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Bonnie Hodges v. Walgreens

April 25, 2012

BONNIE HODGES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WALGREENS, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Bonnie Hodges brought this action in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas to recover damages allegedly resulting from an incident that occurred outside a Walgreens store in Darby, Pennsylvania. Walgreens and Walgreens Eastern Co., Inc. (collectively, "Walgreens") removed the case to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction. Presently, Plaintiff's motion to remand is before the Court. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

On February 1, 2010, Hodges slipped and fell on ice and snow in the parking lot near the entrance to a Walgreens store in Darby, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶ 6.) According to the Complaint, as a result of this incident, Hodges "suffered various serious and permanent bodily injuries, serious impairment of body function and/or permanent serious disfigurement, and/or aggravation of pre-existing conditions, including, but not limited to: right wrist contusion and sprain, right wrist dequervein tenosynovitis requiring surgery, and any other ills, injuries, all to plaintiff's great loss and detriment." (Id. ¶ 10.)

Following the incident, on February 17, 2010, Hodges sought medical treatment, complaining of pain in her right wrist. (Defs.' Resp. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. to Remand at 2.) She was diagnosed with a right wrist contusion/sprain and a possible micro-fracture. (Id.) She was prescribed a course of physical therapy and a right wrist brace. (Id.) Through November 2010, Hodges continued to seek medical treatment for pain in her right wrist. (Id. at 2-3.) In July 2010, an MRI indicated a partial tear, and she was subsequently diagnosed with chronic De Quervain tenosynovitis of the right wrist. (Id. at 2.) In August 2010, Hodges underwent surgery on her right wrist, and her physicians continued to treat her until November 2010. (Id. at 2-3.)

Hodges brought this action in state court on March 31, 2011, alleging negligence by Walgreens for a defective condition that existed on its premises. The Complaint included an ad damnum clause requesting judgment in an amount not in excess of $50,000. On January 26, 2012, the parties participated in a compulsory non-binding arbitration, which resulted in an award in favor of Walgreens. (Report and Award of Arbs.; Defs.' Resp. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. to Remand at 3.) Hodges filed a Notice of Appeal from the arbitration award on February 22, 2012. On March 5, 2012, Walgreens filed a Notice of Removal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 based upon diversity jurisdiction. On March 14, 2012, Hodges filed a motion to remand the case to state court, arguing that the amount in controversy is not greater than $75,000.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), defendants in state court may remove "any civil action . . . of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction . . . to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending." Federal courts possess diversity jurisdiction over all civil actions between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). To determine whether the amount in controversy has been met, a court may consider the complaint, the notice of removal, and the submissions related to the plaintiff's motion to remand. Clark v. J.C. Penney Corp., Civ. A. No. 08-4083, 2009 WL 1564175, at *3 (D.N.J. June 1, 2009); Hayes v. Ohio Nat'l Fin. Servs. Inc., Civ. A. No. 08-3743, 2008 WL 3852241, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 19, 2008).

In considering a motion to remand, "28 U.S.C. § 1441 is to be strictly construed against removal so that the Congressional intent to restrict federal diversity jurisdiction is honored." Samuel-Bassett v. KIAMotorsAm., Inc., 357 F.3d 392, 396 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted); see also Abels v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 770 F.2d 26, 29 (3d Cir. 1985) ("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 should be resolved in favor of remand."). "This policy 'has always been rigorously enforced by the courts.'" Samuel-Bassett, 357 F.3d at 396 (quoting St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 288 (1937)). Therefore, if the court determines that federal subject matter jurisdiction does not exist, the case must be remanded. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).

III. DISCUSSION

Hodges argues that this case must be remanded because the amount in controversy threshold for diversity jurisdiction is not met. Plaintiff pled that the amount in controversy was "an amount not in excess of $50,000.00." (Compl. ¶¶ 14, 21.) Defendants argue that the amount in controversy requirement is now met because Pennsylvania law allows for Hodges to recover in excess of $50,000 in a de novo appeal from arbitration. See Wilson v. Walker, 790 F. Supp. 2d 406, 409 (E.D. Pa. 2011) ("Pennsylvania courts . . . have held that in any de novo trial after arbitration, the plaintiff may seek more than $50,000 in damages.") (citing Vanden-Brand v. Port Auth. of Allegheny Cnty., 936 A.2d 581, 584 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2007)). Defendants further contend that the ad damnum clause is not dispositive and that the Court must look to see if the actual monetary damages exceeds the threshold, irrespective of Plaintiff's assertions to the contrary. (Defs.' Resp. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. to Remand at 5.)

The burden of demonstrating the existence of federal jurisdiction rests with the party asserting jurisdiction. Boyer v. Snap-On Tools Corp., 913 F.2d 108, 111 (3d Cir. 1990). The defendant's right to remove is determined according to the plaintiff's pleading at the time of the petition for removal. Angus v. Shiley, 989 F.2d 142, 145 (3d Cir. 1993); see also Meritcare Inc. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 166 F.3d 214, 217 (3d Cir. 1999) ("Even though actual damages may not be established until later in the litigation, the amount in controversy is measured as of the date of removal."). While "plaintiffs may limit their claims to avoid federal subject matter jurisdiction," the Third Circuit has emphasized that "plaintiffs in state court should not be permitted to ostensibly limit their damages to avoid federal court only to receive an award in excess of the federal amount in controversy requirement." Morgan v. Gay, 471 F.3d 469, 474, 477 (3d Cir. 2006).

In the Third Circuit, the amount in controversy requirement is met if the defendant shows to a "legal certainty" that the amount in controversy exceeds the threshold requirement. Samuel-Bassett, 357 F.3d at 397 (citing Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. at 289). The court must be satisfied to a legal certainty from the face of the pleadings that the plaintiff cannot recover the amount claimed. Dunfee v. Allstate Ins. Co., Civ. A. No. 08-1425, 2008 WL 2579799, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 26, 2008). In Morgan, the Third Circuit addressed how the legal certainty test would be applied in cases involving ad damnum clauses where the plaintiff expressly limited the amount in controversy to an amount less than the threshold required for jurisdiction. Morgan,471 F.3d at 474-75. The Morgan court held that: (1) the party seeking to establish federal jurisdiction must prove to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy exceeds the statutory threshold; (2) a plaintiff, if permitted by state law, may limit his or her monetary claims to avoid the amount in controversy threshold; and (3) the plaintiff's pleadings that the claims are below the jurisdictional threshold is not dispositive, rather, the court must analyze the claims to determine the amount really at stake in the case. Id.

The Third Circuit further clarified the amount in controversy standard in Frederico v. Home Depot, 50 F.3d 188 (3d Cir. 2007). The court held that Morgan applies in cases, such as the instant case, where the complaint limits the amount in controversy to less than the jurisdictional threshold. Id., at 196-97. In such cases, the removing party has a higher burden and must prove to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional requirement. Id. at 197. In contrast, Samuel-Bassett applies when the plaintiff has not specified that the amount in controversy is less than the jurisdictional ...


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