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Pajotte v. Pajotte

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 27, 2018

Denise Pajotte
v.
Lynette Pajotte, et al.

          ORDER

          Timothy J. Sullivan United States Magistrate Judge.

         Dear Counsel:

         On January 16, 2018, Judge Chuang referred this case to me for all proceedings pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 301.4. (ECF No. 86.) A number of motions are currently pending before the Court and ripe for disposition. This letter opinion addresses the following motions: Plaintiff Denise Pajotte's (“Pajotte”) Motion to Remand to State Court (ECF No. 111); Pajotte's Motion for Voluntary Dismissal (ECF No. 99); Pajotte's Motion for Leave to File Fourth Amended Complaint (ECF No. 91); Defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (“WMATA”) Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 66); Defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's (“MetLife”) Motion to Dismiss Count One of the Third Amended Complaint (ECF No. 49); MetLife's Motion to Strike the Third Amended Complaint (ECF No. 47); Defendant Lynette Pajotte and the Estate of Tyson C. Pajotte's (collectively, the “Estate Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 45); Pajotte's Motion for Leave to Modify the Scheduling Order (ECF No. 41); Pajotte's Motion for Leave to File Motion for Extension of Time (ECF No. 39); Pajotte's Motion for Leave to Join Parties (ECF No. 37); and MetLife's Motion to Dismiss Second Amended Complaint (ECF No. 34). Having considered the submissions of the parties, I find that a hearing is unnecessary. See Loc. R. 105.6.

         The facts of this case are straightforward but its procedural history is convoluted. Pajotte initiated this lawsuit by filing a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment (“Complaint”) (ECF No. 2) against Lynette Pajotte (“Lynette”) in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Maryland, on November 9, 2016. The Complaint sought a declaratory judgment as to the “rights and liabilities of the parties with respect to the allocation of proceeds” from two life insurance policies held by Tyson C. Pajotte (“Tyson”), Pajotte's former husband and the current husband of Lynette at the time of his death. (Id.) The Complaint also sought a declaration regarding the legality of the marriage between Tyson and Lynette. (Id.) Pajotte filed an Amended Complaint (ECF No. 10) on January 10, 2017. She did not obtain leave from the Circuit Court to file her Amended Complaint.

         Pajotte filed a Second Amended Complaint (ECF No. 27) on August 14, 2017. Again, Pajotte did not obtain leave from the Circuit Court to file the Second Amended Complaint. The Second Amended Complaint added MetLife as a defendant.[1] MetLife filed a Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint (ECF No. 34). In that motion, MetLife argued that the Second Amended Complaint must be dismissed because Pajotte “affirmatively waived her right to collect proceeds under Tyson's insurance policy in the Separation Agreement executed upon her divorce from Tyson.” (Id. at 1.)

         In lieu of responding to the substance of MetLife's Motion to Dismiss, on October 19, 2017, Pajotte filed a Third Amended Complaint (ECF No. 36) and a related Motion for Leave to Join Parties (ECF No. 37).[2] The Third Amended Complaint added WMATA and Reliastar Life Insurance Company (“Reliastar”) as defendants and added several additional counts against the existing defendants. The Estate Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment as to the Third Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 45.) Pajotte did not respond to the Estate Defendants' motion. MetLife filed a Motion to Strike the Third Amended Complaint (ECF No. 47) because Pajotte filed it without first obtaining leave of the Circuit Court, as required by Maryland Rule 2-341. MetLife also filed a Motion to Dismiss Count One of the Third Amended Complaint (ECF No. 49), which Pajotte opposed (ECF No. 60). WMATA removed the case to this Court on December 14, 2017, pursuant to WMATA Compact, Md. Code, Transp. 10-204(81). (ECF No. 61.) Once the case was removed to this Court, WMATA filed a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 66). Initially, Pajotte opposed WMATA's motion (see ECF No. 72), but she now consents to the relief that WMATA seeks (see ECF No. 110).

         On December 27, 2017, Pajotte filed a Fourth Amended Complaint without obtaining leave of Court. On January 12, 2018, her Fourth Amended Complaint was stricken from the record. (ECF No. 84.) Pajotte filed a Motion for Leave to File Fourth Amended Complaint (ECF No. 91) on January 26, 2018, but she no longer wishes to pursue the relief sought in that motion (see ECF No. 109). On March 26, 2018, Pajotte filed a Motion for Voluntary Dismissal (ECF No. 99). In a July 12, 2018, Letter Order (ECF No. 104), the Court stated the conditions under which it would allow Pajotte to voluntarily dismiss her claims, but Pajotte rejected those conditions. Accordingly, the Court denied her motion for voluntary dismissal. (ECF No. 106.) On July 31, 2018, Pajotte filed a Motion to Remand to State Court (ECF No. 111), which MetLife opposes (ECF No. 113.)

