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Stewart v. Lewis

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 10, 2019

NORA STEWART, Plaintiff,
v.
DEBORAH LEWIS, et. al. Defendants.

          OPINION

          J. Nicholas Ranjan, United States District Judge

         This case presents two novel procedural questions under the amended removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1441. First, what happens when a plaintiff files a lawsuit in state court with a federal-question claim and completely unrelated state-law claims, and then the case is removed to federal court? Before 2011, district courts had discretion in how to deal with these hybrid cases, including the discretion to keep the entire case in federal court. Not anymore. The statute now tells courts exactly what they must do. Federal courts must retain the federal-question claim; and they then “shall” sever and remand the unrelated state-law claims, if those claims are not otherwise within the original and supplemental jurisdiction of the federal court. Following the amended statute and as discussed below, the Court shall retain jurisdiction over the federal-question claim (here, a claim under the FLSA); but since there is no independent jurisdiction over the state-law claims here (except for one state-law wage claim), the Court “shall” sever and remand those claims.

         The second novel procedural question at play is: what's the proper vehicle to raise severance? A motion to remand the state-law claims filed by the removing defendant is likely the answer. But even if the defendant does not move to remand the state-law claims, Section 1441 makes clear that the district court has an independent obligation to address severance. This is important, because in some cases (arguably, this one) severance may not be tied to a jurisdictional defect, and thus if a remand motion is not timely filed within 30 days of removal, then it could be waived. But in the context of severance and remand of state-law claims under Section 1441(c), that cannot be the case, since district courts must independently address the issue of severance “upon removal.” Thus, while Defendants here did not file a motion to remand and Plaintiff requests remand only if all of her claims are remanded together, that is of no consequence. This Court, exercising its independent duty to sever and remand state-law claims under Section 1441(c), hereby severs and remands Counts I & II of the complaint in this case to state court.

         I. Background

         This is a hybrid personal injury and employment action, in which Plaintiff Nora Stewart asserts claims for negligence arising from a slip-and-fall accident (against the Homeowner Defendants), failure to provide workers' compensation benefits (against the Amazon Defendants), and violations of both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and Pennsylvania's analogous Wage Payment and Collection Law (“WPCL”) (against the Amazon Defendants).[1] Following removal, the parties now dispute which of these claims may remain in federal court.

         As alleged in the complaint, Ms. Stewart was a delivery driver for the Amazon Defendants who was injured when she twisted her ankle and fell in the Homeowner Defendants' driveway. Ms. Stewart contends that the Homeowner Defendants were negligent in failing to properly maintain their driveway. Separately, Ms. Stewart alleges that the Amazon Defendants failed to provide workers' compensation benefits and also owe her unpaid wages as a result of misclassifying her as an independent contractor, in violation of the FLSA and WPCL. [ECF 17].

         Ms. Stewart initiated her lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County (No. 18-10764) by writ of summons filed on August 15, 2018. [ECF 1-3]. On June 17, 2019, she filed her currently operative complaint against all Defendants. [ECF 1-1]. Based on Ms. Stewart's FLSA claim, and pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, Amazon timely removed the case to this Court on July 16, 2019. [ECF 1]. In its notice of removal, Amazon also suggested that 28 U.S.C. § 1441(c)(2) required the Court to sever and remand Ms. Stewart's negligence claim against the Homeowner Defendants “upon removal.” [ECF 1 at ¶ 6]. The Homeowner Defendants then filed a “Response to Notice of Removal” on July 23, 2019, joining in Amazon's request that the Court sever and remand Ms. Stewart's negligence claim. [ECF 7].

         On August 15, 2019, Ms. Stewart filed a “Motion to Remand This Action or, in the Alternative, to Not Sever the Claims Against Homeowner Defendants.” [ECF 13]. In her motion, Ms. Stewart asserted that it was “in the interests of judicial economy to either remand the entire action to the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County or, in the alternative, to retain jurisdiction over the entire case, so that in whatever forum this case lands, it lands whole and intact, with no parts severed.” [ECF 13 at pp. 1-2; ECF 14]. Ms. Stewart also argued that her workers' compensation claim is nonremovable pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1445(c). [ECF 14].

         Defendants filed timely responses in accordance with the briefing schedule set by the Court. [ECF 15; ECF 16; ECF 17]. All Defendants argued that the Court had jurisdiction over Ms. Stewart's FLSA claim, but was required to sever and remand her negligence claim in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1441(c)(2). [ECF 16; ECF 17]. The Amazon Defendants further argued that the Court should dismiss (or, alternatively, remand) Ms. Stewart's workers' compensation claim, on the grounds that, in addition to being nonremovable under Section 1445(c), such claims may only be asserted by petition to the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Bureau. [ECF 17].

