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Roberson v. McDonald Transit Associates, Inc.

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

June 20, 2017




         This cause comes before the Court on defendant McDonald Transit Associates, Inc.'s (“McDonald”) Objection and Motion to Appeal Magistrate Judge's Decision [31]. Plaintiff Carrol D. Roberson (“Roberson”) filed a response. The Court has reviewed the arguments made by the parties, along with relevant evidence and authorities, and is now prepared to rule.

         The Oxford University Transit System (“OUT”) operates multiple shuttle buses that travel throughout Oxford, Mississippi, providing transportation services to the public. Roberson, a student at the University of Mississippi, frequently rides the OUT buses. McDonald is under contract with the City of Oxford and the University of Mississippi to provide management and oversight of OUT. This action is based upon two separate events involving Roberson and the OUT system.

         The first alleged incident occurred on July 30, 2013. Roberson alleges that while he was attempting to board an OUT bus, the bus driver-Calvin Hill (“Hill”)-“slammed the bus doors against [him] seizing him between the doors and then quickly opened the doors causing [him] to fall upon the steps[.]” Roberson alleges that he “suffered spinal trauma, cuts, and bruises.” Roberson states that prior to this incident, he had submitted several complaints to Ron Biggs- the Vice President of McDonald and Hill's supervisor-concerning traffic violations that Hill had committed. On July 28, 2014, Roberson filed a pro se complaint in this Court against McDonald, alleging that it was liable for the negligence of Hill.

         Despite the pendency of that suit, Roberson continued to utilize the OUT system and alleges that on March 26, 2015, he “was riding as a passenger aboard an OUT bus . . . when he was tripped and kicked several times by an intoxicated passenger who then got off the bus and ran away.” Roberson avers that he again suffered spinal trauma, cuts, and bruises, and was required to undergo two spinal surgeries “as the result of the July 30, 2013 incident, combined with the March 26, 2015 incident[.]” On June 2, 2016, Roberson filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss without prejudice his initial lawsuit pending in this Court. Senior Judge Biggers, the presiding judge in that case, granted Roberson's request, and his suit was dismissed without prejudice. Shortly thereafter, on July 20, 2016, Roberson filed the present action, in which he sets forth largely the same facts concerning the July 2013 incident but added allegations concerning the March 2015 incident. In his pro se complaint, he asserts that McDonald was grossly negligent as to both incidents and requests judgment in the amount of $200, 000, together with interests and costs.[1]

         On December 13, 2016, Roberson filed a motion to amend his complaint so that he could add Ron Biggs and Oxford Transit Management, Inc. (“OTM”) as defendants. As stated by Roberson, Biggs served as a corporate executive for OTM, which is a subsidiary of McDonald and was directly responsible for oversight of OUT. Thus, Roberson now alleges that Biggs, OTM, and McDonald are vicariously liable for Hill's conduct. In addition to filing a motion to dismiss Roberson's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), McDonald filed a response in opposition to Roberson's motion to amend. In its response, McDonald states that the addition of OTM and Biggs would destroy diversity jurisdiction, as both OTM and Biggs, like McDonald, are Mississippi citizens.

         On January 30, 2017, Magistrate Judge Percy issued an order requesting additional briefing from the parties, ordering them to address the issue of whether OTM and Biggs were indispensable parties at the time the complaint was filed. The parties complied, and Judge Percy issued an order granting the motion to amend on February 14, 2017. In his order, Judge Percy, relying largely upon the United States Supreme Court's decision in Freeport-McMoran, Inc. v. KN Energy, Inc., 498 U.S. 426 (1991), held that OTM and Biggs were not indispensable parties at the time the suit was filed and, therefore, the addition of them to the action would not destroy complete diversity. Roberson filed his amended complaint the following day.

         On February 20, 2017, McDonald filed the present motion, appealing Judge Percy's decision under Rule 72(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Rule 72(a)(1) of the Local Uniform Civil Rules. It argues that Roberson should not have been permitted to amend his complaint and that Judge Percy erred on multiple grounds in his order granting the motion to amend.

         A district judge's review of an order issued by a magistrate judge is governed by Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Regarding non-dispositive matters, “[t]he district judge in the case must consider timely objections and modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). Moreover, “[i]n reviewing such an order, the district court must find that the magistrate judge's order is ‘clearly erroneous or contrary to law.' Absent such a finding, an order by the magistrate judge should be upheld.” Brinston v. Dunn, 919 F.Supp. 240, 242 (S.D.Miss. 1996).

         As mentioned above, Judge Percy relied heavily on Freeport-McMoRan in making his ruling, specifically stating:

In Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. v. KN Energy, Inc., 498 U.S. 426, 428 (1991), the district court allowed the substitution of a non-diverse plaintiff and, after a bench trial, held in favor of the plaintiffs. The court of appeals held that although complete diversity was present when the complaint was filed, the addition of the non-diverse plaintiff destroyed jurisdiction, and as such the court of appeals reversed and directed that the suit be dismissed for want of jurisdiction. Freeport-McMoRan, Inc., 498 U.S. at 428. On review, the Supreme Court noted the “well-established rule that diversity of citizenship is assessed at the time the action is filed” and that “such jurisdiction may not be divested by subsequent events.” Id. Noting further that the added non-diverse plaintiff “was not an ‘indispensable' party at the time the complaint was filed, ” the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals. Id. at 428-29.
With respect to the rule that jurisdiction is assessed at the time an action is filed, the Fifth Circuit has interpreted the Freeport-McMoRan decision as acknowledging an exception to the rule where the added non-diverse party “was an indispensable party at the time the action was filed.” Whalen v. Carter, 954 F.2d 1087, 1096 (5th Cir. 1992) (emphasis in original). Under Freeport-McMoran, an indispensable party's citizenship “is an appropriate factor in the ‘complete diversity' calculus even though the [party] was added as a party after the action was filed.” Whalen, 954 F.2d at 1096. “In other words, the Court in Freeport McMoRan concluded that the addition of a nondiverse party does not defeat diversity jurisdiction unless the party was indispensable at the time the plaintiff filed its complaint.” Id.

         Applying this authority to the case at hand, Judge Percy held that “[t]he court is not convinced that either [OTM] or Biggs are indispensable parties.” Therefore, Roberson was permitted to amend his complaint to add them as defendants.

         In the present motion, McDonald asserts four specific arguments of error: (1) that Judge Percy erred in applying Rule 19(b); (2) that the burden was erroneously placed on it, rather than Roberson, to establish that OTM and Biggs are indispensable parties; (3) that Judge Percy interpreted Freeport-McMoran too broadly; and (4) that granting the motion to amend is ...

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