         I. Pajotte's Motion for Voluntary Dismissal (ECF No. 99)

         On March 26, 2018, Pajotte filed a Motion for Voluntary Dismissal Without Prejudice or in the Alternative to Remand to State Court. (ECF No. 99.) After considering the submissions of the parties (ECF Nos. 99, 100 & 101), the Court entered an order stating the terms under which it would be inclined to allow Pajotte to voluntarily dismiss the case. (ECF No. 104.) Pajotte declined to accept the Court's terms for voluntary dismissal (ECF No. 105), so the Court entered an order denying Pajotte's motion for voluntary dismissal “for reasons to be stated in a forthcoming opinion.” (ECF No. 106.) The Court's reasons for denying Pajotte's motion for voluntary dismissal are as follows.

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(2), a court may grant a plaintiff's request to dismiss an action, but only “on terms that the court considers proper.” Rule 41(a)(2)'s purpose “is freely to allow voluntary dismissals unless the parties will be unfairly prejudiced.” Davis v. USX Corp., 819 F.2d 1270, 1273 (4th Cir. 1987). “To that end, the rule ‘permits the district court to impose conditions on voluntary dismissal to obviate any prejudice to the defendants which may otherwise result from the dismissal without prejudice. The district court must focus primarily on protecting the interests of the defendant.'” Walker v. Trans Union, LLC, No. PWG-16-3926, 2017 WL 4786625, at *2 (D. Md. Oct. 24, 2017) (quoting Davis, 819 F.2d at 1273). A motion for voluntary dismissal will not be granted if it will result in “plain legal prejudice” or “substantial prejudice” to the defendant. Id. (citing Ellett Bros., Inc. v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 275 F.3d 384, 388 (4th Cir. 2001) and Andes v. Versant Corp., 788 F.2d 1033, 1036 (4th Cir. 1986)). In considering a motion for voluntary dismissal under Rule 41(a)(2), courts look to a “non-exclusive, multi-factor test.” Id. The factors include “(1) the opposing party's effort and expense in preparing for trial; (2) excessive delay or lack of diligence on the part of the movant; (3) insufficient explanation of the need for a dismissal; and (4) the present stage of litigation, i.e., whether a motion for summary judgment is pending.” Wilson v. Eli Lilly & Co., 222 F.R.D. 99, 100 (D. Md. 2004).

         The first factor, the defendants' effort and expense in preparing for trial, weighs against granting Pajotte's motion for voluntary dismissal. See Howard v. Inova Health Care Servs., 302 Fed.Appx. 166, 179 (4th Cir. 2008) (noting that the Fourth Circuit has found “on multiple occasions that a district court does not abuse its discretion in denying a motion for voluntary dismissal if the case has advanced to the summary judgment stage and the parties have incurred substantial costs in discovery”). This case has been pending for more than 21 months from the time that it was filed in the Circuit Court. Before the case was removed to this Court, the parties had filed and briefed a motion for summary judgment and two motions to dismiss. The parties filed a pretrial conference report on May 16, 2017, and the case was scheduled to proceed to trial on January 8, 2018, which was just days before the case was removed to this Court. Allowing Pajotte to voluntary dismiss the case at this late stage would prejudice the defendants because the litigation would start again, in a different forum in state court, even after the defendants had spent nearly two years in litigation. Defendants state that they “have incurred great expenses in defending against Plaintiff's six proposed complaints in this case.”[3] (ECF No. 100 at 5.) Pajotte's practice of repeatedly filing amended complaints-sometimes without seeking leave of Court to do so-after the other parties have filed dispositive motions increased the burden on the defendants. It would be unfair to allow Pajotte to dismiss the case after the defendants have spent so long defending it, only for her to refile the case in another forum.

