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Singleton v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

June 18, 2018

Margaret Singleton, Plaintiff,
v.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores East LP and Wal-Mart Vision Center, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Bristow Marchant United States Magistrate Judge.

         This action was originally filed by the Plaintiff in the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas, Charleston County. Plaintiff asserts state law claims against the Defendants for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy and for breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing.

         On May 7, 2018, the Defendants removed this case to United States District Court, citing diversity of citizenship based on Plaintiff being a citizen of South Carolina and the Wal-Mart Defendants being citizens of Arkansas.[1] Plaintiff thereafter filed a motion to remand this action back to state court, arguing, inter alia, that the matter in controversy in this civil action does not exceed the sum or value required to establish diversity jurisdiction in this federal court. The Wal-Mart Defendants oppose Plaintiff's motion to remand. However, after careful review and consideration of the pleadings, the memoranda submitted by the parties, and applicable case law, the undersigned is constrained to agree with the Plaintiff that this case should be remanded back to state court for disposition.

         In order for this Court to hear and decide a case, the Court must, first, have jurisdiction over the subject matter of the litigation. It is well settled that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, possessing only that power authorized by the Constitution and statute. Willy v. Coastal Corp., 503 U.S. 131, 136-37, 112 S.Ct. 1076, 117 L.Ed.2d 280 (1992); Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541, 106 S.Ct. 1326, 89 L.Ed.2d 501 (1986). This limited jurisdiction is not to be expanded by judicial decree. American Fire & Casualty Co. v. Finn, 341 U.S. 6, 71 S.Ct. 534, 95 L.Ed. 702 (1951). Additionally, it is to be presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction; Turner v. Bank of N. Am., 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 8, 11, 1 L.Ed. 718 (1799); and the burden of establishing the contrary rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction, McNutt v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 182-83, 56 S.Ct. 780, 80 L.Ed. 1135 (1936).

         Here, the Defendants assert federal court jurisdiction in his case based on diversity of citizenship. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), requires complete diversity of parties and an amount in controversy in excess of seventy-five thousand dollars ($75, 000.00). Complete diversity of parties in a case means that no party on one side may be a citizen of the same state as any party on the other side. Owen Equip. & Erection Co. v. Kroger, 437 U.S. 365, 372-74, 98 S.Ct. 2396, 57 L.Ed.2d 274 (1978). However, although there may be a question presented with respect to the complete diversity of the citizenship of the parties in this case; see n. 1, supra; it is not necessary for the Court to reach that issue, because it is readily apparent that the statutory requirement for the amount in controversy for diversity jurisdiction does not exist in this case.

         In her Complaint, Plaintiff does not specify an amount being sought, instead only seeking actual and punitive damages as may be determined by the trier of fact. As such, the burden is on the Defendants to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum. That is, in order to defeat remand, the Defendants must show that “it is more likely than not” that the amount in controversy requirement (in excess of $75, 000) is satisfied. See Crosby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., 409 F.Supp.2d 665, 668 (D.S.C. 2005); Sanchez v. Monumental Life Ins. Co., 102 F.3d 394, 404 (9th Cir. 1996). The removing Defendants have failed to meet this burden in this case. The relevant principles of the amount-in-controversy requirement are well settled, and generally “the sum claimed by the plaintiff controls” the determination of the amount in controversy. JTH Tax, Inc. v. Frashier, 624 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 2010). In her motion to remand, while conceding that she did not set forth a specific amount in damages being sought in her Complaint, Plaintiff now specifically stipulates that she is seeking under $75, 000 in damages in this case.[2]

         That Plaintiff did not initially set forth a sum certain being sought in her pleadings does not prevent her from doing so now. Cf. Hardwick v. Bank of American, NA, No. 13-1359, 2013 WL 3477275, at * 2-3 (D.S.C. July 10, 2013) [Noting that a post-removal stipulation that damages will not exceed the jurisdictional minimum can be considered a clarification of an otherwise ambiguous complaint justifying remand, and citing cases]; Wanning v. Duke Energy Carolinas, LLC, No. 13-839, 2014 WL 12607975 (D.S.C. Aug. 6, 2014) [Accepting post-removal stipulation as a clarification that the total amount of damages being sought in the complaint was not more than $75, 000, and remanding the case back to state court]; Banks v. Robinson, No. 17-495, 2017 WL 749384 (D.S.C. Feb. 27, 2017) [same]; Quintana v. Carballo, No. 16-2526, 2016 WL 3958596 (D.S.C. July 22, 2016) [same]. Moreover, while Plaintiff does seek punitive as well as actual damages, it is not enough to simply state (as argued by the Defendants) that because Plaintiff seeks punitive damages, federal jurisdiction is proper. See Burns v. Windsor Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1097 (11th Cir. 1994) (“[T]he possibility that plaintiff may in the future seek or recover more damages is insufficient to support federal jurisdiction now.”); cf. Moore v. Pendergraff Companies, No. 13-3122, 2014 WL 897138, at * 3 (D.S.C. Mar. 6, 2014). Furthermore, “it was never the intent of Congress for the federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over every state case in which punitive damages have been pled and the parties are of diverse citizenship.” Hamilton v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No. 9:12-cv-03111-PMD, 2013 WL 499159, at *5 (D.S.C. Feb. 7, 2013) (quoting Hagood v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., No. 8:06-1799-HFF, 2006 WL 1663804, at *2 (D.S.C. June 15, 2006)).

         In sum, in light of the Plaintiff's clear stipulation herein that she will not and cannot recover damages in excess of the applicable $75, 000 jurisdictional threshold, it is recommended[3] that Plaintiffs motion to remand be granted.

         The parties are referred to the Notice Page attached hereto.

         Notice of Right to File Objections to Report and Recommendation

         The parties are advised that they may file specific written objections to this Report and Recommendation with the District Judge. Objections must specifically identify the portions of the Report and Recommendation to which objections are made and the basis for such objections. “[I]n the absence of a timely filed objection, a district court need not conduct a Defendants' Exhibit novo review, but instead must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310 (4thCir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee's note).

         Specific written objections must be filed within fourteen (14) days of the date of service of this Report and Recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(a), (d). Filing by mail pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5 may be accomplished by mailing objections to:

Robin Blume, Clerk
United States District ...

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