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Heinzen v. Monsanto Company

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 20, 2018

RICHARD HEINZEN, et al, Plaintiffs,



         This removed matter is before the Court on plaintiffs Richard and Katerina Heinzen's (“plaintiffs”) motion to remand the case to state court. Defendant Monsanto Company (“Monsanto”) opposes the remand, asserting that this Court has diversity jurisdiction over the action. Plaintiffs filed a reply and the matter is fully briefed. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this action because of the presence of a forum state defendant, see 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2), and therefore must grant plaintiffs' motion to remand.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs filed this action in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Missouri on September 22, 2017, asserting claims against Monsanto for negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, strict products liability, and loss of consortium. Plaintiffs allege that as a result of exposure to Monsanto's product, Roundup®, plaintiff Richard Heinzen developed Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and has become disabled, disfigured, and impaired in the enjoyment of life, and has experienced and will in the future experience physical pain and mental and emotional suffering. Plaintiff Katerina Heinzen asserts claims for loss of consortium as a result of the injuries suffered by her spouse Richard Heinzen. Plaintiffs allege they are citizens of Wisconsin and that Monsanto is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Missouri.

         Monsanto removed the action to this Court on December 14, 2017, asserting that the Court has diversity jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) because the parties are of completely diverse citizenship and plaintiffs' petition plausibly seeks damages in excess of the $75, 000 amount in controversy requirement. Plaintiffs move to remand the case to state court asserting that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction based on the forum defendant rule, 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2), because Monsanto is a citizen of Missouri. Monsanto asserts that it has not been served in the state court action and therefore the forum defendant rule does not apply here, and the case is removable under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a).

         In moving to remand, plaintiffs dispute the statement in Monsanto's Notice of Removal that it “has not been served with the Petition in the State Court Action.” (Doc. 1 at 4.) Plaintiffs state that a summons for service by first class mail was issued and mailed to Monsanto's Missouri registered agent for service of process by the Clerk of the St. Louis County Circuit Court on October 31, 2017, but that neither Monsanto nor its registered agent returned the accompanying acknowledgment. Plaintiffs assert that because the summons and complaint were mailed by the clerk on October 31, 2017, Monsanto's registered agent would have received them more than 30 days before the case was removed and therefore removal is untimely. Plaintiffs note that Monsanto does not state how it became aware of the state court action, and assert that it is refusing to acknowledge service, which “may have made such service ineffective, but it did not make it improper or negate that it occurred.” (Doc. 10 at 7.)

         Monsanto responds that it was never served with the state court petition and asserts that it was plaintiffs' responsibility, not the state court clerk's, to mail the summons via first class mail after the clerk signed the summons, as reflected by the directions on the summons itself:

         The clerk should issue one copy of this summons for each Defendant/Respondent to be served by first class mail. Under Section 506.150.4, RSMo, service by first class mail may be made by Plaintiff/Petitioner or any person authorized to serve process under Section 506.140, RSMo.

         (Doc. 10-1 at 2) (emphasis added). Monsanto does not dispute that state clerk issued a copy of the summons, but contends that the directions on the summons and the state court docket sheet make it clear it was plaintiffs' responsibility to download the summons and mail it. Monsanto points to a state court docket entry dated October 31, 2017 titled “Summons Issued - “1st Class Mail, ” that states, “Summons Attached in PDF Form for [plaintiffs'] Attorney to Retrieve from Secure Case.Net and Process for Service.” ECF No. 14-1. Monsanto notes there is no additional clerk's note to indicate that the state court clerk actually mailed the summons. Monsanto also points out that the “Notice and Acknowledgment for Service by Mail, ” which must accompany the summons pursuant to § 506.150.4, Mo. Rev. Stat., was never signed by plaintiffs' counsel to indicate that the Notice was mailed. (See Doc. 10-1 at 1.) Monsanto also submits the Declaration of its registered agent, Corporation Service Company's (“CSC”) Research Coordinator, which states that he searched CSC's Litigation Management System database and determined it had no record of receiving any service of process papers for a lawsuit filed by the Heinzens against Monsanto in the Circuit Court of St Louis County, Missouri.

         II. Legal Standards

         “A defendant may remove a state law claim to federal court only if the action originally could have been filed there.” In re Prempro Prods. Liab. Litig., 591 F.3d 613, 619 (8th Cir. 2010) (citing Phipps v. FDIC, 417 F.3d 1006, 1010 (8th Cir. 2005)). The removing defendant bears the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Knudsen v. Systems Painters, Inc., 634 F.3d 968, 975 (8th Cir. 2011). Statutes conferring diversity jurisdiction are to be strictly construed, Sheehan v. Gustafson, 967 F.2d 1214, 1215 (8th Cir. 1992), as are removal statutes. Nichols v. Harbor Venture, Inc., 284 F.3d 857, 861 (8th Cir. 2002). “All doubts about federal jurisdiction [based on diversity of citizenship] should be resolved in favor of remand to state court.” Hubbard v. Federated Mut. Ins. Cop., 799 F.3d 1224, 1227 (8th Cir. 2015). Under this presumption, “any doubts about the propriety of removal are resolved in favor of remand.” Id. (citation omitted).

         A case must be remanded if, at any time, it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). Diversity of citizenship jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 requires an amount in controversy greater than $75, 000 and complete diversity of citizenship among the litigants. “Complete diversity of citizenship exists where no defendant holds citizenship in the same state where any plaintiff holds citizenship.” OnePoint Solutions, LLC v. Borchert, 486 F.3d 342, 346 (8th Cir. 2007).

         The “forum defendant” rule, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2), imposes an additional restriction on the removal of diversity cases. The statute provides, “A civil action otherwise removable solely on the basis of the jurisdiction under section 1332(a) of this title may not be removed if any of the parties in interest properly joined and served as defendants is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought.” In the Eighth Circuit, a violation of the forum defendant rule is a jurisdictional defect, not “‘a mere procedural irregularity capable of being waived.'” Horton v. Conklin, 431 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Hurt v. Dow Chem. Co., 963 F.2d 1142, 1146 (8th Cir. 1992)). The substance of this rule mandates that a defendant may remove a case “only if none of the parties in interest properly joined and served as defendants is a citizen of the state in which such action is brought.” Perez v. Forest Labs., Inc., 902 F.Supp.2d 1238, 1241 (E.D. Mo. 2012) (citing Lincoln Prop. Co. v. Roche, 546 U.S. 81, 90 (2005); Horton, 431 F.3d at 604)). The forum defendant rule is based on the reasoning that the presence of an in-state defendant negates the need for protection from local biases, even in multi-defendant cases. Perez, 902 F.Supp.2d at 1242.

         The statute's “joined and served” language provides a safety valve for the rule, as it “prevent[s] plaintiffs from joining, but not serving, ...

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