         The second factor, excessive delay or lack of diligence on the part of the movant, also weighs against granting the motion for voluntary dismissal. Pajotte has attempted to amend her complaint numerous times, and in some instances has attempted to file another amended complaint before a previous request for leave to amend was ruled upon. The facts underlying Pajotte's claims are not complex. It is unclear why Pajotte has taken such a scattershot approach to this litigation. The Court does not find that Pajotte has acted in bad faith, but does find that Pajotte has caused excessive delay due to a lack of diligence in this case. Had Pajotte performed a thorough legal and factual investigation into her claims, rather than attempting to amend her complaint every time a new fact or legal problem came to her attention, this litigation would have proceeded in a more routine and orderly fashion.

         The third factor, insufficient explanation of the need for a dismissal, also weighs against granting Pajotte's motion. Pajotte argues that the case should be dismissed so that she can refile the lawsuit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland, which she believes is the “proper” jurisdiction under the terms of the Separation and Property Settlement Agreement (“Separation Agreement”). (ECF No. 99 at 8-9.) But Pajotte chose to file this case initially in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. She did this even though the Separation Agreement, which she attached to her initial complaint, specifically stated that “the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland, shall at all time[s] retain jurisdiction” for matters related to the Separation Agreement.”[4] (ECF No. 2-1 at 22.) Because Pajotte should have known of this provision at the time that she filed her initial complaint in this case, the Court cannot allow her to now use it as a reason that the case must be dismissed so that it can be refiled in a different Circuit Court almost two years later.[5]

         The fourth factor, the present stage of the litigation, also weighs against granting Pajotte's motion. This case was removed to this Court when it was nearly ready for trial. Since the time of its removal, the defendants have filed and briefed several dispositive motions. Allowing Pajotte to voluntary dismiss the case at such a late stage would be prejudicial to the defendants.

         The Court's letter order of July 12, 2018, was its attempt to reasonably fashion proper terms under which Pajotte could voluntarily dismiss the case. These terms were an attempt at ensuring that the claims against MetLife and WMATA, which have no merit, would not be filed again in state court, and that the Estate Defendants would be reimbursed for the attorney's fees they incurred since the case was removed to this Court, where Pajotte's lack of diligence likely caused them to incur unnecessary expenses. By rejecting those terms, which the Court found to be the only proper terms for a voluntary dismissal, Pajotte left this Court with no choice but to deny her Motion for Voluntary Dismissal (ECF No. 99).

         II. Pajotte's Motion to Remand to State Court (ECF No. 111)

         On July 31, 2018, after the Court denied Pajotte's Motion for Voluntary Dismissal, she filed a Motion to Remand to State Court (ECF No. 111). In that motion, she stated that in light of her consent to WMATA's motion to dismiss, the case must be remanded to state court because without WMATA as party, the Court lacks federal question jurisdiction. (Id. at 9.) Pajotte is wrong. WMATA removed the case to this Court based on federal question jurisdiction. “[W]hen a defendant removes a case to federal court based on the presence of a federal claim, an amendment eliminating the original basis for federal jurisdiction generally does not defeat jurisdiction.” Rockwell Int'l Corp. v. United States, 549 U.S. 457, 474 n.6 (2007). In cases such as this, courts must “consider and weigh in each case, and at every stage of the litigation, the values of judicial economy, convenience, fairness, and comity in order to decide whether to exercise jurisdiction over a case brought in that court involving pendent state-law claims.” Carnegie-Mellon Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 350 (1988). “When the balance of these factors indicates that a case properly belongs in state court, as when the federal-law claims have dropped out of the lawsuit in its early stages and only state-law claims remain, the federal court should decline the exercise of jurisdiction by dismissing the case without prejudice.” Id.

         Although Pajotte's claim against WMATA will be dismissed for reasons stated in this letter order, the Court finds that it must still exercise jurisdiction over the pendent state-law claims. The Court views Pajotte's motion to remand as a not so subtle effort to prevent this Court from ruling on the merits of the case. Pajotte has long sought to avoid any ruling on the merits, as is evidenced by her repeated filing of amended complaints. This Court has already spent significant time sorting through the history of this litigation and judicial economy would not be meaningfully furthered at this late stage of the litigation by remanding the remaining claims to state court. The facts underlying this case are simple and the prevailing law governing the resolution of the issues in dispute is clear. In addition, it would be prejudicial to the other parties to remand this case to state court at such a late stage of the litigation. For these reasons, Pajotte's Motion to Remand to State Court is DENIED.

         III. Pajotte's Motion for Leave to File Fourth Amended ...


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