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Freeman v. Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

January 15, 2019

RICKY FREEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CURTIS BAY MEDICAL WASTE SERVICES, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          M. HANNAH LAUCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Ricky Freeman's Motion to Remand. (ECF No. 9.) Defendants Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services, LLC, Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services Virginia, LLC (collectively with Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services, LLC, the "Curtis Bay Defendants"), and Edward McCollum responded, [1] (ECF No. 13), and Freeman replied, (ECF No. 14.)

         The materials before the Court adequately present the facts and legal contentions, and oral argument would not aid the decisional process. Accordingly, the matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant the Motion to Remand.

         I. Standard of Review

         A. Removal Jurisdiction & Remand

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), [2] a defendant may remove a civil action to a federal district court if the plaintiff could have originally brought the action in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Section 1446 delineates the procedure for removal. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1446(a), (d). The state court loses jurisdiction upon the removal of an action to federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1446(d) ("[T]he State court shall proceed no further unless and until the case is remanded."). The removability of a case "depends upon the state of the pleadings and the record at the time of the application for removal...." Ala. Great S. Ry. Co. v. Thompson, 200 U.S. 206, 216 (1906); see also Pullman Co. v. Jenkins, 305 U.S. 534, 537 (1939) ("the right to remove ... [is] determined according to the plaintiffs' pleading at the time of the petition for removal."). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c), "[i]f at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded." 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).

         "The party seeking removal bears the initial burden of establishing federal jurisdiction." Abraham v. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc., No. 3:11cv182, 2011 WL 1790168, at *1 (E.D. Va. May 9, 2011) (citing Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chem. Co., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994)). No. presumption favoring the existence of federal subject matter jurisdiction exists because federal courts have limited, not general, jurisdiction. Id. (citing Pinkley Inc. v. City of Frederick, 191 F.3d 394, 399 (4th Cir. 1999)). In deference to federalism concerns, courts must construe removal jurisdiction strictly. Id. (citing Mulcahey, 29 F.3d at 151). "If federal jurisdiction is doubtful, a remand is necessary." Id. (quoting Mulcahey, 29 F.3d at 151).

         A federal district court has diversity jurisdiction over "all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds ... $75, 000 ... and is between....[c]itizens of different states." 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). Federal diversity jurisdiction requires complete diversity of citizenship. Abraham, 2011 WL 1790168 at *2 (citing Carden v. Arkoma Assocs., 494 U.S. 185, 187 (1990)); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). "[T]he 'citizenship of each plaintiff [must be] diverse from the citizenship of each defendant.'" Abraham, 2011 WL 1790168, at *2 (quoting Caterpillar Inc. v. Lewis, 519 U.S. 61, 68 (1996) (second alteration in original)).

         B. The Fraudulent Joinder Doctrine

         The fraudulent joinder doctrine operates as an exception to the complete diversity requirement, permitting a district court to disregard, for jurisdictional purposes, the citizenship of certain nondiverse defendants, assume jurisdiction over a case, and dismiss the nondiverse defendants, thereby retaining jurisdiction. Abraham, 2011 WL 1790168, at *2 (citing Mayes v. Rapoport, 198 F.3d 457, 461 (4th Cir. 1999)). "To show fraudulent joinder, the removing party must demonstrate either 'outright fraud in the plaintiffs pleading of jurisdictional facts' or that 'there is no possibility that the plaintiff would be able to establish a cause of action against the in-state defendant in state court.'" Hartley v. CSX Transp., Inc., 187 F.3d 422, 424 (4th Cir. 1999) (alteration in original) (quoting Marshall v. Manville Sales Corp., 6 F.3d 229, 232 (4th Cir. 1993)). "The party alleging fraudulent joinder bears a heavy burden - it must show that the plaintiff cannot establish a claim even after resolving all issues of law and fact in the plaintiffs favor." Id. "This standard is even more favorable to the plaintiff than the standard for ruling on a motion to dismiss under [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 12(b)(6)." Id. "Once the court identifies this glimmer of hope for the plaintiff, the jurisdictional inquiry ends." Id. at 426; see also Allard v. Laroya, 163 F.Supp.3d 309, 311 (E.D. Va. 2016). In making this determination, the Court is not bound by the allegations in the pleadings, but may consider the entire record. Mayes, 198 F.3d at 464.

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Procedural History

         On May 18, 2018, Freeman filed the Complaint in the Circuit Court for the City of Petersburg (the "Petersburg Circuit Court"), seeking damages for personal injuries pursuant to state law negligence claims. Freeman served all the defendants on or about May 25, 2018. The defendants filed various responsive pleadings at the state level.[3] On June 21, 2018, the Curtis Bay Defendants and McCollum timely removed this action from the Petersburg Circuit Court to this Court, claiming diversity jurisdiction. (ECF No. 1.)

         On June 27, 2018, Freeman filed this Motion to Remand, claiming that full diversity does not exist because both Plaintiff Freeman and Defendant McCollum reside in Virginia. Freeman asks the Court to remand the case and order attorney's fees associated with defending this allegedly improper removal. On July 11, 2018, [4] the Curtis Bay Defendants and McCollum responded in opposition to the Motion to Remand, countering that Freeman fraudulently joined McCollum to this action to avoid removal to federal court.[5] Freeman replied to the Curtis Bay Defendants and McCollum's response.

         B. Summary of Allegations in the Complaint[6]

         This personal injury action arises from a March 31, 2017 explosion at a medical waste site located in the City of Petersburg, Virginia (the "Waste Site" or "Site"). On that date, according to Freeman, a boiler in the Waste Site exploded, sending "flying debris" into the vicinity. (Compl. ¶¶ 10-11, ECF No. 1-2.) At the time of the explosion, Freeman avers he "was sitting inside his truck at a red traffic light, his vehicle approximately 30 feet away from" the Waste Site. (Id. ¶ 9.)

         Freeman alleges that, at first, he got out of his truck to seek cover farther away from the explosion. Finding none, Freeman returned to his vehicle and lowered himself to the ground to take cover underneath his vehicle. The Complaint states that "while [Freeman] was lowering himself to the ground, a piece of concrete flew through the air from the explosion and struck his right shoulder." (Id. ¶ 14.) Freeman avers he "suffered extensive injuries, including but not limited to, substantial loss of hearing, blast injury, contusion of right shoulder, and suffers continued pain in the right shoulder." (Id. ¶ 15.) Freeman seeks $2, 800, 000 in damages and $350, 000 in punitive damages.

         In his Complaint, Freeman charges that, at the time of the explosion, Edward McCollum "was the plant manager" of the Waste Site responsible for maintenance of the boiler.[7](Id. ΒΆ 42.) According to Freeman, McCollum had sufficient information to foresee the safety risks associated with the ...


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