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Fleming v. Sandersiv

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh.

April 12, 2019

VALERIE FLEMING, AND; PATRICK FLEMING, HER HUSBAND; Plaintiffs,
v.
SAMUEL G. SANDERSIV, AND; NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants,

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Cynthia Reed Eddy, Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         I. RECOMMENDATION

         Presently before the court is Plaintiffs Valerie Fleming and Patrick Fleming's motion to remand to state court (ECF No. 9). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition. (ECF Nos. 9, 18, 19, 20). For the reasons that follow, it is respectfully recommended that the motion be granted and this case be remanded to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania.

         II. REPORT

         a. Background

         Plaintiffs initiated the present civil action in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania against Defendants Sanders and Nationwide on March 21, 2018 in connection with injuries sustained from a motor vehicle accident. The complaint indicated that Plaintiffs are Pennsylvania citizens, that Defendant Sanders is a New Jersey citizen and Defendant Nationwide is incorporated in Ohio and thus a citizen of Ohio. Compl. (ECF No. 1-4) at 4. In the complaint, Plaintiffs allege damages “in excess of” $35, 000. Compl. (ECF No. 1-4) at 10. Defendant Sanders filed preliminary objections to Plaintiffs' complaint on June 22, 2018 which were overruled after oral argument. (ECF No. 9-3). Defendant Sanders filed an Answer and Defenses on September 7, 2018. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 7). Thereafter, Defendant Sanders served 25 subpoenas upon Plaintiffs. On or about October 29, 2018, Defendant Sanders served upon Plaintiffs a request for admission, requesting Plaintiff to admit or deny that Plaintiffs' damages were valued in excess of $75, 000, exclusive of interests and costs. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 9). It is undisputed that Plaintiffs have not responded to Defendant Sanders's request for admission. Defendant Sanders noticed removal of this action on December 13, 2018. Plaintiffs presently seek to remand this case and argue that, inter alia, Defendant Sander's removal is untimely.

         b. Discussion[1]

         Federal district courts have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the parties are citizens of different states and the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). If a case is filed in state court and is one which federal court has original jurisdiction, a defendant may remove the action to federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b). The removal statute provides that a notice of removal of a civil action or proceeding from state court to federal court must be “filed within 30 days after the receipt by the defendant, through service or otherwise, of a copy of the initial pleading[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(1). If it is not apparent by the initial pleading that the case is removable, “a notice of removal may be filed within 30 days after receipt by the defendant, through service or otherwise, of a copy of an amended pleading, motion, order or other paper from which it may first be ascertained that the case is one which is or has become removable[, ]” provided that the case is removed not more than one year from the commencement of the action. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1446(b)(3); (c). Once a defendant has removed an action to federal court, a plaintiff may challenge the removal under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) by seeking remand if the federal court lacks jurisdiction or if there has been a defect in the removal procedure. PAS v. Travelers Ins. Co., 7 F.3d 349, 352 (3d Cir. 1993). Removal statutes are strictly construed against removal and all doubts should be resolved in favor of remand. Boyer v. Snap-On Tools, Corp., 913 F.2d 108, 111 (3d Cir. 1990). The party seeking removal bears the burden of proving that the case is property removed. Samuel-Bassett v. KIA Motors Am., Inc., 357 F.3d 392, 396 (3d Cir. 2004).

         Here, Defendant Sanders argues that removal was not apparent from the face of the initial complaint, because it was unclear whether Plaintiffs met the jurisdiction threshold amount of $75, 000. Defendant Sanders argues that it only became clear that the case was removable after Plaintiffs failed to respond to his request for admissions seeking an admission that Plaintiffs' damages exceeded $75, 000, and Plaintiffs' lack of response was deemed an admission that the damages exceeded $75, 000 and therefore Defendant Sanders was able to remove this case thirty days after the expiration of the response date to his request for admissions. In other words, the request for admission, which is deemed admitted to due to Plaintiffs' failure to respond, became the “other paper” from which it was first ascertained that the case was removable.

         The general federal rule is to decide the amount in controversy from the face of the state court complaint. Angus v. Shiley Inc., 989 F.2d 142, 145 (3d Cir. 1993) (citing Horton v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 367 U.S. 348, 353 (1961)). This amount “is not measured by the low end of an open-ended claim, but rather by a reasonable reading of the value of the rights being litigated.” Angus, 989 F.2d at 146. If, like here, the state court complaint “does not limit its request for damages to a precise monetary amount, ” the district court must make “an independent appraisal of the value of the claim” based on the allegations in the state court complaint. Id. at 146. See also Samuel-Bassett v. KIA Motors Am., Inc., 357 F.3d 392, 398 (3d Cir. 2004).

         Here, while Plaintiffs now argue that their claims are less than $75, 000, they did not limit the amount of damages in their state court complaint to less than $75, 000. Case law dictates that “a plaintiff following removal cannot destroy federal jurisdiction simply by amending a complaint that initially satisfied the monetary floor.” Angus, 989 F.2d at 145. Therefore, that Plaintiffs now argue their claims do not exceed $75, 000 has “no legal significance” and the court must only consider “the amount in controversy as alleged in [Plaintiffs'] complaint.” Id.

         Plaintiffs alleged in their state court complaint that their damages exceeded $35, 000 but do not specifically limit their damages to under $75, 000. Plaintiffs seek underinsured motorist coverage under their Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company for first party benefits and damages from injuries sustained from Defendant Sanders's negligence in operating his vehicle and causing a motor vehicle collision. While the applicable insurance policy is not provided by either party, Plaintiffs allege that Plaintiff Valerie Fleming sustained the following injuries:

(1) injuries to her head with concussion and post-concussion syndrome and a precipitation, initiation, exacerbation or aggravation of a pre-existing condition of the neck and the muscles, ligaments, tissues, tendons and nerves in, about and extending from the aforementioned parts of her body were strain[ed], ...

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