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ZRM v. Hoop

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

April 19, 2017

ZRM, A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HER GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND, LUCILLE MITCHELL PLAINTIFF
v.
JERRY HOOP; BOBBY SAVAGE; FRED'S, INC.; FRED'S STORES OF TENNESSEE, INC.; FRED'S STORES OF MISSISSIPPI, INC.; SUZUKI MOTOR OF AMERICA, INC.; JOHN DOES 1-10; AND ABC CORPORATIONS 1-10 DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         This matter comes before the Court on plaintiff Lucille Mitchell's ("Mitchell") motion to remand this case to the Circuit Court of Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, and to stay all proceedings pending resolution of the motion to remand [14]. Further, the plaintiff moves the Court for an order requiring payment of just costs and any actual expenses, including attorney fees, incurred as a result of the removal, as well as sanctions against opposing counsel and defendant Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. ("SMAI") for improperly removing this action. SMAI has responded in opposition to the motion [17], and the plaintiff has filed a rebuttal [20]. The Court, having considered the submissions of the parties and relevant case law, concludes that Mitchell's motion to remand is well taken and should be granted. However, the Court finds that Mitchell's request for sanctions and costs should be denied.

         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Mitchell filed this action in state court alleging the wrongful death of her daughter, Steffie Renee Mitchell, as a result of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on June 14, 2013.

         Mitchell asserts that the accident was caused by the negligence of defendants Bobby Savage, Jerry Hoop, Fred's, Inc., Fred's Stores of Mississippi, Inc., and Fred's Stores of Tennessee, Inc. (collectively hereinafter "Fred's"). Mitchell further alleges that the accident was caused by the negligence of defendant SMAI and by the defective conditions of SMAI's product. Mitchell seeks compensatory, estate, and punitive damages.

         The parties dispute exactly how the collision occurred. Jerry Hoop, the defendant truck driver, was not cited by the responding police officer for any driving violations, and the Crash Report indicated "No Apparent Improper Driving" on the part of Hoop and stated that he was driving "at a slow rate of speed due to traffic conditions." Hoop also maintains that he was required to travel at a slow rate of speed due to heavy traffic conditions when Steffie Mitchell's motorcycle collided into the rear of his truck. The deceased's brother, Stefon Mitchell, was operating his motorcycle behind Steffie Mitchell and alleges that Hoop merged his 18-wheeler in front of the motorcyclists without using a turn signal and then "slam[ed] on breaks out of nowhere." Moreover, Stefon Mitchell admits that the brake lights did light up, but claims that Hoop did not have his hazard lights on, nor did he use any other warnings to signal his sudden stop.

         Jerry Hoop is the only defendant in this matter who is a resident of Mississippi. Plaintiff Mitchell alleges that Jerry Hoop, while acting in the scope of his duties as an employee for Bobby Savage and Fred's, negligently failed to operate his commercial vehicle at a safe speed, maintain the vehicle under reasonable control, maintain proper lookout, avoid the accident, or warn of unreasonably unsafe conditions. Mitchell alleges that all of Hoop's negligent acts were at least substantial contributing causes of the accident and the subsequent death of Steffie Renee Mitchell.

         SMAI removed the suit to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a). SMAI argues that this Court has original jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, and 1446(b)(1) because complete diversity of citizenship exists between the properly joined and served parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs. Further, SMAI contends that the citizenship of defendant Jerry Hoop should be ignored because he is fraudulently joined in this action. In response, Mitchell moved to remand the case to state court, arguing that Hoop is a properly joined defendant. Mitchell contends that there is not complete diversity between the parties and, therefore, this Court does not have original jurisdiction over the case.

         B. Standard for Remand

         Federal courts have original jurisdiction over all civil cases when the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interests and costs, and the matter is between citizens of different states. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). "[A]ny 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 or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending." 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a).

         After removal, a plaintiff may move to remand the action to state court, and "[i]f at any time before the final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded." 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). The party seeking to remove the case to federal court bears the burden of establishing that federal jurisdiction exists and removal was proper. Manguno v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 276 F.3d 720, 723 (5th Cir. 2002). Furthermore, "[a]ny ambiguities are construed against removal because the removal statute should be strictly construed in favor of remand." Id. (citing Acuna v. Brown & Root, Inc., 200 F.3d 335, 339 (5th Cir. 2000)).

         C. Discussion

         (i) Fraudulent Joinder

         In cases arising under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), the "presence in the action of a single plaintiff from the same State as a single defendant deprives the district court of original diversity jurisdiction over the entire action." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 553-54, 125 S.Ct. 2611, 2617-18, 162 L.Ed.2d 502 (2005) (citing Owen Equipment & Erection Co. v. Kroger, 437 U.S. 365, 375, 98 S.Ct. 2396, 57 L.Ed.2d 274 (1978)). If a case is removed to a federal forum based on diversity jurisdiction and all of the non-diverse defendants have been improperly joined, then the defendant is, nonetheless, entitled to remove the case. Smallwood v. Illinois Cent. R.R., 385 F.3d 568, 572-73 (5th Cir. 2004).

         In determining whether fraudulent joinder exists, courts may consider "summary judgment-type evidence such as affidavits and deposition testimony." Hart v. Bayer Corp.,199 F.3d 239, 247 (5th Cir. 2000). The district court should also consider the entire record and the status of discovery in its determination. Travis v. Irby,326 F.3d 644, 649 (5th Cir. 2003). Further, the court may also "pierce the pleadings" by referring to controlling state law to determine whether the joinder was fraudulent. Keating v. Shell Chem. Co., 610 F.2d 328, 331 (5th Cir. 1980). The Fifth Circuit, however, frequently cautions against "pretrying a case to determine removal jurisdiction." Carriere v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.,893 F.2d 98, 100 (5th Cir. 1990). "In evaluating fraudulent joinder claims, [courts] ...


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