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Briggs v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

April 7, 2014

EDDIE J. BRIGGS and, REBECCA BRIGGS Plaintiffs,
v.
STATE FARM FIRE & CASUALTY CO. and J. L. WHITE, JR., Defendants.

ORDER

DANIEL P. JORDAN, III, District Judge.

This removed case is before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion to Remand [6]. Because there is no arguably reasonable basis for predicting that state law might impose liability on J. L. White, Jr., on the facts alleged in the Complaint, the motion to remand is denied.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiffs Eddie J. and Rebecca Briggs owned a home in Kemper County, Mississippi, that was insured under a homeowners policy issued by Defendant State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. The Briggses first purchased their homeowners policy through State Farm agent, Defendant J. L. White, Jr., in or around 1994.[1] Thereafter, the Briggses renewed the policy every year and had coverage in force in 2011. On April 27, 2011, the Briggses' home was struck by a tornado, causing substantial damage to the residence. At the time, the Briggses' policy provided maximum damage coverage of $256, 800.00.

Following the tornado, State Farm claims adjuster Jeff Hill assessed the damage to the Briggses' property and concluded that the home was not a total loss. Hill delivered an estimate to the Briggses indicating that their home sustained damage in the amount of $160, 631.27. The Briggses thereafter hired Wayne Raley, a licensed contractor, to assess the damage to their property. Raley "determined that [the home] could not be repaired for the sum offered by State Farm, " and "determined [the home] was not structurally sound." Compl. [3] ¶ 10. Relying on Raley's advice, the Briggses allowed Kemper County, Mississippi, to demolish and remove what remained of their home. They thereafter submitted a demand to State Farm to consider the home a total loss and remit the policy limits. State Farm denied that request.

The Briggses filed this lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Kemper County, Mississippi, on December 5, 2013. They asserted claims against State Farm for breach of contract and negligence and asserted a fraud claim against both State Farm and White. Believing White was improperly joined to defeat diversity jurisdiction, Defendants removed the case to this Court on January 9, 2014. The Briggses moved to remand, asserting that they have stated a facially plausible claim against White such that the Court lacks diversity jurisdiction. The matters raised in the motion have been fully briefed, and the Court is prepared to rule.

II. Standard

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441, "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 district court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Defendants premise federal jurisdiction on 28 U.S.C. § 1332, under which the district courts have jurisdiction over civil actions between "citizens of different States." 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). The diversity statute requires complete diversity between all named plaintiffs and all named defendants. E.g., Lincoln Prop. Co. v. Roche, 546 U.S. 81, 84 (2005).

The improper joinder rule "is a narrow exception to the rule that diversity jurisdiction requires complete diversity." Smallwood v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 352 F.3d 220, 222 (5th Cir. 2003). To that end, "[t]he burden is on the removing party; and the burden of demonstrating improper joinder is a heavy one." Cuevas v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP, 648 F.3d 242, 249 (5th Cir. 2011). In evaluating a claim of improper joinder, the Court "examine[s] if there is arguably a reasonable basis for predicting that the state law might impose liability on the facts involved." Smallwood, 352 F.3d at 223 (citation omitted and punctuation altered). But "[a] mere theoretical possibility of recovery under local law' will not preclude a finding of improper joinder." Smallwood v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 385 F.3d 568, 573 n.9 (5th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (quoting Badon v. RJR Nabisco, Inc., 236 F.3d 282, 286 n.4 (5th Cir. 2000)).

A district court should ordinarily resolve an improper joinder claim by conducting Rule 12(b)(6)-type analysis. Smallwood, 385 F.3d at 573. The Court assesses "the allegations in a plaintiff's state court pleading." Tedder v. F.M.C. Corp., 590 F.2d 115, 116 (5th Cir. 1979) (citing Pullman Co. v. Jenkins, 305 U.S. 534, 537 (1939)); see also Gardner v. Cooksey, 2:11-cv-255-KS-MTP, 2012 WL 968026, at *2 (S.D.Miss. Mar. 21, 2012) ("This court must refer to the allegations made in the original pleading to determine whether the plaintiff can make out a viable claim against the resident defendant.") (citations omitted). The Court "must then evaluate all of the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, resolving all contested issues of substantive fact in favor of the plaintiff." B., Inc. v. Miller Brewing Co., 663 F.2d 545, 549 (5th Cir. 1981). Similarly, the Court must resolve all ambiguities in controlling state law in the plaintiff's favor. Travis v. Irby, 326 F.3d 644, 649 (5th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). But the plaintiff must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "Conclusory or generic allegations of wrongdoing on the part of the non-diverse defendant are not sufficient to show that the defendant was not improperly joined." Randle v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 338 F.Supp.2d 704, 708 (S.D.Miss. 2004) (citing Badon, 224 F.3d at 392-93).

Finally, "there are cases, hopefully few in number, in which the plaintiff has stated a claim, but has misstated or omitted discrete facts that would determine the propriety of joinder." Smallwood, 385 F.3d at 573. In such cases, the district court has the discretion to "pierce the pleadings" and conduct a summary inquiry. Id.

III. Analysis

Defendants assert that the Briggses' Complaint does not assert a facially plausible claim against White and that any claim against White is time-barred in any event. In their motion to remand, Plaintiffs argue: (1) they have sufficiently pleaded their claim against White but, if not, they could amend the Complaint to comply with Rule 9, (2) the statute of limitations is a common defense, requiring remand under Smallwood, 385 F.3d at 574, and (3) the continuing tort doctrine saves the claim from the time bar. In their rebuttal, they raise the additional argument that the statute of limitations did not begin to run on their fraud claim until State Farm determined that their home was not a total loss. Because the Briggses fail to state a facially plausible claim against White, the Court need not address the limitations issue.

The Briggses argue that their Complaint includes claims of fraud/intentional misrepresentation and "would also be broad enough to include... misrepresentations made as a result of negligence on the part of White." Pls.' Mem. [7] at 4. But a plain reading of the Complaint reveals no negligence allegations against White. Instead, the crux of the Briggses' claim against White, as stated in the Complaint, is that White made one or more intentional ...


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