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Hooker v. Tunnell Government Services, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

February 14, 2019




         Plaintiff Adrinne Hooker initiated this action in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland alleging Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law, Md. Code § 3-507-2 Lab. & Empl. (MWPCL), and breach of contract claims against Defendant Tunnell Government Services Inc. ECF No. 1-2. She alleges that Defendant violated the MWPCL or breached Plaintiff's employment contract when it terminated her employment rather than allowing her to use paid sick days or apply for short- or long-term disability benefits when she was injured and unable to work. Id. Following removal to this Court, ECF No. 1, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Remand, ECF No. 7. Defendant moved the Court to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, ECF No. 6, and requested leave to amend its Notice of Removal, ECF No. 10. No. hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion to Remand will be denied; Defendant's Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part; and Defendant's Motion for Leave to File Amended Notice of Removal will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         In early 2014, Defendant hired Plaintiff as a senior quality assurance specialist. ECF No. 1-2 ¶ 4. Defendant paid Plaintiff a salary of approximately $100, 000 per year and offered benefits including unlimited sick leave and short- and long-term disability insurance. Id. ¶ 4, 6. Defendant's employee manual mentions these benefits. Id. ¶ 6.

         On March 25, 2015, Plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident. Id. ¶ 5. She then experienced serious and continuing neck and back pain and was unable to work full-time for a period of months. Id. ¶ 5. Around June 15, 2015, Defendant terminated Plaintiff because of her inability to perform work. Id. ¶ 7. At that time, Plaintiff requested that she be allowed to apply for short- and long-term disability. Id. Defendant denied that request. Id. Plaintiff was subsequently unable to find employment for comparable compensation for more than a year. Id. ¶ 8. She claims that she lost more than $100, 000 in income because she was fired and denied the opportunity to apply for disability coverage. Id. ¶ 9.

         On June 13, 2018, Plaintiff filed suit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland alleging state-law claims. ECF No. 1-2. On July 31, 2018, within thirty days of receiving service of the Complaint, Defendant filed a Notice of Removal that relied on federal question and supplemental jurisdiction. ECF No. 1. Specifically, Defendant asserted that Plaintiff's state-law claims for long-term disability benefits raise federal questions because they are subject to complete preemption by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq, ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 2, 6, and that the Court has supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's remaining state-law claims, id. ¶ 16. According to Defendant, Plaintiff's state-law claims for long-term disability benefits are artfully-pled claims to recover benefits due to her under an employee-welfare-benefit plan governed by ERISA. To support this allegation, Defendant points to its Long-Term Disability Plan (the Plan), which was in effect when Plaintiff requested to apply for long-term disability benefits. Id. ¶ 11 (citing ECF No. 1-3 at 5).[2] Under the Plan, a person becomes eligible for insurance when he becomes a member, and “member” is defined as:

Any PERSON (OTHER THAN EXECUTIVE PERSON), residing in the United States, who is a U.S. citizen or is legally working in the United States, who is a fulltime Employee of the Policyholder and who regularly works at least 30 hours a week. Work must be at the Policyholder's usual place or places of business, at an alternative worksite at the direction of the Policyholder, or at another place to which the Employee must travel to perform his or her regular duties . . .

         ECF No. 1-3 at 12, 39. The definition of “Policyholder” includes Defendant. Id. at 42. To apply for long-term disability benefits under the Plan, a member must file “claim forms and other information.” Id. at 28. The Plan specifies that the “Policyholder” is to “provide appropriate claim forms to assist [members] in filing claims.” Id.

         Plaintiff filed a Motion to Remand, arguing that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over her claims because the ERISA-governed Plan was not in effect when Plaintiff was injured in March 2015 although the Plan was in effect when Defendant denied Plaintiff the opportunity to apply for the benefits. ECF No. 7 at 4. Defendant opposed Plaintiff's Motion to Remand, ECF No. 11, and filed a Motion for Leave to Amend Notice of Removal to clarify that its ERISA-governed Plan has been continuously in effect since July 1, 2001 even though it became funded through a new policy effective May 1, 2015, ECF No. 10.

         Based on the same ERISA-preemption argument that supports Defendant's Notice of Removal, Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiff's long-term disability claims. ECF No. 6. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(6), Defendant also moved to dismiss Plaintiff's MWPCL and breach of contract claims for denials of short-term disability and paid-sick leave. Id.


         A. Motion to Remand

          “Under the removal statute, ‘any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant' to federal court.” Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 207 (2004) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) (2012)). This Court has original jurisdiction over claims “arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Ordinarily, a plaintiff's claims “arise under” the laws of the United States, when the allegations in the well-pleaded complaint necessarily alleges a federal claim. 542 U.S. at 207.

         Complete preemption, which “‘converts an ordinary state common law complaint into one stating a federal claim, '” provides an exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule. Darcangelo v. Verizon Commc'ns, Inc., 292 F.3d 181, 187 (4th Cir. 2002) (quoting Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 65 (1987)). “[W]hen complete preemption exists, ‘the plaintiff simply has brought a mislabeled federal claim, which may be asserted under some federal statute.'” Sonoco Prods. Co. v. Physicians Health Plan, Inc., 338 F.3d 366, 371 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting King v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 337 F.3d 421, 425 (4th Cir. 2003)). In these situations, removal is proper “regardless of the ‘label' that the plaintiff has ...

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