ERISA allows many removals, but not this one

A medical group sued a payor for underpayments.  The payor removed under ERISA complete preemption, contending that “about 98% of [Plaintiff’s] claims are claims for ERISA plan benefits.”  The district court kept the case and entered judgment for the payor; the Fifth Circuit reversed: “a claim that implicates the rate of payment as set out in the Provider Agreement, rather than the right to payment under the terms of the benefit plan, does not run afoul of [Aetna Health, Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200 (2004)] and is not preempted by ERISA.”  Kelsey-Seybold Medical Group v. Great-West Healthcare of Texas, No. 14-20506 (Aug. 10, 2015, unpublished).

Subject matter jurisdiction “grab bag” — UPDATED

1.  Improper joinder when the acts of the nondiverse employee that allegedly tortiously interfered with the plaintiff’s contract were ratified by the employer.  Denson v. Beavex, Inc., No. 14-20534 (May 22, 2015, unpublished).

2.  No appellate jurisdiction when the district court administratively closed the case in favor of arbitration.  “[A]n order by the district court administratively closing a case is tantamount to a stay, and bars appellate review.”  Walker v. TA Operating, LLC, No. 14-41046 (May 22, 2015, unpublished).

3. “[A] district court cannot permissively abstain from exercising jurisdiction in proceedings related to Chapter 15 [cross-border bankruptcy] cases.”   Firefighters’ Retirement System v. Citco Group Ltd., No. 14-30857 (revised August 6, 2015).

4.  A lawyer who intervenes in a client’s case to protect a fee interest must independently establish diversity of citizenship and the requisite amount in controversy.  Samuels v. Twin City, No. 14-31203 (May 18, 2015, unpublished).

 

Don’t forget subject matter jurisdiction . . . UPDATED

The defendants in a wrongful foreclosure case removed and the district court dismissed the borrower’s claims on the pleadings. The Fifth Circuit reversed for jurisdictional reasons.  Smith v. Bank of America, No. 14-50256 (revised March 20, 2015, unpublished).

As to diversity jurisdiction, which was based on improper joinder of several defendants, the Court reminded: “[W]hen confronted with an allegation of improper joinder, the court must determine whether the removing party has discharged its substantial burden before proceeding to analyze the merits of the action.”

A pilot is not a labor union.

Several labor unions arbitrated disputes with American Airlines about pilot seniority. Mackenzie v. Air Lines Pilots Association, No. 11-11098 (Dec. 23, 2014, unpublished). Two pilots sought to bring a class action to challenge the arbitration award.  The Fifth Circuit dismissed for lack of standing: “[W]hen a CBA formed pursuant to the RLA establishes a mandatory, binding grievance procedure and vests the union with the exclusive right to pursue claims on behalf of aggrieved employees, an aggrieved employee whose employment is governed by the CBA lacks standing to attack the results of the grievance process in court—the sole exception being the authorization of an aggrieved employee to bring an unfair representation claim.”  (citing Mitchell v. Continental Airlines, 481 F.3d 225 (5th Cir. 2007)).  The Court’s analysis of this issue resembles discussion about the broader topic of claim preclusion, arising from a privity relationship, based on another party’s litigation activity.

$39K car purchase does not create $50K controversy

Plaintiff bought a Nissan Murano, paying $39,289 in total.  She sued for breach of warranty and related state law claims, and the defendants removed.  The issue addressed on appeal was whether the claim fell within the $50,000 amount-in-controversy requirement of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.    Scarlott v. Nissan North America, Inc., No. 13-20528 (Sept. 30, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit found it did not — the plaintiff’s invocation of a “Level One” Discovery Control Plan under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure did not specify a claim amount, and the defendants did not offer sufficient evidence of dimunution of value, repair costs, or lost profits to bring the claim about the threshold.  Notably, under the Magnuson-Moss statute, in calculating the amount in controversy a court may not consider attorneys fees, personal injury damages, or damages associated solely with pendent state-law claims.

Federal jurisdiction in labor dispute, somehow.

In Houston Refining, LP v. United Steel Workers, an arbitrator found that the suspension of a company’s 401(k) plan, after its bankruptcy filing, violated the company’s CBA with a union.  No. 13-20384 (Aug. 25, 2014).  Two judges agreed that the parties had not “clearly and unmistakably” allowed the arbitrator to decide arbitrability, noting this provision of the parties agreement: “At arbitration, the parties shall reserve all rights to present any and all arguments and advance any and all defenses to them including, without limitation, arguments concerning whether or not an applicable collective bargaining agreement was in effect at the time that a particular grievance arose.”  A dissent stressed other provisions of the agreement and the limited scope of review in the CBA context.  All three judges agreed that the court had subject matter jurisdiction, but differed on the rationales, in the specific context of an alleged breach of a contract controlled by federal labor law.

O brave new bankruptcy, which has such people in’t . . .

In Galaz v. Galaz, a bankruptcy debtor sued her ex-husband for the fraudulent transfer of a royalty interest in the works of the Ohio Players, a popular funk band in the 1970s. Nos. 13-50781, 50783 (Aug. 25, 2014).  Her ex-husband brought third-party claims against a music producer, who in turn brought counterclaims.  The resulting litigation produced judgments in favor of both the debtor and the producer against the ex-husband.  On appeal, in a landscape formed by the legacy of Stern v. Marshall, 131 S. Ct. 2594 (2011), the Fifth Circuit held:

1.  While the debtor’s fraudulent transfer claim was not the “paradigmatic” case where assets are transferred out of the estate, it could still “conceivably” affect the estate, and the bankruptcy court thus had statutory jurisdiction because these non-core claims related to her bankruptcy;

2.  The producer’s counterclaims, however, had no connection to the estate and the bankruptcy court had no statutory jurisdiction over them;

3.  Under Stern, in light of the present posture of cases from this Circuit and one awaiting Supreme Court review, the implied consent of the parties cannot confer constitutional jurisdiction on the bankruptcy court to enter final judgment such as the debtor’s claim here.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded, hinting that the bankruptcy court could prepare proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law for the district court as to the debtor’s claims.  The Court also noted that the debtor had standing as a creditor under the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act even though her personal interest in the royalties flowed through a business she partly owned.

