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Jeffrey C. Conklin and Matthew Thomas Naylor v. Moran Industries

May 31, 2010

JEFFREY C. CONKLIN AND MATTHEW THOMAS NAYLOR
v.
MORAN INDUSTRIES, INC., ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Padova, J.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs Jeffrey C. Conklin and Matthew Thomas Naylor initiated this action in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Defendants removed the action to this Court on January 21, 2011, asserting that we have federal question jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Plaintiffs have filed a Motion for Remand, arguing that the action does not present a federal question. Plaintiffs also seek payment of the attorneys' fees and costs they incurred as a result of the removal, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). For the reasons that follow, the Motion for Remand is granted, but the request for attorneys' fees and costs is denied.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Complaint alleges the following facts. Plaintiffs are pilots who began working for Defendants on July 22, 2009. (Comp. ¶ 47.) In August 2009, Defendants sent them to flight school to be trained to fly the Hawker 900XP operated by Defendant ACP Jet Charters, Inc. ("ACP"). (Id. ¶¶ 51, 60, 76.) Following their training, Plaintiffs became co-captains of the Hawker 900XP. (Id. ¶ 60.)

During their employment, Plaintiffs expressed concern to Defendants that Defendants were not complying with certain FAA regulations and laws relating to flight safety. (Id. ¶ 62.) Defendants terminated Conklin's employment on Februry 25, 2010, and terminated Naylor's employment approximately five weeks later, on April 1, 2010. (Id. ¶ 47.) Plaintiffs claim that they were fired in retaliation for complaining about Defendants' violations of federal laws relating to flight safety and because Defendants feared that they would report Defendants' unlawful activities to the authorities. (Id. ¶¶ 226, 249-50.)

Plaintiffs initiated this action on January 3, 2011, by filing a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Count I of the Complaint avers that Defendants' termination of Plaintiffs violated Pennsylvania common law against wrongful termination. (Id. ¶ 253.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that their firings violated public policies expressed in the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, 49 U.S.C. § 42121 ("AIR 21"),*fn1 and in the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 Pa. Stat. §§ 1421-1428. (Id. ¶¶ 254-263.) Count II of the Complaint asserts that Plaintiffs' terminations violated that portion of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law that bars an employer from discharging an employee because that employee has made a good faith report of wrongdoing or waste. (Id. ¶¶ 268-272.)

Although the Complaint alleges only state law claims, Defendants maintain that this Court has original jurisdiction over this action because the Complaint presents a federal question. (Notice of Removal ¶ 22.) Specifically, Defendants contend that Plaintiffs cannot prevail on their claim for wrongful termination without proving that their firings violated AIR 21, a federal law. Defendants aver that Count I of the Complaint presents four federal questions: (1) whether Plaintiffs' complaints that Defendants violated federal laws regarding air carrier safety were protected by AIR 21; (2) whether Plaintiffs are within the class of individuals protected by AIR 21; (3) whether Defendants are "air carriers" under federal law and thus subject to AIR 21; and (4) whether Defendants actually violated federal laws relating to air carrier safety. (Id. ¶¶ 22-24.) Plaintiffs have moved to remand this action on the ground that we lack subject matter jurisdiction over their claims.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A defendant may remove a civil action filed in state court if the federal district court has "original jurisdiction founded on the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b). The removing party bears the burden of establishing removal jurisdiction. Boyer v. Snap-on Tools Corp., 913 F.2d 108, 111 (3d Cir. 1990). Once a case has been removed from state court, the federal district court must remand the case "[i]f at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). "Upon a motion to remand, 'it is always the removing party's burden to prove the propriety of removal, and any doubts about the existence of federal jurisdiction must be resolved in favor of remand.'" Casale v. Aurora Yarns, Civ. A. No. 10-460, 2010 WL 1407299, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 7, 2010) (quoting Lumbermans Mut. Cas. Co. v. Fishman, Civ. A. No. 99-929, 1999 WL 744016, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 22, 1999)). In ruling on a motion for remand, "the district court must focus on the plaintiff's complaint at the time the petition for removal was filed . . . [and] must assume as true all factual allegations of the complaint." Steel Valley Auth. v. Union Switch & Signal Div., 809 F.2d 1006, 1010 (3d Cir. 1987) (citations omitted). "'Because lack of jurisdiction would make any decree in the case void and the continuation of the litigation in federal court futile, the removal statute should be strictly construed and all doubts resolved in favor of remand.'" Brown v. Francis, 75 F.3d 860, 864-65 (3d Cir. 1996) (quoting Abels v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 770 F.2d 26, 29 (3d Cir. 1985)); see also Univ. of S. Ala. v. Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 411 (11th Cir. 1999) ("A presumption in favor of remand is necessary because if a federal court reaches the merits of a pending motion in a removed case where subject matter jurisdiction may be lacking it deprives a state court of its right under the Constitution to resolve controversies in its own courts.").

