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Couram v. Rivers

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Columbia Division

August 31, 2017

GLENDA R. COURAM, Plaintiff,
SHIRLEY RIVERS and ALINE GOODWIN, in their individual and official capacities; and SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Glenda R. Couram (“Plaintiff”), proceeding pro se, brought this action in the Court of Common Pleas for Richland County, South Carolina, on January 24, 2017, against Defendants Rivers, Goodwin, and the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (“SCDMV”) (together, “Defendants”). Plaintiff raises state law claims as well as asserting violations of her constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981; 42 U.S.C. § 1982; 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000(e), et seq.; and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).[1] Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive relief, special damages for lost wages, medical costs resulting from this action, costs and fees, and all other damages that the court sees fit.

         On January 24, 2017, Defendants removed the matter to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1441. Also on January 24, 2017, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). By order filed January 25, 2017, pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), Plaintiff was advised of the dismissal procedures and the possible consequences if she failed to respond adequately. On February 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion to remand and an amended complaint that excluded all federal causes of action. The same day, Plaintiff also filed a response in opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss. On February 6, 2017, Defendants filed a response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion to remand as well as a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. A second Roseboro order was issued on February 7, 2017. Plaintiff filed a memorandum in opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss the amended complaint on March 8, 2017, to which Defendants filed a reply on March 15, 2017.

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Paige J. Gossett for pre-trial handling. On April 26, 2017, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) in which she recommended that, in light of Plaintiff's amended complaint, the court decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claims and remand the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Defendants filed an objection to the Report and Recommendation on May 5, 2017. Plaintiff filed a reply to Defendants' objection on May 22, 2017.

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility for making a final determination remains with this court. Matthews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). This court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portions of the Report to which a specific objection is made. The court may accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the Magistrate Judge or may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).


         Plaintiff has been an employee of the SCDMV for over twelve years. This action constitutes Plaintiff's fourth appearance in this court stemming from allegations arising during her employment with SCDMV. Plaintiff's initial federal lawsuit in 2010 alleged claims pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, and state law claims for conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. See Couram v. SCDMV, C/A No. 3:10-01-MBS (“Couram I”). The late Honorable Matthew J. Perry, Jr., Senior United States District Judge, granted summary judgment to the defendants in Couram I on the claims arising under federal law and dismissed Plaintiff's state law claims without prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1367(c). Plaintiff appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit dismissed her appeal on August 30, 2011.

         In 2011, Plaintiff filed a second complaint in state court re-alleging federal claims in addition to state law causes of action for emotional distress, civil conspiracy, and gross negligence. The case was removed to the United States District Court. See Couram v. Davis, C/A No. 3:11-3200-MBS (“Couram II”). Plaintiff amended her complaint to remove all federal causes of action. The court thereafter declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction on the state law claims and remanded Couram II to state court. The state court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the remaining claims in Couram II. Plaintiff then appealed to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, which affirmed the state court's decision. Couram v. Davis, Op. No. 2015-UP-65 (S.C. Ct. App. Feb. 4, 2015).

         In 2015, Plaintiff filed a third complaint that combined the allegations raised in Couram I and Couram II with additional allegations stemming from the litigation of those cases. The complaint named as the defendants SCDMV, several of its employees, various judges, SCDMV's attorneys, and the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel. See Couram v. S.C. Dep't of Motor Vehicles, C/A No. 3:15-4870-MBS (“Couram III”). On August 10, 2016, the court dismissed all claims asserted against the judicial defendants, the attorney defendants, and the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel defendants, and again remanded the state law claims. On August 15, 2016, the SCDMV defendants filed a motion to alter or amend pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e), arguing that the remanded claims against them should be dismissed as failing to assert a short and plain statement of Plaintiff's claims, as required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 8. The court agreed, and on February 9, 2017, the court dismissed all causes of action except Plaintiff's claim of gross negligence, which claim was remanded to state court. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit. The appeal is still pending.

         In the current matter, Plaintiff is asserting claims against the SCDMV; Plaintiff's direct supervisor, Aline Goodwin; and Goodwin's supervisor, Shirley Rivers. Plaintiff denominates the causes of action in her amended complaint as follows: (1) hostile work environment and harassment in violation of South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (“SCHAC”) and South Carolina Human Affairs Law (“SCHAL”), and the South Carolina Tort Claims Act (“SCTCA”) (First Cause of Action); (2) retaliation in violation of SCHAC, SCTCA, and the common law (Second Cause of Action); (3) abuse of process (Third Cause of Action); (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress (Fourth Cause of Action); and (5) civil conspiracy under the SCTCA (Fifth Cause of Action).


         A. Plaintiff's Motion to Remand

         The party seeking removal has the burden of establishing the existence of federal jurisdiction. Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chem. Co., Inc., 29 F.3d 1448, 151 (4th Cir. 1994). A plaintiff is the master of his complaint and can avoid removal to federal jurisdiction by exclusively relying on state law claims. Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 428 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). “Federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint without consideration of any potential defenses.” Harlesss v. CSX Hotels, Inc., 389 F.3d 444, 450 (4th Cir. 2004)(citing Aetna Health, Inc. v. Davilla, 524 U.S. 200, 207 (2004)). Under the removal statute, “any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction may be removed by the defendant.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Removal of a case under § 1441(a) should be construed strictly and if federal jurisdiction is doubtful, remand to state court is necessary. See id.; Palisades Collections LLC v. Shorts, 552 F.3d 327, 333-34 (4th Cir. 2008). Where district courts have original jurisdiction, the court “shall have supplemental jurisdiction over all other claims that are so related to claims in the action within such original jurisdiction that they form part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the United States Constitution.” 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         Plaintiff argues that she did not evoke any federal causes of action or federal question in her original complaint. To the contrary, Plaintiff's original complaint references federal statutes having to do with employment discrimination. Therefore, removal of the original complaint was proper. Plaintiff also argues that remand is proper because she removed any reference to the federal statutes in her amended complaint.[2] However, as the Magistrate Judge noted, many courts and scholars have concluded that a plaintiff cannot force remand by waiving her federal claims. The question becomes, then, whether, because the amended complaint asserts only state law claims, the court should decline to exercise jurisdiction in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). Factors that inform this discretionary determination are “convenience and fairness to the parties, the ...

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