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Jordan v. Charter Communications, Inc.

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

March 28, 2019

AMBER JORDAN, Plaintiff,



         This matter comes before the Court on plaintiff's motion to remand (#14). The issues have been fully briefed. For the reasons that follow, this Court will GRANT plaintiff's motion and will REMAND this matter back to the Circuit Court for St. Louis County, Missouri. All other pending motions are DENIED AS MOOT.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Underlying Claims

         Plaintiff, a Missouri citizen, brings three claims against defendants for gender discrimination and retaliation under the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), RSMo. § 213.010 et seq., and for violation of the public policy exception to at-will employment under Missouri common law. Defendant Charter Communications, Inc. is plaintiff's former employer, who the parties do not dispute is a Delaware limited liability company with its principal place of business in Connecticut. Defendant Jerry Sherwin was one of plaintiff's supervisors, who the parties agree is a Missouri citizen. Defendant Delissa Spencer was another of plaintiff's supervisors (her “direct supervisor”), who the parties agree is also a Missouri citizen.

         Plaintiff worked for Charter as a call center representative. While working as a temporary employee, she alleges she was the victim of workplace sexual harassment sometime between December 2016 and January 2017. Specifically, “male co-workers would hold up numbered paddles when plaintiff and other women would walk by them. These paddles were numbered to rate the attractiveness of the women's body on a scale of 1-10.” This made plaintiff uncomfortable. And so, she reported this conduct to her director supervisor, Spencer, who “responded by laughing [and telling] plaintiff it was ‘just a harmless way of passing the time.'” Co-workers were also allegedly “passing around sex tapes or other inappropriate photographs” of fellow employees, and would “regularly hav[e] sexually inappropriate conversations in the workplace.” Plaintiff, again, attempted to report these additional activities, this time to both Sherwin and Spencer; but, she says they “failed to make a reasonable investigation.” After this second report, Spencer allegedly came to plaintiff and told her not to make any more complaints ‘because Spencer's job was on the line.” A few days later, plaintiff was suspended, and then was eventually terminated on February 20, 2017. The reason for her termination was purportedly because she was involving in an altercation with another employee. Plaintiff, though not denying an altercation happened, says “this altercation was not inappropriate” and points out that only she was terminated, while “other members of the group involved in the alleged altercation … were not disciplined.”

         In addition to the issues of sexual harassment, plaintiff states Charter began engaging in “illegal activity” after directing its employees to add $4.99 “wire maintenance fees” to customers' accounts without their consent or knowledge. These fees purportedly covered the “cost of troubleshooting and repairing communication wires inside a customer's home, ” but were considered “an add-on [that] is not part of the standard service package.” Plaintiff, who was allegedly told by Spencer to add these fees to customers' accounts, attempted to voice her concerns to Sherwin who acknowledged that such activity was illegal and to stop.

         B. Defendant Charter's Removal from State Court

         Charter removed this action from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Missouri, on the basis that Sherwin and Spencer have been fraudulently joined. The existence of either of them as party-defendants would defeat diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Charter provides four reasons why the fraudulent joinder doctrine should apply: (1) plaintiff failed to plead sufficient facts against Sherwin and/or Spencer to substantiate claims against them for gender discrimination and/or retaliation; (2) claims cannot be made against Sherwin or Spencer under the MHRA because the 2017 amendments to that Act prohibit individual liability and plaintiff's claim “accrued” after these amendments took effect; (3) the determination of Spencer's citizenship, who plaintiff has had difficulty locating and serving, is not yet known and therefore Charter believes discovery should be done on this issue before remand is considered; and (4) plaintiff did not exhaust administrative remedies against Sherwin because Sherwin was not a named party in the underlying charge with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.

         The exhaustion-related claim involving Sherwin present complicated legal questions that are best addressed by the state courts, if possible. See Filla v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., 336 F.3d 806, 811 (8th Cir. 2003). Because this Court finds that the motion to remand can be decided solely upon the claims against Spencer, the exhaustion-related claims against Sherwin need not and will not be addressed.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standards for Applying the Fraudulent Joinder Doctrine

         Fraudulent joinder is defined as “the filing of a frivolous or otherwise illegitimate claim against a non-diverse defendant solely to prevent removal.” Filla, 336 F.3d at 809. “Joinder is fraudulent when there exists no reasonable basis in fact and law supporting a claim against the resident defendants.” Id. at 810 (quoting Wiles v. Capitol Indemnity Corp., 280 F.3d 868, 871 (8th Cir. 2002)). A plaintiff “cannot defeat a defendant's right of removal by joining a defendant who has ‘no real connection to the controversy.' ” Herkenhoff v. Supervalu Stores, Inc., 2014 WL 3894642 at *2 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 8, 2014) (quoting Donner v. Alcoa, Inc., 709 F.3d 694, 697 (8th Cir. 2013)). “[I]t is well established that if it is clear under governing state law that the complaint does not state a cause of action against the non-diverse defendant, the joinder is fraudulent and federal jurisdiction of the case should be retained.” Filla, 336 F.3d at 810 (quoting Iowa Public Service Co. v. Medicine Bow Coal Co., 556 F.2d 400, 406 (8th Cir. 1977) (emphasis in original)). However, if there is a “colorable” cause of action against the defendant, “that is, if the state law might impose liability on the resident defendant under the facts alleged” then there is no fraudulent joinder. Id. (emphasis in original). Indeed, “[a]ll doubts about federal jurisdiction should be resolved in favor of remand to state court.” Block v. Toyota Motor Corp., 665 F.3d 944, 948 (8th Cir. 2011). In accomplishing its task of considering how the fraudulent joinder doctrine affects its subject-matter jurisdiction, a court is not to engage in the merits of a dispute. See Wivell v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 773 F.3d 887, 896 (8th Cir. 2014).

         B. The Sufficiency ...

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