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Watts v. Harrison

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

November 2, 2017

JOHN WATTS
v.
WESLEY HARRISON, ET AL.

         SECTION: “J” (5)

          ORDER

          CARL J. BARBIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is a Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement (Rec. Doc. 17) filed by Annett Holdings, doing business as TMC Transportation (“TMC”), and Hudson Insurance Company (collectively “Defendants”), an opposition thereto (Rec. Doc. 26) filed by John Watts (“Plaintiff”), and a reply (Rec. Doc. 30) filed by Defendants. Having considered the motion and legal memoranda, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that this case is hereby REMANDED to the 21st Judicial District Court, Parish of Tangipahoa, State of Louisiana, for further proceedings.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This litigation derives from an alleged motor vehicle accident that occurred on December 7, 2015, involving a vehicle driven by Plaintiff and a vehicle owned by TMC. On July 6, 2016, approximately seven months after the collision, Plaintiff sent a written offer to settle to TMC for “$1, 500.00 plus medicals in the amount of $1, 804.00.” Plaintiff further provided that the offer was to remain open for 10 days. TMC responded within the allotted time period via an email which provided, “We will agree to settle your claim for 3, 304.00.” The email also included an attached release agreement and a request that Plaintiff execute said agreement. Plaintiff, however, neither signed nor returned the attached release. Nevertheless, on July 8, 2016, TMC sent a check to Plaintiff for a sum of $3, 304 for “Full & Final Settlement & Release of all Claims.”

         Plaintiff did not negotiate the check, and instead, filed the instant lawsuit against Defendants in the 21st Judicial District Court, Parish of Tangipahoa, State of Louisiana, on December 6, 2016, alleging damages caused by the vehicle collision. Plaintiff's petition alleges damages for injuries to his person, including neck and back, along with mental and emotional distress. The petition also alleges damages for past, present, and future physical pain, physical suffering, bodily injury, mental and emotional overlay, and medical expenses. In accordance with Louisiana law, Plaintiff did not request a specific dollar amount of damages in his state court petition.[1]

         Defendants removed the lawsuit to this Court on January 31, 2017, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1) diversity jurisdiction. Defendants then filed the instant Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement arguing that the parties entered into a valid written settlement as a result of the correspondence dated July 6, 2016. Accordingly, Defendants urge the Court to enforce the alleged settlement agreement as a full and final release of all claims arising out of the vehicle collision.

         Plaintiff asserts that the Court should not enforce the settlement agreement for two reasons. First, Plaintiff contends that the agreement is void for lack of consent because the settlement offer contained a typographical error. Alternatively, Plaintiff argues that although he intended to settle for $15, 000, he inadvertently offered to settle for $1, 500. Second, Plaintiff contends that the parties never perfected a valid settlement agreement because Defendants' purported acceptance was actually a counteroffer.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A defendant may remove to federal court “any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). A federal district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a state claim when the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 and there is complete diversity of citizenship between the parties. Mumfrey v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., 719 F.3d 392, 397 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)). When the petition is silent on the exact amount of claimed damages, the removing party bears the burden of proving “by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.” Grant v. Chevron Phillips Chem. Co., 309 F.3d 864, 868 (5th Cir. 2002) (citing Manguno v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 276 F.3d 720, 723 (5th Cir. 2002)). The removing party can satisfy this burden either: (1) by demonstrating that it is “facially apparent” from the petition that the claim likely exceeds $75, 000 or (2) by setting forth “summary judgment-type evidence” of facts in controversy that support a finding of the requisite amount.” Id. (citations omitted).

         The objection that a federal court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised by a party, or by a court on its own initiative, at any stage in the litigation. Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 506 (2006); see Simon v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 193 F.3d 848, 850 (5th Cir. 1999) (stating that federal courts may examine the basis of jurisdiction sua sponte). The Court considers the jurisdictional facts that support removal as of the time of removal. Gebbia v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 233 F.3d 880, 883 (5th Cir. 2000). Because removal raises significant federalism concerns, any doubt about the propriety of removal must be resolved in favor of remand. Gasch v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 491 F.3d 278, 281-82 (5th Cir. 2007).

         DISCUSSION

         Although Plaintiff neither objects to nor challenges the Court's subject-matter jurisdiction over its claims, the Court raises the issue of jurisdiction sua sponte. Simon, 193 F.3d at 850. Diversity jurisdiction, which Defendants assert as the basis for removal, requires: (1) complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and (2) an amount in controversy in excess of $75, 000. Mumfrey, 719 F.3d at 397 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)). It is undisputed that complete diversity exists here: Plaintiff is a citizen of Louisiana, Hudson Insurance is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in New York, and TMC is an Iowa corporation with its principal place of business in Iowa. However, whether the amount in controversy requirement has been met presents a more difficult inquiry. Because Plaintiff's petition does not allege a specific amount of damages, Defendants bear the burden of proving an amount in controversy in excess of $75, 000. Accordingly, the Court first looks to Plaintiff's state court petition to determine whether the amount in controversy is “facially apparent.” Manguno, 276 F.3d at 723.

         In Seaman v. Tetra Applied Techs., Inc., another section of this district concluded that the plaintiff's state court petition failed to facially establish an amount in controversy above the jurisdictional threshold. 2000 WL 222851, at *2 (E.D. La. February 18, 2000). At issue was whether the defendant's removal was timely pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b).[2]Id. at *1. The defendant, who had filed a notice of removal more than thirty days after being served, alleged that it first became aware that the case was removable upon receipt of the plaintiff's discovery responses. Id. The court agreed, reasoning that the amount in controversy was not facially apparent from the plaintiff's petition which alleged the following damages: “serious injuries to [plaintiff's] mind and body, including, but not limited to neck and back, past and future mental and physical pain and suffering, lost wages, loss of further earning capacity medical expenses, and related expenses.” Id. at *1-2. The court classified these claims as “vanilla” allegations that “in no way indicate the severity of plaintiff's injuries.” Id. at *2. Importantly, the court pointedly stated, “Indeed, had [defendant] sought removal based on the allegations in plaintiff's petition for damages, [defendant] would have failed to carry its burden to prove that federal jurisdiction over the subject-matter of the case exists.” Id. (emphasis added). Notably, this Court has likewise found similar allegations inadequate to support removal. See Jupiter v. Lowe's Home Centers, Inc., 2012 WL 2878639, at *2 (E.D. La. July 13, 2012) (Barbier, J.) (concluding that the plaintiff's state court petition, which alleged damages for severe injuries to the plaintiff's knees which required surgery; loss of enjoyment of life; ...


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