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Stratton v. Nationwide Solutions LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 27, 2018

BESSIE STRATTON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
NATIONWIDE SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          JAMES K. BREDAR CHIEF JUDGE

         This case arises out of a multi-fatality automobile accident. Plaintiffs, family members of the decedents, have asserted claims of negligence and wrongful death against multiple Defendants: Yvenet Mayette, the driver of the tractor-trailer involved in the accident; Nationwide Solutions, LLC, Mayette's employer and owner of the tractor-trailer; Bridge Transport Co. Inc., Blue Marlin Logistics, LLC, and Blue Marlin Logistics Group, Inc., the alleged brokers of the transportation agreement covering the shipment Mayette was transporting; and Stein Fibers, Ltd., the shipper whose products were being transported by Mayette. (Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 29, 35, 64, ECF No. 20.) Defendants removed the case from the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to federal court on December 1, 2017. (Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1.) While considering the parties' motions, the Court identified an apparent defect in federal subject matter jurisdiction and directed any party asserting that the Court nonetheless retained jurisdiction to submit briefs to that effect. (Letter Order, Aug. 21, 2018, ECF No. 59.) Stein Fibers, the sole non-diverse defendant, submitted a brief in support of jurisdiction. (Stein Mem. in Supp. Subject Matter Jurisdiction, ECF No. 60 [“Stein S.M.J. Mem.”].)

         “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, 93 (2010). Therefore, the Court need not await a party's motion to inquire into the basis of its subject matter jurisdiction. No. hearing is required. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons set forth below, this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, the case will be remanded to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges that, on January 10, 2015, a car driven by Zarissa Ayres and a tractor-trailer driven by Defendant Mayette were involved in a highway collision in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. (Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 24, 29-30.) According to the Complaint, Zarissa Ayres, who was eight months pregnant at the time, and four passengers, Jordan Nicole Ayres, Jonathan Stratton-Ayres, Travis Stratton, and Regina Ayres, all died as a result of injuries sustained in the collision. (Id. at ¶ 31; see also Id. at ¶ 13.)

         Plaintiffs, individually and in their respective capacities as administrators of the decedents' estates, filed an Original Complaint on September 26, 2017. (Case Docket at 1, Ex. 1 to Stein Mot. Dismiss Compl., ECF No. 12-1.) It alleged seven counts against Defendants: negligence, against Mayette (Count I); negligent entrustment and maintenance, against Nationwide (Count II); negligent hiring, training, retention, and supervision, against Nationwide (Count III); negligent hiring, monitoring, and retention, against Bridge Transport, both Blue Marlin entities, and Stein Fibers (Count IV); agency liability for the allegedly negligent acts of Mayette and Nationwide, against Bridge Transport, both Blue Marlin entities, and Stein Fibers (Count V); and wrongful death, against all defendants (Counts VI and VII). (Compl. at 7-23, ECF No. 2.)

         On November 11, 2017, Plaintiffs amended their complaint. (Case Docket at 3.) The Amended Complaint added one new Plaintiff, Brian Stone, the father of Zarissa Ayres's unborn child. (Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 13-14.) It also added counts on his behalf related to the death of the unborn child. (Id. at ¶¶ 31, 85-98.)

         According to the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs Bessie Stratton, Leon Ayres, and Zanetta Ayres are residents of Virginia (id. at ¶¶ 1, 8-9); Plaintiff Gregory Cobb is a resident of Maryland (id. at ¶ 3); and Plaintiff Brian Stone is a resident of New York (id. at ¶ 13). According to the Amended Complaint, Defendant Mayette is a foreign national and resident of Delaware (id. at ¶ 17); Defendant Nationwide is an Illinois limited liability corporation (id. at ¶ 16); Defendants Bridge Transport and both Blue Marlin entities are corporate residents of Georgia (id. at ¶¶ 18-20); and Defendant Stein Fibers is a New York corporation (id. at ¶ 21).

         On December 1, 2017, after Plaintiffs had filed their Amended Complaint, but before it was served on all Defendants, Defendants removed the case to federal court, relying on the Original Complaint and purporting diversity jurisdiction. (Notice of Removal at ¶ 3; see also Case Docket at 3 (docketing a request to reissue summons as to the Amended Complaint on November 30, 2017, but no entries indicating service of process prior to the Notice of Removal).) Approximately six weeks after removal, counsel for Defendants alerted the Court to the existence of the Amended Complaint, and it was docketed accordingly. (Correspondence re Am. Compl., Jan. 19, 2018, ECF No. 17.) During the months following removal, the parties filed various motions. (See Stein Mot. Dismiss Compl., ECF No. 11 [“Stein First Mot. Dismiss”]; Pl. Mot. Amend, ECF No. 25; Joint Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 27 (filed by Defendants Mayette and Nationwide); Stein Mot. Dismiss Am. Compl., ECF No. 37.) However, none of these motions, and none of the briefs filed in support or opposition to them, raised the question of subject matter jurisdiction.

         On August 21, 2018, the Court alerted the parties that complete diversity appeared to be lacking, because Plaintiff Stone was alleged to be a New York resident and Defendant Stein Fibers was alleged to be a New York corporation. (Letter Order at 1.) The Court ordered any party arguing in support of federal subject matter jurisdiction to submit briefs to that effect. (Id. at 2.) Defendant Stein Fibers filed a brief in support of the Court's jurisdiction. (Stein S.M.J. Mem. at 1.) Stein Fibers does not dispute the lack of diversity between itself and Plaintiff Stone, but, rather, argues that it was fraudulently joined. (Id.) Accordingly, Stein Fibers argues that this Court should retain jurisdiction under the doctrine of fraudulent joinder and dismiss the claims against it, after which, all remaining parties would be diverse. (Id.) No. other party submitted a brief in support of the Court's jurisdiction.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute, which is not to be expanded by judicial decree.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994) (citations omitted); see also Wheeling Hosp., Inc. v. Health Plan of Upper Ohio Valley, Inc., 638 F.3d 577, 583-84 (4th Cir. 2012). Federal courts must “presume ‘that a cause lies outside [its] limited jurisdiction, . . . and the burden of establishing the contrary rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction.'” Barbour v. Int'l Union, 640 F.3d 599, 605 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (quoting Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377), superseded on other grounds by 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(2)(B).

         An action brought in a state court may be removed to federal court only if the district court would have had original jurisdiction over it. See 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). The primary bases of the federal courts' original subject matter jurisdiction are federal question jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and diversity jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. § 1332. “If at any time before final judgment it appears ...


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