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Dinvaut v. Cambridge Energy Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

August 15, 2017

BRIDGET DINVAUT
v.
CAMBRIDGE ENERGY CORP.

         SECTION I

          ORDER AND REASONS

          LANCE M. AFRICK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         One could reasonably assume that, after hundreds of volumes of the United States Reports and thousands of volumes of the Federal Reporter and the Federal Supplement, the federal courts would always know what a federal case is. But that is not true.

         To be sure, the determination is easy in the vast majority of cases. As a general matter, “[a] suit arises under the law that creates the cause of action.” Am. Well Works Co. v. Layne & Bowler Co., 241 U.S. 257, 260 (1916). So a case brought pursuant to a federal cause of action is almost always a federal case. The converse is also true: a case brought pursuant to a state cause of action is almost always not a federal case.

         Almost always, but not always always. A formally federal cause of action may not be a federal case when it has an “overwhelming predominance of state-law issues.” Merrell Dow Pharms. Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 814 n.12 (1986); see, e.g., Shoshone Mining Co. v. Rutter, 177 U.S. 505 (1900). And some formally state law causes of action can nonetheless be federal cases when they necessarily implicate substantial issues of federal law. See, e.g., Smith v. Kansas City Title & Trust Co., 255 U.S. 180 (1921).

         Given the inherent vagueness in both inquiries, the federal courts have been unable “to frame a single, precise definition for determining which cases fall within, and which cases fall outside, the original jurisdiction of the district courts.” Franchise Tax Bd. of Cal. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust for S. Cal., 463 U.S. 1, 8 (1983). As a result, district court judges have instead been told to apply their “common-sense . . . judgment” to the “kaleidoscop[e]” of cases that appear on their dockets. Gully v. First Nat'l Bank, 299 U.S. 108, 117 (1936) (Cardozo, J.). That kaleidoscope of cases has fittingly resulted in a body of case law that looks like a canvas “that Jackson Pollock got to first.” Gunn v. Minton, 568 U.S. 251, 258 (2013).

         The pending motion to remand, see R. Doc. No. 11, asks this Court to determine whether formally state law claims constitute a federal case within this Court's jurisdiction. The Court concludes that the answer to that question is no.

         I.

         This case is one of many where the State of Louisiana and local parishes are attempting to determine the oil industry's responsibility for the deteriorating condition of Louisiana's wetlands.

         A.

         Louisiana's State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 manages Louisiana's coastal zone through a permitting scheme. Under the Act, any party seeking to “use” the coastal zone needs to apply for a coastal use permit. See La. R.S. 49:214.30(A)(1). A party “uses” the coastal zone when it engages in any activity which “has a direct and significant impact on coastal waters.” La. R.S. 49:214.23(13). The state issues permits that relate to uses of state concern; local governments with approved programs issue permits for uses of local concern. See La. R.S. 49:214.25.

         Plaintiff Bridget Dinvaut is the district attorney for St. John the Baptist Parish. The Act empowers Dinvaut, as the district attorney, to bring an enforcement action for unpermitted uses of the coastal zone. See La. R.S. 49:214.36(D). Dinvaut brings suit against a number of companies and individuals involved in oil exploration and extraction in St. John Parish. The suit alleges that defendants violated the Act and its implementing regulations by engaging in unpermitted uses of the coastal zone. Dinvaut asks for damages for past violations of the Act as well as either (1) a monetary award to pay for the restoration of the coastal zone or (2) a court order that the defendants restore the coastal zone. See St. Ct. Pet. ¶ 37(a)-(c).

         Dinvaut's petition is also notable for what it disclaims. The petition disclaims any claim arising under federal law and/or federal regulations, and further clarifies that Dinvaut raises no claim that the defendants violated a federal permit ...


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