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Carr v. Vermilion Parish School Board

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

February 19, 2019

NERISSA CARR, ET AL.
v.
VERMILION PARISH SCHOOL BOARD

          SUMMERHAYS, JUDGE

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PATRICK J. HANNA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending before the court is the motion to remand (Rec. Doc. 6), which was filed by the plaintiffs, Nerissa Carr, Holly LeBlanc, Alicia LaSalle, and Jaimee Romero, individually and on behalf of all other similarly situated employees of the Vermilion Parish School Board. The motion is opposed. The motion was referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for review, report, and recommendation in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636 and the standing orders of the court. Considering the evidence, the law, and the arguments of the parties, and for the reasons fully explained below, it is recommended that the motion be GRANTED.

         Background

         This lawsuit was originally filed in the 15th Judicial District Court, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. The plaintiffs are teachers employed by the Vermilion Parish School Board, and the defendant is the School Board. The plaintiffs claim that they were denied extended sick leave benefits during their pregnancies.

         The suit was brought as a class action on behalf of the four named plaintiffs and other similarly situated employees of the Vermilion Parish School Board. The proposed class was generally defined as including all female teachers employed by the School Board during the three years preceding the filing of the suit who were granted maternity leave, had no remaining regular sick leave, did have remaining extended sick leave under La. R.S. 17:1202(A), but were denied the right to use the extended sick leave. In their first cause of action, the plaintiffs seek a declaration that the ninety days of extended sick leave provided by La. R.S. 17:1202(A)(1)(a) may be used by a teacher for personal illness related to pregnancy in the same manner as any other temporary disability. In their second cause of action, the plaintiffs seek to recover the monetary value of the sick leave benefits that they claim they were denied during their recent pregnancies.

         The School Board removed the suit to this forum, contending that the court has subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 because the plaintiffs alleged violations of both state and federal law. The plaintiffs responded with the instant motion to remand.

         Law and Analysis

         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Absent jurisdiction conferred by statute, district courts lack power to consider claims.”[1] Federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction only over civil actions presenting a federal question[2]and those in which the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 exclusive of interest and costs and the parties are citizens of different states.[3] A suit is presumed to lie beyond the scope of federal-court jurisdiction until the party invoking federal-court jurisdiction establishes otherwise.[4] Similarly, any doubts regarding whether removal jurisdiction is proper should be resolved against federal-court jurisdiction.[5]The party invoking the court's subject-matter jurisdiction has the burden of establishing the court's jurisdiction.[6] Thus, when a lawsuit has been removed from state court, as this suit has, the removing party must bear that burden.[7] Accordingly, the School Board, as the removing party, has the burden of establishing that this Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this action.

         In this case, there is no allegation of diversity jurisdiction; thus, there must be federal question jurisdiction for removal to be proper.[8] Federal district courts have “original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.”[9] Whether a claim arises under federal law so as to confer federal question jurisdiction is governed by the well-pleaded complaint rule, which provides that “federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint.”[10] Under the well-pleaded complaint rule, “there is generally no federal jurisdiction if the plaintiff properly pleads only a state law cause of action.”[11] The well-pleaded complaint rule makes the plaintiff the master of his complaint, allowing him to avoid federal-court jurisdiction by relying exclusive on state law.[12]

         “Since a defendant may remove a case only if the claim could have been brought in federal court, . . . the question for removal jurisdiction must also be determined by reference to the ‘well-pleaded complaint.'”[13] If a plaintiff chooses not to present a federal claim, even though one is potentially available, the defendant may not remove the case from state to federal court.[14] Asserted or anticipated defenses set forth in a defendant's answer or notice of removal do not provide a basis for federal question jurisdiction.[15] In other words, jurisdiction generally may not be sustained on a theory that the plaintiff has not advanced.[16]

         There are exceptions to the “well-pleaded complaint” rule. One is the artful pleading doctrine, in which removal is not defeated by the plaintiff's attempt to hide a federal question.[17] This doctrine applies only when the relevant state law is completely preempted by federal law.[18] In this case, the defendant has not argued that the plaintiffs' claims are completely preempted; therefore, the artful pleading doctrine is not implicated.

         Another exception allows the removal of a “special and small category”[19] of cases presenting “an important issue of federal law that sensibly belongs in a federal court.”[20] When a plaintiff's complaint states only a state law cause of action, federal question jurisdiction might exist if “the vindication of a right under state law necessarily turn[s] on some construction of federal law.”[21] But “the mere presence of a federal issue in a state cause of action does not automatically confer federal-question jurisdiction” over a case.[22]

         Instead, the United States Supreme Court formulated the relevant inquiry as follows: “does a state-law claim necessarily raise a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which a federal forum may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.”[23] Implementing that ruling, the Fifth Circuit articulated four requirements that must be met when determining whether a federal issue embedded in a state law cause of action will confer federal question jurisdiction. Federal question jurisdiction is appropriate when: (1) resolving the federal issue is necessary to resolution of the state-law claim; (2) the federal issue is actually disputed; (3) the federal issue is substantial; and (4) federal jurisdiction will not disturb the balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.[24] The question to be resolved is whether, under this test, a federal-law issue presented here is sufficient to establish federal-question jurisdiction.

