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Manzanarez v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 21, 2019

LARRY MANZANAREZ, ET AL.
v.
LIBERTY MUTUAL FIRE INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL.

         SECTION I

          ORDER & REASONS

          LANCE M. AFRICK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is plaintiffs Larry Manzanarez and Leonel Manzanarez's (collectively, the “plaintiffs”) motion[1] to remand the above-captioned matter to Louisiana state court. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         I.

         This case arises out of a motor vehicle accident involving the plaintiffs that occurred on October 18, 2017.[2] The plaintiffs sued numerous defendants in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans, alleging that the accident occurred as a result of the negligence of the other driver, who was allegedly working as an employee for defendant JLB Contractors, LLC (“JLB Contractors”) at the time of the accident.[3] On February 14, 2019, JLB Contractors and defendant Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company (“Liberty Mutual”) (collectively, the “defendants”) removed the case to federal court.[4]

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), “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 or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending, ” unless Congress provides otherwise. Jurisdictional facts supporting removal are assessed at the time of removal. Louisiana v. American Nat'l Prop. Cas. Co., 746 F.3d 633, 636- 37 (5th Cir. 2014). “The removing party bears the burden of establishing that federal jurisdiction exists.” De Aguilar v. Boeing Co., 47 F.3d 1404, 1408 (5th Cir. 1995). “Any ambiguities are construed against removal because the removal statute should be strictly construed in favor of remand.” Manguno v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Co., 276 F.3d 720, 723 (5th Cir. 2002).

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, a district court has original jurisdiction over cases in which the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and the parties are citizens of different states. It is uncontested that the parties are completely diverse as the plaintiffs are both Louisiana citizens and both JLB Contractors and Liberty Mutual are foreign corporations.[5] However, the plaintiffs dispute the amount in controversy. They assert that the jurisdictional amount does not exceed $75, 000 and that, as a result, the Court must remand this case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[6]

         When faced with an amount-in-controversy dispute, the applicable standard of proof depends on whether the plaintiff's state court petition alleges a specific dollar amount in damages. Allen v. R & H Oil & Gas Co., 63 F.3d 1326, 1335 (5th Cir. 1995). When the petition alleges a specific amount and that amount exceeds $75, 000, such amount “controls in good faith.” Id. “In order for the court to refuse jurisdiction, ‘it [must] appear to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount.'” Id. (quoting St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co. v. Red Cab. Co., 303 U.S. 283, 289 (1983)).

         However, in cases such as this one where the petition does not specify a damages amount, the removing defendant must establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, by a preponderance of the evidence.[7] Id. “This requirement is met if (1) it is apparent from the face of the petition that the claims are likely to exceed $75, 000, or, alternatively, (2) the defendant sets forth ‘summary judgment type evidence' of facts in controversy that support a finding of the requisite amount.” Manguno, 276 F.3d at 723 (citations omitted). Once the defendant has met his burden, the plaintiff can only defeat jurisdiction by “showing to a ‘legal certainty' that the amount in controversy does not exceed $75, 000.” Grant v. Chevron Phillips Chem. Co., 309 F.3d 864, 869 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting De Aguilar, 47 F.3d at 1412).[8]

         II.

         First, it is not facially apparent from the face of the state court petition that the damages are likely to exceed $75, 000: the allegations in the petition are too few and too vague.[9] The petition states that, as a result of the alleged accident, the plaintiffs “sustained physical injuries which required medical treatment.”[10] The petition is silent, however, as to the extent or severity of the plaintiffs' injuries, and it gives no indication that either plaintiff has undergone surgery or been recommended any particular treatment. See Bonck v. Marriott Hotels, Inc., No. 02-2740, 2002 WL 31890932, at *2 (E.D. La. Dec. 30, 2002) (Vance, J.) (noting that the plaintiff did not allege “any required surgery” or mention any “period of hospitalization”); Touchet v. Union Oil Co. of Cal., No. 01-2394, 2002 WL 465167, at *2 (E.D. La. Mar. 26, 2002) (Sear, J.) (“The plaintiffs allege[ ], without specificity, injuries to his ‘neck, back, and other parts of his body.' There is nothing in the petition to suggest the level of severity of these alleged injuries.”); Vaughn v. Todd, 71 F.Supp.2d 570, 572 (E.D. La. 1999) (Fallon, J.) (holding that remand was proper based on a jurisdictional amount inquiry, in part because, “[w]hile the plaintiffs' list [of claims] is extensive, there is no evidence as to the nature or extent of any of the claims”) (emphasis added).

         The list of damages is also limited. The petition states that the plaintiffs are entitled to reimbursement for “hospital, physician and health care provider expenses” that they did or may incur.[11] It also alleges that the plaintiffs continue to experience “mental and physical pain and suffering.”[12] On the basis of the petition alone, the Court cannot conclude that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs.

         Because the petition fails the facially apparent test, the Court must consider whether the defendants have set forth facts in controversy that nonetheless support a finding of the requisite jurisdictional amount. Allen, 63 F.3d at 1335. With respect to the amount in controversy, the defendants' sole basis for the propriety of removal is that the plaintiffs' counsel refused to stipulate that their damages amount to less than $75, 000.[13] The defendants contend that, “[because] refusal to stipulate is the only factor to consider, there is nothing to weigh against it, and the preponderance of the evidence [demonstrates] that the damages exceed $75, 000.”[14]

         It is true that a plaintiff's refusal to sign a stipulation is one factor the court may consider as part of the jurisdictional-amount inquiry, See Trahan v. Drury Hotels Co., LLC, No. 11-521, 2011 WL 2470982, at *5 (E.D. La. June 20, 2011) (Fallon, J.) (explaining that a refusal to stipulate is “not dispositive of the amount in controversy” but is, rather, one factor for courts to consider). However, a plaintiff's failure to stipulate to the contours of the amount in controversy “does not relieve the removing party of its burden to establish that the jurisdictional minimum is satisfied.” Lowe v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 07-7454, 2008 WL 906311, at *2 (E.D. La. Apr. 2, 2008) (Zainey, J.); see also Howery v. Allstate Ins. Co., 243 F.3d 912, 916 (5th Cir. 2001) (“[Courts] must presume that a suit lies outside [its] limited jurisdiction, and the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction rests on the party seeking the federal forum.”). The plaintiffs were not required to submit evidence to refute the defendants' evidence. And just because the only evidence in the record is the ...


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