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Houston v. Beasley

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

March 1, 2018

CHARLES E. HOUSTON, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL CLAYTON BEASLEY and ARIZONA SHOWER DOOR CO., INC., Defendants.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on plaintiff Charles E. Houston's (“Houston”) motion to remand, ECF No. 6. For the reasons set forth below, the court denies the motion to remand.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of a motor vehicle collision that occurred on March 28, 2014, in Jasper County. Houston was driving south on I-95 when defendant Michael Clayton Beasley (“Beasley, ” with defendant Arizona Shower Door Co., collectively “defendants”), collided with the rear of his vehicle leading to substantial damage to Houston's vehicle. On March 13, 2017, Houston filed an amended complaint against defendants in the Jasper County Court of Common Pleas. Defendants removed this case on November 22, 2017, and in their notice of removal state that they learned only upon receipt of Houston's answers to interrogatories that the amount-in-controversy exceeded $75, 000. Houston filed this motion to remand on December 18, 2017, to which defendants responded on January 2, 2018. This case has been fully briefed and is now ripe for the court's review.

         II. STANDARD

         As the parties seeking to invoke the court's jurisdiction, defendants have the burden of proving jurisdiction upon a motion to remand. Dixon v. Coburg Dairy, Inc., 369 F.3d 811, 816 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing Mulcahy v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994)). In deciding the motion, the federal court should construe removal jurisdiction strictly in favor of state court jurisdiction. Id. “If federal jurisdiction is doubtful, a remand is necessary.” Mulcahy, 29 F.3d at 151 (citations omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Houston moves to remand this case to the Jasper County Court of Common Pleas on the ground that defendants were untimely in filing a notice of removal. Defendants contend that while they did remove the case six months after the complaint was filed, they did not know from the face of the amended complaint that the amount-in-controversy was over the $75, 000 threshold to satisfy federal jurisdiction, and it was not until Houston filed answers to the interrogatories that they became aware that there were grounds for removal. The disposition of this motion turns upon a discrete issue-whether defendants could ascertain from the face of the amended complaint that the amount-in-controversy would exceed $75, 000, or if defendants did not know until they received Houston's answers to the interrogatories that the amount-in-controversy was met. The court finds that it is the latter, and denies the motion to remand.

         28 U.S.C. § 1446 governs the procedure for removal. Section 1446(b) provides that “[t]he notice of removal . . . shall be filed within thirty days after the receipt by the defendant . . . of a copy of the initial pleading.” 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b). The first paragraph of § 1446(b) applies to cases that are removable as initially filed; the second paragraph applies to cases that although not initially removable, later become removable:

if the case stated by the initial pleading is not removable, a notice of removal may be filed within thirty days after receipt by the defendant . . . of a copy of an amended pleading, motion, order or other paper from which it may first be ascertained that the case is one which is or has become removable, except that a case may not be removed on the basis of jurisdiction conferred by section 1332 of this title more than 1 year after commencement of the action.

28 U.S.C. § 1446(b). Under § 1446(b), the thirty-day removal clock begins to run when a defendant receives a pleading, motion, or other paper that reveals “on its face” a basis for federal jurisdiction. In Lovern v. Gen. Motors Corp., 121 F.3d 160, 162 (4th Cir. 1997), the Fourth Circuit ruled that courts need not inquire into the subjective knowledge of the defendant but instead should “rely on the face of the initial pleading and on the documents exchanged” by the parties to determine when the defendant had notice of the grounds for removal.

         Houston argues that defendants were on notice of the “severity of the collision and the substantial damages” that he sustained by May 2017, when defendants filed their answer in state court. ECF No. 6 at 3. On August 24, 2014, Houston's counsel sent medical bills that Houston had incurred to Beasley's insurance carrier, and also advised that Houston incurred lost wages as a result of the collision. Houston points out that by this date, defendants were aware that he had incurred $16, 000 in medical expenses and that Houston would be making a claim for lost wages. ECF No. 6 at 5. However, $16, 000 is a far cry from $75, 000. Furthermore, a review of the letter that Houston's counsel sent to defendants in August 2014 shows that Houston's counsel indicated only that he was “still in the process of obtaining Mr. Houston's lost wage information, ” not that his lost wages were for an amount that would near the amount-in-controversy.

         Next, Houston contends that because the amended complaint included a request for punitive damages, this was sufficient to alert defendants that the amount-in-controversy was over $75, 000. However, in Hagood v. Electrolux Home Prod., Inc., 2006 WL 1663804, at *2 (D.S.C. June 15, 2006) the court stated that:

[While] some courts have found that, when an unspecified amount of damages is claimed, the [amount-in-controversy] is satisfied for purposes of remand unless it appears to a legal certainty that the plaintiff cannot recover damages in excess of $75, 000 . . . invocation of the possibility of actual, consequential, and punitive damages being awarded, without more, ...

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