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Ndzerre v. Liberty Power Corp., LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 12, 2018

HABAKUK NDZERRE, On his behalf and on behalf of a class of similarly situated persons Plaintiffs,
v.
LIBERTY POWER CORP., LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paula Xinis United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff HABAKUK NDZERRE's motion to remand this action to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland, ECF No. 18, and Defendant LIBERTY POWER CORP., LLC's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, ECF No. 17. The motion to remand is fully briefed, and the Court rules under Loc. R. 105.6 because a hearing is not necessary. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Ndzerre's motion and remands this case to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland for further proceedings. The Court denies Defendant's motion to dismiss as moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 19, 2017, Plaintiff Habakuk Ndzerre (“Ndzerre”) filed this action in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland (“Montgomery County Circuit Court”). In the Complaint, Ndzerre asserts individual and class claims against Defendant Liberty Power Corp. LLC (“Liberty Power”) under the Maryland Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act, the Maryland Door-to-Door Sales Act, and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act. The Complaint also asserts common law claims for unjust enrichment. See ECF No. 2. The claims stem from Liberty Power's alleged practice of signing up consumers for electricity service without the consumer's knowledge or consent, a practice known as “slamming.” Id. at ¶ 2, 4. Specifically, Ndzerre alleges that Liberty Power used pre-printed forms and disclosures to “slam” consumers with its services, and forged Ndzerre's signature on a pre-printed form. Id. at ¶¶ 22-26. Ndzerre further alleges that Liberty Power provided him with a renewal notice that did not comply with Maryland law. Id. at ¶¶ 30-32. Ndzerre previously obtained a ruling in his favor regarding one or more of these claims from the Maryland Public Service Commission. Id. at ¶ 33.

         The Complaint proposes two classes: a “Slamming Class, ” consisting of persons in the State of Maryland that were solicited by Liberty Power with pre-printed, legally insufficient forms, and an “Improper Renewal Class, ” comprised of “members for whom Liberty Power automatically renewed for its electrical supply services but [] failed to specify the specific renewal date.” Id. at ¶¶ 37-38. All claims in the Complaint are brought for Ndzerre individually and on behalf of one or both of the proposed classes. See generally ECF No. 2.

         On February 14, 2018, Liberty Power timely removed the case to this Court, asserting jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), “due to diversity of citizenship of the parties and an amount in controversy that exceeds the jurisdictional amount.” ECF No. 1 at ¶ 2. Liberty Power then moved to dismiss the claims. ECF No. 17. On March 7, 2018, Ndzerre, individually and on behalf of the putative classes, moved to remand the case to Montgomery County Circuit Court. ECF No. 18. The Court stayed briefing on Defendant's motion to dismiss pending the resolution of the remand motion. ECF No. 23.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         State court actions which originally could have been filed in federal court may be removed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Caterpillar v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987); Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chemicals Company, Inc., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994). A defendant seeking removal “shall file in the district court of the United States . . . a notice of removal signed pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and containing a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal, together with a copy of all process, pleading, and orders served upon such defendant or defendants in such action.” 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a). A notice of removal is not required “to meet a higher pleading standard than the one imposed on a plaintiff in drafting an initial complaint.” Ellenburg v. Spartan Motors Chassis, Inc., 519 F.3d 192, 200 (4th Cir. 2008). However, “[i]f a plaintiff files suit in state court and the defendant seeks to adjudicate the matter in federal court, through removal, it is the defendant who carries the burden of alleging in his notice of removal, and if challenged, demonstrating the court's jurisdiction over the matter.” Strawn v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 530 F.3d 293, 297 (4th Cir. 2008) (citing Ellenburg, 519 F.3d at 200). Removal statutes are strictly construed, and all doubts are resolved in favor of remanding the case to state court. See Md. Stadium Auth. v. Ellerbe Becket, Inc., 407 F.3d 255, 260 (4th Cir. 2005).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Liberty Power solely invokes diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a).[1] “A defendant seeking to remove a class action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) must allege (1) diversity of citizenship between the named plaintiff and the defendant, and (2) that the “matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000 exclusive of interest and costs” for at least one member of the putative class.” Covert v. Automotive Credit Corp., 968 F.Supp.2d 746, 751 (D. Md. 2013) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Accordingly, the Court must determine whether, at the time the Complaint was filed, the facts as alleged in the Complaint establish diversity jurisdiction for the class.[2] Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections v. Schacht, 524 U.S. 381, 390 (1998). Defendants invoking § 1332(a) cannot aggregate class members' damages to meet the $ 75, 000 amount in controversy requirement. See Covert, 968 F.Supp.2d at 751 (citing Exxon Mobil Corp v. Allapattah Serv., 545 U.S. 546 (2005)). Where, as here, “‘a plaintiff's complaint does not allege a specific amount in damages, ' a different standard applies: the proponent of jurisdiction must ‘prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum.” Martin v. Martin, No. ELH-16-1732, 2016 WL 3362662, at *4 (D. Md. June 16, 2016) (citing Momin v. Maggiemoo's Int'l, LLC, 205 F.Supp.2d 506, 510 (D. Md. 2002); see also Covert, 968 F.Supp.2d at 751 (“[I]f a plaintiff files suit in state court and the defendant seeks to adjudicate the matter in federal court, through removal, it is the defendant who carries the burden of alleging in his notice of removal, and if challenged, demonstrating the court's jurisdiction over the matter.' ”) (citing Strawn, 540 F.3d at 297).

         It is undisputed that the parties are diverse in state citizenship. The parties vigorously disagree, however, about whether the amount-in-controversy exceeds $75, 000. See ECF Nos. 18, 24, 25. Id. Liberty Power argues that the Complaint “plainly alleges damages on behalf of the Plaintiff in excess of $75, 000.” ECF No. 24 at 1; see also ECF No. 2 at ¶ 5. The relevant paragraphs of the Complaint read:

. “WHEREFORE, Named Plaintiff and Slamming Class members pray that this Court: . . . Grant a money judgment and order Defendant Liberty Power to disgorge and pay to the Slamming Class members all amounts it has collected from the Slamming Class members and the benefits it has realized as a result of collecting illegal sums based upon improper disclosures in a sum in excess of $75, 000.00; .
WHEREFORE, Named Plaintiff and Improper Renewal Class members pray that this Court: . . . Grant a money judgment and order Defendant Liberty Power[ ] to disgorge and pay to the Improper Renewal Class members the benefits it has realized as a result of its improper renewals in violation of Md. Code. Regs 20.53.07.08(D)(1) a sum in excess of $75, 000.00; .
WHEREFORE, Named Plaintiff and Slamming Class Members pray that this Court: . . . Grant a money judgment in favor of the Named Plaintiff and the Slamming Class members and against Liberty Power for violations of the Door to Door Sales Act, as described herein, in such amount to be determined at trial and for purposes of a sum certain directly related to improper assessment of charges and fees by Liberty Power against the Named Plaintiffs and Slamming Class utility accounts, subject to ...

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