United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
DEBRA J. LYNCH, Plaintiff,
ROBYN A. JOHNSON, Defendant.
Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge
Debra J. Lynch, proceeding pro se, alleges that
defendant Robyn A. Johnson has engaged in tortious
interference with an expectancy of inheritance. (Compl., Dkt.
No. 1.) Before the court is Johnson's motion to dismiss
the action for, among other grounds, lack of subject-matter
jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1).
(Dkt. No. 2.) The motion has been fully briefed and was
argued before the court. Because the court finds that
complete diversity under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 is lacking,
the court will grant Johnson's motion.
September 27, 2017, Debra J. Lynch, a Virginia resident,
filed a complaint against Robyn A. Johnson, also a Virginia
resident. (Compl. 1-2.) Lynch brought the suit in her name,
“as Personal Representative of the Estate of Lorene B.
Dorough situated in St. John's County Florida.”
(Id.) Dorough was the mother of both Lynch and
Johnson. (Id. at 2.) The complaint asserts that
Johnson “did deprive [Lynch] of her due
inheritance” from their mother's estate and seeks
damages to account for the loss of inheritance allegedly
caused by Johnson. (Id. at 1.)
October 11, 2017, Johnson filed her motion to dismiss, to
which Lynch has responded. On November 9, 2017, the court
ordered supplemental briefing on whether a pro se
party may represent another entity like an estate when there
are other beneficiaries or persons who potentially have
interests at stake, such as creditors. This jurisdictional
issue has been fully briefed and was argued before the court
at a January 4, 2018 hearing.
Standard of Review
motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) tests the court's
subject-matter jurisdiction over a plaintiff's claim. The
plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that
subject-matter jurisdiction exists. Evans v. B.F. Perkins
Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999). In deciding a
Rule 12(b)(1) motion, “the district court is to regard
the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider
evidence outside the pleadings without converting the
proceeding to one for summary judgment.” Id.
(quoting Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co.
v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991)). It
must, however, “view the alleged facts in the light
most favorable to the plaintiff, similar to an evaluation
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Lovern v. Edwards,
190 F.3d 648, 654 (4th Cir. 1999). Dismissal under Rule
12(b)(1) is proper “only if the material jurisdictional
facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to
prevail as a matter of law.” Evans, 166 F.3d
at 647 (quoting Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac
R.R, 945 F.2d at 768).
The Court Lacks Subject-Matter Jurisdiction in this
this standard here, the court concludes that it lacks
subject-matter jurisdiction to decide the merits of this
case. “Federal courts are not courts of general
jurisdiction; they have only the power that is authorized by
Article III of the Constitution and the statutes enacted by
Congress pursuant thereto.” Brickwood Contractors,
Inc. v. Datanet Eng'g, Inc., 369 F.3d 385, 390 (4th
Cir. 2004) (quoting Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch.
Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541 (1986)). Generally speaking, a
federal court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a civil
action only if it raises a question of federal law, 28 U.S.C.
§ 1331, or it is between citizens of different states
and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, id.
Lynch invokes diversity jurisdiction as the basis for the
court's subject-matter jurisdiction. (Compl. 1.) The
primary issue is whether the parties are diverse. Although it
is undisputed that both Lynch and Johnson are residents of
Virginia, Lynch claims that she has Florida citizenship
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(2). That section
provides that “the legal representative of the estate
of a decedent shall be deemed to be a citizen only of the
same State as the decedent.” Lynch purports to be suing
as the legal representative of her mother's estate and
alleges that her mother was a citizen of Florida.
Accordingly, Lynch claims that she is entitled to adopt
Florida citizenship and that Johnson has Virginia
citizenship, thereby establishing diversity of citizenship in
court concludes that § 1332(c)(2) does not apply in this
case. First, Lynch has not made a showing that a legal estate
exists here. In cases in which a court has applied §
1332(c)(2), an estate had been opened and administered.
See, e.g., Gustafson v. zumBrunnen, 546
F.3d 398, 400 (7th Cir. 2008); Dillon v. Butler, No.
1:13-cv-424, 2015 WL 5674883, at *10 (M.D. N.C. Sept. 25,
2015), aff'd as modified, 671 F. App'x 179
(4th Cir. 2016). Here, however, the evidence is that no
estate has been opened or administered. Even if the plaintiff
recovers funds in this case, there appears to be no estate
into which the funds could be delivered.
the pleadings suggest that Lynch does not, in fact, seek to
represent her mother's estate. Section 1332(c)(2) applies
only to someone who is suing on behalf of the estate.
Gustafson, 546 F.3d at 402; Dillon, 2015 WL
5674883, at *6. Lynch, however, seeks to recover “her
due inheritance” (Compl. 1), a request inconsistent
with the interests of the estate as a whole. In representing
her individual interests, Lynch cannot rely on §
1332(c)(2) and must instead rely on her Virginia residency.
Because Johnson is also a Virginia resident, no diversity
exists in this case.
Lynch opened an estate and was appointed to administer the
estate so that she would be deemed a Florida resident, she
could not bring this action pro se. A pro
se party cannot maintain an action on behalf of a
decedent's estate if that estate has other beneficiaries
or creditors; indeed, a pro se party can only
represent an estate in the limited circumstance in which she
is the sole beneficiary of the estate. See, e.g.,
Cadmus v. Williamson, No. 5:15-cv-00045, 2016 WL
8376572, at *5 (W.D. Va. Aug. 23, 2016) (Report and
Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge collecting
authority); Dillon, 2015 WL 5674883, at *6;
McAdoo v. United States, No. 1:12-cv-328, 2014 WL
359043, at *2 (W.D. N.C. Feb. 3, 2014); Kimble v.
Withers, No. 5:12-cv-110, 2013 WL 6147678, at *4 (W.D.
Va. Nov. 22, 2013) ...