III. DISCUSSION

A. Federal Subject Matter Jurisdiction Over State Law Claims Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the federal district courts have subject matter jurisdiction over "'all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.'" Empire Healthchoice Assurance, Inc. v. McVeigh 547 U.S. 677, 689 (2006) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1331). "A case 'aris[es] under' federal law within the meaning of § 1331 . . . if 'a well-pleaded complaint establishes either that federal law creates the cause of action or that the plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal law.'" Id. at 689-90 (alteration in original) (quoting Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 27--28 (1983)). "This provision for federal-question jurisdiction is invoked by and large by plaintiffs pleading a cause of action created by federal law (e.g., claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983)." Grable & Sons Metal Prods., Inc. v. Darue Eng'g & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 312 (2005). However, "in certain cases federal-question jurisdiction will [also] lie over state-law claims that implicate significant federal issues." Id. (citation omitted). The Supreme Court has explained that "[t]he doctrine captures the commonsense notion that a federal court ought to be able to hear claims recognized under state law that nonetheless turn on substantial questions of federal law, and thus justify resort to the experience, solicitude, and hope of uniformity that a federal forum offers on federal issues." Id. (citation omitted).

Defendants argue that removal was proper in this case, and that we have federal question jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims, because resolution of Plaintiffs' wrongful termination claim depends on the construction and interpretation of AIR 21. However, "the mere presence of a federal issue in a state cause of action does not automatically confer federal-question jurisdiction." Merrell Dow Pharms. Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 813 (1986); see also Empire, 547 U.S. at 701 (stating that "it takes more than a federal element 'to open the arising under door.'" (quoting Grable, 545 U.S. at 313)). "Rather, the Supreme Court has 'confined federal-question jurisdiction over state-law claims to those that really and substantially involve a dispute or controversy respecting the validity, construction or effect of federal law.'" Lane v. CBS Broad., Inc., 612 F. Supp. 2d 623, 628 (E.D. Pa. 2009) (quoting Grable, 545 U.S. at 313). Only a "slim category" of state-law claims will satisfy this requirement. Empire, 547 U.S. at 701; see also Malofiy v. Cardiac Sci. Corp., Civ. A. No. 10-2377, 2010 WL 4611821, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 15, 2010) ("The Supreme Court has labeled the spectrum of claims sufficient to invoke jurisdiction under Grable & Sons a 'slim category.'" (quoting Empire, 547 U.S. at 701)).

The Supreme Court most recently analyzed when the "arising under door" should be opened in Grable and Empire and the reasoning in those opinions guides our evaluation of the propriety of removal in this case. The IRS seized and sold the property of Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. ("Grable") to satisfy a tax deficiency. Grable, 545 U.S. at 310. Grable brought a quiet title action in state court against Darue Engineering & Manufacturing ("Darue"), the purchaser of the property, "claiming that Darue's record title was invalid because the IRS had failed to notify Grable of its seizure of the property in the exact manner required by [26 U.S.C.] § 6335(a)." Id. at 311. The Supreme Court held that removal of Grable's state law quiet title claim to federal court was proper for the following reasons: (1) Grable's claim against Darue was premised "on a failure by the IRS to give it adequate notice, as defined by federal law[;]" (2) "[w]hether Grable was given notice within the meaning of the federal statute [was] an essential element of its quiet title claim[;]" (3) "the meaning of the federal statute [was] actually in dispute;" (4) the meaning of the federal statute was "the only legal or factual issue contested in the case[;]" (5) interpretation of "the federal tax provision [was] an important issue of federal law that sensibly belong[ed] in a federal court[;]" (6) the government, tax delinquents, and buyers would all have an interest in having such claims determined by "judges used to federal tax matters[;]" and (7) since state title actions rarely raise issues of federal law, "federal jurisdiction to resolve genuine disagreement over federal tax title provisions will portend only a microscopic effect on the federal-state division of labor." Id. at 314-15.

The Empire case was commenced by Empire Healthchoice Assurance, Inc. ("Empire"), a private insurance company that provides health insurance to federal employees pursuant to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Act of 1959, 5 U.S.C. § 8901, et seq. Empire, 547 U.S. at 682, 687. Empire brought suit in federal court against a plan beneficiary who had been injured in an accident, seeking reimbursement for the beneficiary's medical care after the beneficiary successfully sued the person who caused the accident in state court. Id. at 683. Empire argued that the federal court had jurisdiction over its claim that the beneficiary had breached the reimbursement provision of his health insurance plan "because federal common law governed its reimbursement claim" or, in the alternative, because the health insurance plan "itself constituted federal law." Id. at 688 (citation omitted). The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that the federal courts did not have federal question jurisdiction over Empire's claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Id. at 683. The Supreme Court explained that this case was "poles apart from Grable" because Grable "centered on the action of a federal agency (IRS) and its compatibility with a federal statute, the question qualified as 'substantial,' and its resolution was both dispositive of the case and would be controlling in numerous other cases." Id. at 700 ...


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