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Messinger v. Rodriguez

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

February 12, 2018

John A. Messinger and David M. Messinger, Plaintiffs,
John C. Rodriguez and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Defendants.


          PATRICK MICHAEL DUFFY United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs John and David Messinger's motion to remand (ECF No. 8). For the reasons stated herein, Plaintiffs' motion is granted.


         On February 17, 2014, Defendant John C. Rodriguez was driving a vehicle with his wife, Roberta Anne Rodriguez, in the passenger seat. The vehicle was involved in an accident, killing Roberta. Roberta was covered by a Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance (“FEGLI”) policy. The FEGLI program is administered by the United States Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) and polices are issued by Defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”). After Roberta's death, MetLife paid each Plaintiff $238, 505.39 in accordance with an April 17, 2007 Designation of Beneficiary form. That form named Plaintiffs, her two sons, as beneficiaries in equal shares. According to MetLife, OPM later informed it of a subsequent Designation of Beneficiary form that Roberta signed on November 2, 2011. The later form provided that Defendant Rodriguez was entitled to 50% of the proceeds and Plaintiffs were entitled to 25% each. MetLife then paid Defendant Rodriguez a 50% share and sought to recover $119, 282.72 from each Plaintiff, alleging this amount was an overpayment in light of the newer designation. Plaintiffs filed this action in state court seeking a declaratory judgment that they are entitled to the full amount they have already received and have no obligation to return funds to MetLife. They base their claims in contract interpretation, negligence, misrepresentation, detrimental reliance, South Carolina common law, and S.C. Code Ann. § 62-2-803(c), a South Carolina law that prevents a person who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent from collecting benefits under the decedent's life insurance policy.[1]


         MetLife removed this action from the Dorchester County Court of Common Pleas on July 17, 2017. Plaintiffs filed their motion to remand on September 29. MetLife filed a response in opposition on October 11.[2] Plaintiffs filed their reply on October 17. Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for consideration.


         “If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded.” 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). The burden of demonstrating jurisdiction resides with the party seeking removal. Dixon v. Coburg Dairy, Inc., 369 F.3d 811, 816 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994)). District courts are obliged to construe removal jurisdiction strictly because of the “significant federalism concerns” that removal implicates. Id. Thus, “[i]f federal jurisdiction is doubtful, a remand [to state court] is necessary.” Id.; see also Hartley v. CSX Transp., Inc., 187 F.3d 422, 425 (4th Cir. 1999) (“[C]ourts should ‘resolve all doubts about the propriety of removal in favor of retained state court jurisdiction.'” (quoting Marshall v. Manville Sales Corp., 6 F.3d 229, 232 (4th Cir. 1993))).


         A district court has federal question jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. “Under the well-pleaded complaint rule, a cause of action ‘arises under' federal law and removal is proper, only if a federal question is presented on the face of [the p]laintiff's properly pleaded complaint.” Dykema v. King, 959 F.Supp. 736, 739 (D.S.C. 1997) (citing Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Tr., 463 U.S. 1, 9-12 (1983)). “[T]he vast majority” of federal question cases “are those in which federal law creates the cause of action.” Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 808 (1986). Federal question jurisdiction also exists when a “plaintiff's right to relief depends upon the resolution of a substantial question of federal law.” Parker v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 264 F.Supp.2d 364, 366 (D.S.C. 2003); see also Merrell Dow Pharm., 478 U.S. at 808. If a plaintiff's right to relief does not turn on some construction of federal law, or if the question of federal law is not substantial, then removal is improper and the case should be remanded. Dixon, 369 F.3d at 816. Further, there is a substantial federal question “only when every legal theory supporting the claim requires the resolution of a federal issue.” Id. (citing Mulcahey, 29 F.3d at 153).

         MetLife has argued that this Court has jurisdiction for three reasons. First, in MetLife's notice of removal, it cited to 5 U.S.C. § 8715, which states, “The district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction . . . of a civil action or claim against the United States founded on this chapter.” However, Plaintiffs do not bring their claim “against the United States, ” so this portion of the statute provides no support for the Court's jurisdiction. See Parker, 264 F.Supp.2d at 366 n.1. In its brief, MetLife argues that Plaintiffs' claims raise a federal question and that Plaintiffs' state-law claims are preempted. Before turning to these arguments, a discussion of the interaction between preemption and federal question jurisdiction is instructive.

         The courts distinguish between two types of preemption: ordinary conflict preemption and complete preemption. Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392-93 (1987); Lontz v. Tharp, 413 F.3d 435, 439-41 (4th Cir. 2005). Ordinary preemption occurs when federal law preempts conflicting state laws. Darcangelo v. Verizon Commc'ns, Inc., 292 F.3d 181, 186 (4th Cir. 2002). Ordinary preemption is “raised as a defense, ” Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 392, and the Supreme Court has stated that it is “settled law that a case may not be removed to federal court on the basis of a federal defense, including the defense of pre-emption.” Id. at 393. Thus, ordinary preemption is not a valid basis for the Court to exercise its federal question jurisdiction.

         By contrast, complete preemption does create federal question jurisdiction. Lontz, 413 F.3d at 441. Complete preemption occurs when federal law “so completely pre-empt[s] a particular area that any civil complaint raising this select group of claims is necessarily federal in character.” Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 63 (1987); see also Beneficial Nat'l Bank v. Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 11 (2003) (finding complete preemption where federal law provides “the exclusive cause of action for such claims”). If there is complete preemption, “the federal claim is treated as if it appears on the face of the complaint . . . thereby justifying removal.” Lontz, 413 F.3d at 441. “[C]omplete preemption thus prevents plaintiffs from ‘defeat[ing] removal by omitting to plead necessary federal questions.'” Id. at 440 (quoting Franchise Tax Bd., 463 U.S. at 22). Consistent with the strict construction of removal jurisdiction and the federalism concerns it raises, there is a presumption against finding complete preemption. Id.

         I. Whether Plaintiffs' Claims Raise a ...

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