Jurisdiction Here About Jurisdiction There.

A bankruptcy court entered judgment against Defendants, who the filed a new federal lawsuit for a declaratory judgment that the bankruptcy court lacked jurisdiction.  Jacuzzi v. Pimienta, No. 13-41111 (August 5, 2014).  The district court found that it lacked jurisdiction over that suit, and the Fifth Circuit reversed.  Noting that as a general matter, it is procedurally proper to attack a judgment for lack of jurisdiction in a collateral proceeding, the Court found that the lawsuit raised federal questions about due process rights and compliance with the federal rules for service of process.  Accordingly, there was federal jurisdiction to hear the challenge to the bankruptcy court judgment.

A “federal question,” but not a federal question.

“The central issue in this case is whether a district court has jurisdiction over an inventorship dispute where the contest patent has not yet issued.”  Camsoft Data Systems v. Southern Electronics Supply, Inc., No. 12-31013 (June 19, 2014).  After a removal based on patent jurisdiction, the plaintiff amended to add federal antitrust and RICO claims.  The Fifth Circuit held: “where — as here — a plaintiff [timely] objects to jurisdiction at removal, that plaintiff does not waive her jurisdictional arguments via post-removal amendment to her complaint.”  Then, as to patent jurisdiction — acknowledging some uncertainty in the law on this specific topic — the Court found that the Patent & Trademark Office had “sole discretion” over a pending patent, not the federal courts. Returning to the other federal claims, because those claims had not proceeded to trial, a potential argument against remand based on Caterpillar, Inc. v. Lewis, 519 U.S. 61, was unavailable.  Accordingly, the district court’s order of remand to state court was affirmed.

The rain, in main, did not fall on the cranes

Aransas Project v. Shaw presented a challenge to an injunction against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, prohibiting the TCEQ from issuing new permits to withdraw water from rivers that feed the estuary where whooping cranes live.  No. 13-40317 (June 30, 2014).  The whooping crane, described in the opinion as a “majestic bird that stands five feet tall,” is an endangered species, and the only known wild flock lives in Texas during winter.

The Fifth Circuit first rejected an argument for Burford abstention, finding that this case presented a “broader grant of administrative and judicial authority by state law to remedy environmental grievances” than a prior opinion where it allowed abstention in a similar sort of environmental dispute.  Cf. Sierra Club v. City of San Antonio, 112 F.3d 789 (5th Cir. 1997).

The Court then reversed the injunction, finding no causation “in the face of multiple, natural, independent, unpredictable and interrelated forces affecting the cranes’ estuary environment.”  While couched in language about proximate causation and environmental law, the Court’s analysis is a classic illustration of the recurring Daubert problem of excluding alternate causes.  (In the course of this discussion, the butterfly effect theory makes a cameo appearance in footnote 10.)

Federal question? Where to look . . .

In the published opinion of Davoodi v. Austin ISD, the Fifth Circuit revisited the recurring question of how substantial a federal question must be to create jurisdiction (and thus, allow removal). No. 13-50823 (June 16, 2014).  Notably, the Court did not analyze whether the plaintiff stated a claim under federal law in the causes of action alleged in his pleading.  Rather, the decision turns on how much the pleaded facts involved violation of federal law.  This focus contrasts with the framework of Howery v. Allstate Ins. Co., which rejected jurisdiction because “[f]rom its context, it appears that Howery’s mention of federal law merely served to describe types of conduct that violated the DTPA, not to allege a separate cause of action under the FCRA,” and because a violation of federal law was not an “essential element” of Howery’s state law claims.  243 F.3d 912, 918-919 (5th Cir. 2001).  

Davoodi sued in Texas state court, alleging state law claims for “national origin discrimination” and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a claim for “retaliation” without a specified basis in state or federal law. The first of the two paragraphs in the “Facts” section of the petition said:

“On or about June 2, 2011 Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC and the Texas Human Rights Commission.  (See Charge attached as Exhibit ‘A’ and fully incorporated herein).  This charge alleged that Defendant discriminated against Plaintiff based on his National Origin (Iranian).  On February 3, 2012 the EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights.  The Texas Human Rights Commission did not issue a dismissal/right to sue.”  

The Court noted that the incorporation of the Charge made it “part of [plaintiff’s] complaint for all purposes,” and created federal jurisdiction because the Charge contained the averment and claim: “I have been and continue to be discriminated against, in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended, [and] the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, as amended, because of my national origin (Iranian).”  The Court remanded as to the Rule 12 dismissal of the case, however, to allow the plaintiff a chance to replead under Lozano v. Ocwen Federal Bank, 489 F.3d 636 (5th Cir. 2007).

The movant’s Rule 12 arguments, as reflected in the appellate record excerpts, address whether the plaintiff’s pleading stated a claim for “retaliation” under either state or federal law.  The Fifth Circuit did not engage the basis for that claim in its analysis of federal question jurisdiction, focusing entirely on the fact allegations described above and the statement made to the EEOC.  Allstate can be reconciled with Davoodi  because the mention of federal law in the Allstate pleading is substantially smaller, as a percentage of the overall allegations.  That analytical framework — different than Allstate‘s focus — may invite new removals based on a “percentage-based” analysis of a pleading’s factual allegations.