum-defendant rule limits federal jurisdiction based on diversity “by requiring that no joined and served defendants be a citizen of the state in which the action was initially brought.” Pecherski v. Gen. Motors Corp., 636 F.2d 1156, 1160 (8th Cir. 1981). If, however, a court determines a forum defendant has been fraudulently joined, that party's citizenship is disregarded and the action may be removed. See Wilson v. Republic Iron & Steel Co., 257 U.S. 92, 97 (1921) (fraudulent joinder of a resident defendant cannot defeat diversity jurisdiction).

         “[J]oinder is fraudulent when there exists no reasonable basis in fact and law supporting a claim against the resident defendants.” Filla v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 336 F.3d 806, 810 (8th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wiles v. Capitol Indem. Corp., 280 F.3d 868, 871 (8th Cir. 2002)). The Eighth Circuit in Filla distinguished this standard as follows:

Unlike most diversity cases (where a federal court is required to ascertain and apply state law no matter how onerous the task), here, the district court's task is limited to determining whether there is arguably a reasonable basis for predicting that the state law might impose liability based upon the facts involved. In making such a prediction, the district court should resolve all facts and ambiguities in the current controlling substantive law in the plaintiff's favor.

Id. at 811 (citation omitted). However, when deciding a fraudulent-joinder claim, the district court need not “definitively settle the ambiguous question of state law.” Id. “[T]o establish fraudulent joinder, the defendant must ‘do more than merely prove that the plaintiff's claim should be dismissed pursuant to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion' since ‘[the court] do[es] not focus on the artfulness of the plaintiff's pleadings.'” Block v. Toyota Motor Corp., 665 F.3d 944, 948 (8th Cir. 2011) (citing Knudson v. Systems Painters, Inc., 634 F.3d 968, 980 (8th Cir. 2011)). The Court must “determine whether there is a reasonable basis for predicting that the state's law might impose liability against the defendant.” Id. Therefore, in absence of federal question jurisdiction, if the district court concludes a resident defendant was not fraudulently joined, then subject-matter jurisdiction is nonexistent pursuant to the forum-defendant rule and the court must remand the case to the state court from which it was removed. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1447(b), 1447(c); see Horton v. Conklin, 431 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2005) (holding that a violation of the forum-defendant rule is a jurisdictional defect).

         Removal based on fraudulent joinder grants the district court only temporary jurisdiction to determine whether the non-diverse defendant was fraudulently joined. Wivell v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 756 F.3d 609, 616 (8th Cir. 2014). “[T]he party seeking removal has the burden to establish federal subject matter jurisdiction, [and] all doubts about federal jurisdiction must be resolved in favor of remand.” Cent. Iowa ...

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