         II. Discussion & Analysis

          “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). “[L]ower federal-court jurisdiction is further limited to those subjects encompassed within a statutory grant of jurisdiction.” Home Depot U.S. A., Inc. v. Jackson, 139 S.Ct. 1743, 1746 (2019) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, “the district courts may not exercise jurisdiction absent a statutory basis.” Id. (citation omitted).

         In 28 U.S.C. § 1331, Congress granted federal courts original jurisdiction over cases “arising under” federal law. The power to hear such cases is commonly referred to as “federal-question” jurisdiction, Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 139 S.Ct. at 1746, which Amazon asserts as the basis for its removal of this action. [ECF 17]; see28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) (“[A]ny 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.”). More specifically, Amazon contends that this Court may properly exercise federal-question jurisdiction over Ms. Stewart's FLSA claim.

         Following removal, Defendants did not move to remand the state-law claims. Instead, Ms. Stewart moved to remand this entire action to state court. “Remand to state court is required if at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.” Hoffman v. Nutraceutical Corp., 563 Fed.Appx. 183, 185 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted); 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). “The defendant's right to remove is to be determined according to the plaintiffs' pleading at the time of the petition for removal, and it is the defendant's burden to show the existence of federal jurisdiction.” Van Scyoc v. Equitrans, L.P., 255 F.Supp.3d 636, 639 (W.D. Pa. 2015) (citing Abels v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 770 F.2d 26, 29 (3d Cir. 1985)). “The federal removal statute … is strictly construed, requiring remand if any doubt exists over whether removal was proper.” Carlyle Inv. Mgmt. LLC v. Moonmouth Co. SA, 779 F.3d 214, 218 (3d Cir. 2015). However, the Court must also proceed with appropriate caution, “lest it erroneously deprive a defendant of the right to a federal forum.” Hunter v. Greenwood Tr. Co., 856 F.Supp. 207, 211 (D.N.J. 1992).

         The Court will consider the parties' arguments with respect to each of Ms. Stewart's claims in turn, beginning with her FLSA claim.

         A. The Court Will Retain Jurisdiction Over Ms. Stewart's FLSA Claim Against the Amazon Defendants.

         First, the Court has little difficulty concluding that Ms. Stewart's FLSA claim against the Amazon Defendants should remain in federal court. [ECF 1]. “Federal question jurisdiction exists when the plaintiff's well-pleaded complaint establishes that ‘federal law creates the cause of action.'” Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Price, 501 F.3d 271, 276 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 27-28 (1983)). Ms. Stewart alleges that the Amazon Defendants have violated specific provisions of the FLSA and that she is entitled to relief authorized by 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Thus, a federal statute directly “creates the cause of action, ” ending the inquiry. Id.

         Notably, Ms. Stewart does not identify any legal basis for the Court to deny Amazon its “right to a federal forum for this case.” Koresko v. Murphy, 464 F.Supp.2d 463, 469 (E.D. Pa. 2006); Home Depot U.S. A., Inc., 139 S.Ct. at 1746 (“Federal-question jurisdiction affords parties a federal forum in which ‘to vindicate federal rights[.]'”) (citation omitted). In fact, she outright concedes that “there is no bar to removal of a suit under the FLSA from state to federal court, ” and indicates that she “does not contest removal, so long as all claims remain with this Court.” [ECF 14 at pp. 2-3]. Clearly, a litigant's mere preference to prosecute her claims in a single forum cannot overcome the plain language of the removal statute, which gives the Amazon Defendants a right to defend against federal claims in a federal forum. Thus, irrespective of whether the Court can retain Ms. Stewart's other claims, jurisdiction over her FLSA claim is proper.

         The Court will also exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Ms. Stewart's claim under the analogous WPCL, which is based on the exact same allegations. See28 U.S.C. § 1367; Lyon v. Whisman, 45 F.3d 758, 760 (3d Cir. 1995) (explaining that it is “obvious” that a district court can exercise supplemental jurisdiction “when the same acts violate parallel federal and state laws[.]”); Braun v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 24 A.3d 875, 961 (Pa. Super. 2011) (noting that “the WPCL is analogous to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act[.]”); see, e.g. Goldman v. Radio Shack Corp., No. 2:03-cv-0032, 2003 WL 21250571, at *2-3 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 16, 2003) (exercising supplemental jurisdiction over WPLC claim in an FLSA action).

         B. The Court Will Sever and Remand Ms. Stewart's State-Law Negligence Claim Against the Homeowner Defendants Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(c)(2).

         Next, Defendants argue that 28 U.S.C. § 1441(c)(2) requires the Court to sever and remand Ms. Stewart's state-law negligence claim against the Homeowner ...


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