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Cox v. Bishop England High School

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

September 17, 2019




         This matter is before the court on plaintiff Elizabeth Cox's (“Cox”) motion to remand, ECF No. 7. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants the motion to remand.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Cox brought this action against her former employer, Bishop England High School (“Bishop England”), after she was fired over a political post she made to her Facebook page. In addition to Bishop England, Cox named as defendants Patrick Finneran, the school's principal, and four unknown defendants (collectively, together with Bishop England, “defendants”) to represent those individuals who own and operate the school and/or were involved in the decision to discharge Cox. On July 8, 2019, Cox filed this action in the Berkeley County Court of Common Pleas. ECF No. 1-1.

         Cox alleges two causes of action against the defendants. Her first cause of action alleges that Cox was wrongfully terminated. As part of that claim, Cox asserts that her discharge was wrongful because it was done in violation of S.C. Code Ann. § 16-17-560, a criminal statute. Cox's second cause of action alleges that defendants breached her employment contract. Both claims arise under state law.

         On August 6, 2019, defendants removed this action to this court. ECF No. 1. On August 13, 2019, Cox filed the instant motion to remand. ECF No. 7. On August 26, 2019, defendants responded to the motion, ECF No. 16, to which Cox replied on August 28, 2019, ECF No. 18. This motion is ripe for review. Defendants have several other motions currently pending with the court, including a motion to dismiss, ECF No. 4, a motion for default judgment, ECF No. 11, and a second motion to dismiss, ECF No. 15. Before the court can address those motions, it must address whether it has the authority to do so.

         II. STANDARD

         Federal courts are of constitutionally limited jurisdiction. “The party seeking removal bears the burden of demonstrating that removal jurisdiction is proper, ” In re Blackwater Sec. Consulting, LLC, 460 F.3d 576, 583 (4th Cir. 2006), and doubts regarding the propriety of removal are to be resolved in favor of retained state court jurisdiction. Baxley v. Advance Auto Parts, Inc., 2011 WL 586072 at *1 (D.S.C. Feb. 9, 2011) (citing Marshall v. Manville Sales Corp., 6 F.3d 229, 232 (4th Cir. 1993)).

         Generally, 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 to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Original jurisdiction exists where a claim arises from federal law, see 28 U.S.C. § 1331, or where the amount in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000 and the claim is between citizen of different states, see 28 U.S.C. § 1332.


         Defendants argue that the court has federal jurisdiction over each of Cox's claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Although defendants concede that Cox's claims do not “arise under” federal law in the traditional sense, they rely on a narrow exception that confers federal jurisdiction to state law claims where those claims necessarily involve a substantial question of federal law. For the reasons discussed below, neither of Cox's claims fit into this narrow exception. Thus, because Cox's claims neither arise under federal law nor necessarily raise a substantial question of federal law, the court is without jurisdiction and remand is necessary.

         A. Wrongful Discharge Claim

         Defendants argue that this court has original jurisdiction over Cox's wrongful discharge claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 because the claim raises a substantial question of federal law and necessarily cannot be resolved without the adjudication of federal rights. The wrongful discharge claim necessitates resolution of a substantial federal issue, defendants argue, because it potentially infringes on their own federal rights under the United States Constitution. In other words, federal law is implicated by the defendants' constitutional defense. Defendants' contention misses the mark based on two well-settled principles of law. First, a wrongful discharge claim in South Carolina does not necessarily raise a substantial question of federal law. Second, claims that fail to receive federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C § 1331 cannot be redeemed by the assertion of a federal defense. By arguing otherwise, defendants seek to complicate what is a straight- forward application of the well-pleaded complaint rule. Put simply, federal jurisdiction does not extend to Cox's wrongful discharge claim because her right to relief does not arise from federal law.

         Federal question jurisdiction extends to “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. “Under what has become known as the well-pleaded complaint rule, [28 U.S.C.] § 1331 federal question jurisdiction is limited to actions in which the plaintiff's well-pleaded complaint raises an issue of federal law . . . .” In re Blackwater, 460 F.3d at 584 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 152 (1908)). “The [well-pleaded complaint] rule makes the plaintiff the ...

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