         After reviewing the four critical factors, the undersigned finds that, in this case, the defendants have not carried their burden of proving the existence of federal-question jurisdiction.

         (a) Is Resolving a Federal Issue Necessary to the Resolution of the Plaintiff's Claims?

         In their petition, the plaintiffs alleged that the school board failed to properly interpret a state statute, La. R.S. 17:1202(A)(1)(a). They seek a declaration regarding the proper meaning of the statute and they also seek to recover sick leave benefits that they claim they were denied because of the school board's improper interpretation of the statute. On its face, the plaintiff's petition asserts only state-law causes of action. While the plaintiffs noted in their petition that there is a similar federal statute, the teachers' dispute with the school board can be resolved without interpreting the similar federal statute and without deciding any federal issue whatsoever.

         This Court finds that the plaintiffs seek only to have the state statute interpreted and to recover under the state statute. The plaintiffs' complaint contains a single reference to federal law. Paragraph 47 of the complaint reads as follows, in its entirety:

Despite the mandates of state law (La. R.S. 23:341(B)(1)) and federal law (42 U.S.C. §2000e(k)) that pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions be treated as any other temporary disability for all employment-related purposes, including the receipt of benefits related to employment, each Plaintiff and each member of the Class was informed by representative of the Board that they were unable to use their extended sick leave for their personal illness related to their pregnancy.[25]

         The defendant interprets this paragraph as an allegation that federal law - the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k) - was violated, bestowing federal-court jurisdiction on this action. In its removal notice, the defendant also suggested that the plaintiffs might be asserting a claim under the Federal Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d).[26] This Court finds that argument unpersuasive.

         A careful reading of the plaintiffs' complaint reveals that the reference to the federal statute in Paragraph 47 of the petition was nothing more than a passing reference to the similar federal law and not an allegation that federal law was violated by the defendants' actions and omissions. The plaintiffs' petition is clear that declaratory relief is sought by the plaintiffs exclusively with regard to the cited Louisiana statute and is equally clear that monetary damages are sought exclusively for the defendant's alleged violation of the cited Louisiana statute. The plaintiffs did not ask the court to interpret a federal statute, to declare any party's rights or obligations under any federal statute, or to remedy a violation of any federal statute.

         The defendant argued that the petition should be interpreted as seeking a declaration that both state statutes and the cited federal statute were violated because the federal statute was cited in Paragraph 47 and Paragraph 49 of the complaint reads as follows: “The rights of Plaintiffs and the Class are affected by the foregoing statutes and they are aggrieved by the Board's interpretation of the foregoing statutes and the Board's application of those statutes to them.”[27] The defendant's suggested reading of the complaint ignores three things.

         First, Paragraph 48 of the complaint, which is placed between Paragraphs 47 and 49, refers only to Louisiana state statutes. This Court therefore interprets the word “foregoing” in Paragraph 49 as referencing only the statutes mentioned in Paragraph 48 and not the statutes mentioned in Paragraph 47.

         Second, the plaintiffs expressly sought relief only under the state statute. With regard to the plaintiffs' first cause of action, Paragraph 51 states that the plaintiffs “are entitled to judgment. . . declaring that the 90 days of extended sick leave mandated by La. R.S. 17:1202(A)(1) may be used by them for personal illness related to their pregnancies in the same manner as any other temporary disability.”[28] With regard to the plaintiffs' second cause of action, Paragraph 54 states that the plaintiffs “are entitled to further relief. . . ordering Defendant to compute and pay to each of then the extended sick leave benefits to which they are entitled pursuant to La. R.S. 17:1202(A)(1)(a) for personal illness related to their pregnancies in the same manner as any other temporary disability.”[29] There is no paragraph in the petition stating that the plaintiffs are seeking to recover under any federal statute. As noted previously, the only reference in the petition to any federal statute is that found in Paragraph 47, quoted above, which this Court finds is insufficient to allege a violation of federal law or demonstrate the plaintiffs' intent to seek recovery under a federal statute.

         Third, the same relief expressly sought in Paragraphs 51 and 54 is echoed in the prayer at the end of the complaint, where the plaintiffs again request a declaration “that the 90 days of extended sick leave mandated by La. R.S. 17:1202(A)(1)(a) may be used by them for personal illness related to their pregnancies in the same manner as any other temporary disability” and an order requiring the school board “to compute and pay. . . the extended sick leave benefits to which they are entitled pursuant to La. R.S. 17:1202(A)(1)(a) for personal illness related to their pregnancies in the same manner as any other temporary disability.”[30] There is no prayer for a declaration of the meaning of any federal statute and no prayer for relief of any kind under any federal statute.

         Reading all of the provisions of the complaint logically and in relation to each other, this Court concludes that the plaintiffs are seeking a declaration of their rights under the cited Louisiana statute and reimbursement for sick leave that they believe they were denied but they are not seeking a declaration concerning the meaning of any federal statute or damages that might be recoverable under any federal statute. ...


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