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Charles v. Castlepoint Florida Insurance Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

July 14, 2015



PATRICK J. HANNA, Magistrate Judge.

Pending before the Court for ruling is the plaintiff's Motion to Remand and for Attorney Fees [Rec. Doc. 7] which is opposed by the defendants. Oral argument was heard on the motion on March 31, 2015, at which time discussion was had among the parties and the Court regarding whether a brief period for discovery from key witnesses to the accident prompting this litigation could clarify the issue presented in the remand motion. Ruling on the motion was deferred to allow for that discovery to be undertaken, and the parties have submitted additional briefing and evidence for consideration by the Court. On review and analysis of the record, the applicable law and the submissions of the parties, the motion will be granted.

Background :

This litigation arises from a November 15, 2013 multi-vehicle accident in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana. Seven vehicles were involved in the accident. At the time, Plaintiff Alterrance Charles drove a flatbed 18 wheeler truck on the eastbound portion of Interstate 10. He has alleged he was rear-ended by two different vehicles. Defendant Alberto Quiveiro drove an 18 wheeler, alleged to have been directly behind the plaintiff's vehicle and the first vehicle to strike the plaintiff's truck. Quiveiro was in the course and scope of his employment for WHD Transport, Inc. at the time. The second vehicle alleged to have "crashed into the rear" of the plaintiff's truck was driven by Shawn Butler, a domiciliary of Iberia Parish. According to the pleadings, both collisions caused Charles to sustain severe physical and economic damages. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, p. 2, ¶ 3]

Suit was originally filed in the 16th Judicial District Court, Parish of St. Martin, on November 13, 2014. The plaintiff named as defendants Castlepoint Florida Insurance Company, its insured Alberto Quiveiro, Quiveiro's employer WHD Transport, Inc., Shawn Butler, and his insurer Progressive Paloverde Insurance Company. [Rec. Doc. 1-1]. On December 23, 2014, the case was removed by Castlepoint and Quiveiro based on diversity jurisdiction, with the movants asserting that although Butler is a Louisiana domiciliary, he was "improperly joined as a defendant simply to defeat diversity jurisdiction." [Rec. Doc. 1, p. 2, ¶ 6]. The removing defendants also asserted that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00. [Rec. Doc. 1, p. 2, ¶ 7].

Within the pages of the Notice of Removal, Castlepoint and Quiveiro requested 90 days to pursue discovery on the issue of whether the plaintiff can show any evidence Butler caused or contributed to the plaintiff's injury/damage, or instead whether the legal doctrine of fraudulent joinder applies and Butler was improperly joined in the action to destroy diversity. [Rec. Doc. 1, p. 3, ¶ 11].

Plaintiff filed the Motion to Remand and for Attorney Fees on January 15, 2015, with supporting evidence. [Rec. Doc. 7]. Plaintiff referenced an independent witness (Tyler Mallet) who gave a written statement as part of the police accident report of the incident declaring that "[a] small silver car rear ended the tow truck, leaving the car pinned beneath the back of the tow truck." [Rec. Doc. 7-1, p. 2]. Plaintiff also referenced a state trooper at the accident scene attempting to slow traffic, suggesting that Butler, the driver of the silver car, failed to heed the warnings of the police officer, resulting in his collision with the plaintiff's flatbed truck. Plaintiff also attached photographs of the Butler vehicle in contact with the rear of his truck.

Legal Standard and Analysis

The party invoking subject matter jurisdiction in federal court has the burden of establishing the court's jurisdiction. St. Paul Reinsurance Co., Ltd. v. Greenberg, 134 F.3d 1250, 1253-1254 (5th Cir. 1998). Therefore, the removing defendants must bear the burden to demonstrate improper joinder. Carriere v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 893 F.2d 98, 100 (5th Cir. 1990).

Improper joinder may be established by demonstrating either that there was actual fraud in the pleading of jurisdictional facts or by demonstrating the inability of the plaintiff to establish a cause of action against the non-diverse party in state court. Smallwood v. Illinois Central, 385 F.3d 568, 573 (5th Cir. 2004). As to the second aspect, the removing defendants must show that there is no possibility of recovery by the plaintiff against the in-state defendant based on the factual allegations in the state petition. In other words, the defendants must show that there is no reasonable basis for predicting that state law would allow recovery against the in-state defendant even if the factual allegations of the state court petition are true. Smallwood, 385 F.3d at 576. When there is no reasonable basis for the district court to predict that the plaintiff might be able to recover against an in-state defendant, the defendant has been improperly joined. "The party seeking removal bears a heavy burden of proving that the joinder of the in-state party was improper." Smallwood, 385 F.3d at 574.

"Since the purpose of the improper joinder inquiry is to determine whether or not the in-state defendant was properly joined, the focus of the inquiry must be on the joinder, not the merits of the plaintiff's case." Smallwood 385 F.3d at 573. The court is not required to determine whether the plaintiff will actually or even probably prevail on the merits of the claim, but looks only for a possibility that the plaintiff might do so. Guillory v. PPG Industries, Inc., 434 F.3d 303, 309 (5th Cir. 2005). Further, the petition as filed in state court controls the inquiry. Griggs v. State Farm Lloyds, 181 F.3d 694, 699 (5th Cir. 1999). With respect to matters pleaded in state court, the district court must resolve all contested fact issues and ambiguities of state law in favor of the plaintiff. Guillory v. PPG Industries, Inc., 434 F.3d at 308.

To determine whether a reasonable basis exists upon which a plaintiff may recover, a Rule 12(b)(6)-type analysis may be utilized or, if the plaintiff has stated a claim but has misstated or omitted discrete facts that would determine the propriety of joinder, the court may pierce the pleadings and conduct a summary inquiry. Anderson v. Georgia Gulf Lake Charles, LLC, 342 Fed.App'x 911, 915-16 (5th Cir. 2009), citing Smallwood v. Illinois Central, 385 F.3d at 573. When utilized, a summary inquiry allows a district court to look beyond the pleadings and consider summary judgment-type evidence. Anderson v. Georgia Gulf, 342 Fed.App'x at 916. A summary inquiry should only be used to identify discrete and undisputed facts that would bar a plaintiff's recovery against an in-state defendant. Anderson v. Georgia Gulf, 342 Fed.App'x at 916.

The State Court Petition:

Plaintiff's allegations against the non-diverse defendant Shawn Butler in the Petition for Damages ...

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