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Jacobs v. Seterus, Inc.

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

September 9, 2013

CHRISTOPHER JACOBS, Plaintiff,
v.
SETERUS, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Ellen L. Hollander United States District Judge

Christopher Jacobs, plaintiff, sued Seterus, Inc. (“Seterus”), defendant, in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, Maryland, alleging that Seterus gave false and defamatory reports to numerous credit agencies, in which defendant asserted that plaintiff defaulted on his loan obligation. See Complaint (ECF 2) ¶ 13. Although plaintiff concedes that he previously owed a debt to defendant in connection with a loan, plaintiff claims that, as part of a refinancing transaction, the loan was paid and satisfied. Id. at ¶¶ 5–9. In addition to monetary damages of about $1, 200, plaintiff seeks a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction, and a permanent injunction. See Complaint at 5–6.

After plaintiff initiated suit, defendant removed the case to federal court. See Notice of Removal (ECF 1). Although plaintiff’s complaint, on its face, purports to assert state law claims, defendant contends that plaintiff’s claims “arise under” the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq., because the claims are related to the furnishing of a credit report. See Notice of Removal at ¶ 7. Therefore, defendant contends that this Court possesses subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

For the reasons that follow, I conclude that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this case. Accordingly, I will remand the case to state court, without addressing plaintiff’s requests in his complaint for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunctive relief.

Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff alleges that in December 2006, he borrowed money from a lender and secured repayment with a Deed of Trust on real property owned by plaintiff in Germantown, Maryland. Complaint ¶ 4. Then, in June 2012, plaintiff refinanced the loan with another lender. As part of that transaction, the original loan was paid off, id. ¶ 5, and a new Deed of Trust was issued in favor of the new lender. Id.

According to plaintiff, a total of $172, 194.58 was collected from the proceeds of the new loan and paid to defendant, in complete satisfaction of the balance due on the first loan. See Id . ¶¶ 7–9.[1] Nevertheless, defendant “continues to demand additional payments from Plaintiff Jacobs . . . .” Id. ¶ 12. Moreover, plaintiff avers that defendant has falsely and defamatorily reported plaintiff’s alleged default to various credit reporting agencies. Id. ¶¶ 13–15. In particular, plaintiff alleges that defendant intentionally or negligently filed defamatory reports with Experian, Trans Union, and Equifax, which have damaged his credit rating. Id. ¶¶ 16–27. Further, plaintiff alleges that defendant has refused to return to plaintiff the sum of $1, 206.00 that plaintiff placed in an escrow account for the purpose of paying taxes and insurance on the property that serves as security on the loan. Id. ¶ 21.

As a result, on August 30, 2013, plaintiff filed suit in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, Maryland, purporting to assert state law claims. On September 5, 2013, defendant timely filed a Notice of Removal in this Court, claiming that federal jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

Discussion

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and “may not exercise jurisdiction absent a statutory basis.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 552 (2005). Of import here, courts have “an independent obligation to determine whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists, even when no party challenges it.” Hertz Corp. v. Friend, 559 U.S. 77, 94 (2010); see also Sucampo Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Astellas Pharma, Inc., 471 F.3d 544, 548 (4th Cir. 2006). With regard to removed cases, 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) requires: “If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded.”

As noted, defendant asserts in its Notice of Removal that the Court possesses subject matter jurisdiction based on federal question jurisdiction, also known as “arising under” jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 & 1441(a)–(b). Section 1331 grants federal district courts “original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” In turn, § 1441, the general removal statute, permits “any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction” to 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.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). When jurisdiction is based on a claim “arising under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States, ” the case is “removable without regard to the citizenship or residence of the parties.” Id. § 1441(b).[2]

The “‘presence or absence of federal-question jurisdiction is governed by the “well-pleaded complaint rule, ” which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff’s properly pleaded complaint.’” Rivet v. Regions Bank of La., 522 U.S. 470, 475 (1998) (citation omitted). In the event that a defendant contends that a plaintiff’s state claims arise under federal law, the defendant may assert “federal” or “ordinary” preemption “as a defense to the allegations in a plaintiff’s complaint.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). But, it is “settled law that a case may not be removed to federal court on the basis of a federal defense, including the defense of pre-emption, even if the defense is anticipated in the plaintiff’s complaint, and even if both parties concede that the federal defense is the only question truly at issue.” Id. at 393 (emphasis added). Put another way, the “existence of a federal defense normally does not create statutory ‘arising under’ jurisdiction, and ‘a defendant may not [generally] remove a case to federal court unless the plaintiff’s complaint establishes that the case “arises under” federal law.’” Aetna Health, Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 207 (2004) (alteration and emphasis in original) (internal citations omitted).

Complete preemption, which does create federal removal jurisdiction, is distinct from the defense of federal preemption. The Supreme Court has explained: “When [a] federal statute completely pre-empts [a] state-law cause of action, a claim which comes within the scope of that cause of action, even if pleaded in terms of state law, is in reality based on federal law.” Beneficial Nat’l Bank v. Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 8 (2003) (emphasis added).[3] Therefore, federal question jurisdiction is satisfied “when a federal statute wholly displaces the state-law cause of action through complete pre-emption.” Id. (emphasis added); see also Vaden v. Discover Bank, 556 U.S. 49, 61 (2009); Davila, 542 U.S. at 207–08.

To remove an action on the basis of complete preemption, “a removing defendant must show not only that the defendant’s state law claim is cognizable as a federal claim, but also that Congress clearly intended the federal claim to ‘provide the exclusive cause of action for claims of overwhelming national interest’” Barbour v. Intern. Union, 640 F.3d 599, 631 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (emphasis in original) (citation and quotation marks omitted), abrogated on other grounds by 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(2)(B). Complete preemption is a jurisdictional doctrine that “‘converts an ordinary state common law complaint into one stating a federal claim, ’ and the federal claim is deemed to appear on the face of the complaint.” Pinney v. Nokia, Inc., 402 F.3d 430, 449 (4th ...


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