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Watkins v. Ashley

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

January 6, 2014

DONNA HEWITT WATKINS, as Administrator of the Estate of Eric Eugene Black, deceased, Plaintiff,
GERALD A. ASHLEY and TRULITE GLASS & ALUMINUM SOLUTIONS, LLC, formerly known as Arch Aluminum & Glass, LLC, Defendants.


JAMES C. FOX, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the court on the Motion to Remand [DE-12] filed by Plaintiff Donna Hewitt Watkins, as Administrator of the Estate of Eric Eugene Black, deceased ("Watkins" or "Plaintiff") and the Motions to Dismiss [DE-15; DE-17] filed by Defendants Gerald A. Ashley ("Ashley") and Trulite Glass & Aluminum Solutions, LLC ("Trulite").


On August 5, 2011, Eric Eugene Black died at a glass and aluminum facility owned by Defendant Trulite and located in Youngsville, North Carolina. Compl. [DE-1-1] ¶ ¶ 13, 18. At the time of his death, Black was working for Act Electric, a company that Trulite had hired to install electrical conduit on the ceiling of the Youngsville Plant. Id. ¶¶ 46, 47. As part of his work, Black was required to be elevated on a scissor lift in order to install the electrical conduit. Id. ¶ 77. While Black was working, a Trulite employee began operating a Gantry crane, which allegedly was virtually silent and provided no warning to Black that a portion of the bridge of the crane was headed toward the scissor lift on which Black was standing. Id. ¶ 80, 84-86. The bridge of the Gantry crane crashed into the scissor lift and knocked Black to his death. Jd. ¶ 96.

Plaintiff Watkins, as Administrator of Black's estate, filed suit in Wake County Superior Court on February 25, 2013, alleging claims against both Defendants Ashley and Trulite. Plaintiff alleges that Ashley, as "Plant Manager, " was responsible for safety at the Plant. Compl. [DE-1-1] ¶ 109. Both Watkins and Ashley are residents of North Carolina. ld. ¶¶ 5, 10. Defendants were served with process on February 25, 2013.

Defendant Trulite filed aN otice of Removal [DE-1] in this court on March 26, 2013, based on this court's diversity of citizenship jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Defendant Trulite asserted in the Notice of Removal that this court's assertion of diversity of citizenship jurisdiction was appropriate because, under the doctrine of fraudulent joinder, there was no colorable claim against Defendant Ashley. Plaintiff timely filed her Motion to Remand [DE-12] on April 22, 2013, arguing that she has stated a colorable claim against Defendant Ashley. Defendants thereafter filed Motions to Dismiss [DE-15; DE-17] the various claims against them.


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 the appropriate court. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). The two principal bases for original jurisdiction are diversity of citizenship of the parties and the presence of a federal question. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332. In this case, Ashley and Trulite filed a notice of removal in this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction.

The removing parties, as the ones invoking this court's jurisdiction, bear the burden of showing that removal is proper. Schwenk v. Cobra Mfg. Co., 322 F.Supp.2d 676, 678 (E.D. Va. 2004). Because removal raises federal concerns, a court must strictly construe removal jurisdiction. Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., Inc., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994). "If federal jurisdiction is doubtful, a remand is necessary." Id .; see also 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). To invoke a court's diversity jurisdiction, the parties must be complete diverse, meaning that none of the plaintiffs share citizenship with any of the defendants, and the amount in controversy must exceed the jurisdictional threshold of$75, 000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332; Mayes v. Rapoport, 198 F.3d 457, 461 (4th Cir. 1999). Moreover, an action based on the court's diversity jurisdiction "shall be removable only if none of the parties in interestproperly joined and served as defendants is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought." 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b); Palisades Collections, LLC, v. Shorts, 552 F.3d 327, 331 (4th Cir. 2008) ("[I]n a diversity case, a defendant cannot remove a case from its home forum.... ").

In this case, even though Watkins and Ashley are both residents of North Carolina, and therefore diversity of citizenship is seemingly not present, Defendants contend that removal is still appropriate under the doctrine of fraudulent joinder. See Notice of Removal [DE-1] ¶ 8. This doctrine allows the court to disregard the citizenship of the non-diverse defendant and retain federal jurisdiction. Mayes, 198 F.3d at 461. Specifically, a defendant alleging fraudulent joinder must show either "outright fraud in the plaintiff's pleading of jurisdictional facts" or that "there is no possibility that the plaintiff would be able to establish a cause of action" against the non-diverse defendant. Hartley v. CSC Transp. Inc., 187 F.3d 422, 424 (4th Cir. 1999). The former situation is not implicated here; rather, the question is whether Defendants have shown that there is no possibility Watkins will able to establish a cause of action against Ashley.

In answering that question, the court must resolve all legal and factual issues in favor of the plaintiff. /d ("The party alleging fraudulent joinder bears a heavy burden-it must show that the plaintiff cannot establish a claim even after resolving all issues of law and fact in the plaintiffs favor."). As the Fourth Circuit has recognized, the standard under the fraudulent joinder doctrine is even more favorable to a plaintiff than that applied to a motion to dismiss. Id. "Once the court identifies [a] glimmer of hope for the plaintiff, the jurisdictional inquiry ends." Id. at 426. Additionally, the court notes that it may not "delv[e] too far into the merits of deciding a jurisdictional question, " because

O]urisdictional rules direct judicial traffic. They function to steer litigation to the proper forum with a minimum of preliminary fuss. The best way to advance this objective is to accept the parties joined on the face of the complaint unless joinder is clearly improper. To permit extensive litigation of the merits of a case while determining jurisdiction thwarts the purpose of jurisdictional rules.


Here, Defendants have not met the heavy burden of showing, after the court resolves all legal and factual issues in Plaintiffs favor, that there is no possibility Plaintiff can establish a cause of action against Defendant Ashley. Defendants raise several challenges to Plaintiffs sole claim against Defendant Ashley-negligence-including that (1) as a matter of law, Ashley owed no duty to Plaintiffs decedent; (2) Plaintiff failed to allege that Ashley ...

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