The opinion of the court was delivered by: BUCKLO
Plaintiff, Ready Transportation, Inc. ("Ready"), filed suit against defendant, Best Foam Fabricators, Inc. ("Best"), in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois in November of 1995. Best filed a timely notice of removal, and Ready has now filed a motion to remand the case to state court. For the reasons given below, Ready's motion to remand is granted.
Ready is an interstate motor common carrier. Best was one of Ready's customers. They entered into numerous bills of lading, each one indicating that the shipment was prepaid. For each shipment Ready completed for Best, Ready sent Best an invoice setting out the shipping charges due on each shipment. The parties then entered into two contracts concerning transportation services, under which Best agreed to pay Ready for the shipments. Ready alleges that Best has breached the parties' contract by failing to pay the necessary charges.
In its notice of removal, Best alleged that this court has original jurisdiction over Ready's claim because it arises under the Interstate Commerce Act ("ICA"), 49 U.S.C. § 10101 et seq. In its motion to remand, Ready correctly pointed out that its complaint does not mention the ICA, but instead presents a straightforward state law claim for breach of contract. Best responded to Ready's motion by arguing that jurisdiction is proper under either the artful pleading exception, or, alternatively, the complete preemption exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule.
Ready, as the plaintiff, is the master of its complaint and may plead whichever causes of action it chooses. Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392, 96 L. Ed. 2d 318, 107 S. Ct. 2425 (1987). Here, Ready chose to plead only a state law breach of contract claim.
The well-pleaded complaint rule governs removal of this case from state to federal court. See Franchise Tax Bd. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 9-10, 77 L. Ed. 2d 420, 103 S. Ct. 2841 (1983). Best may remove this case to federal court only if a federal cause of action appears on the face of Ready's complaint. An exception to this rule is the artful pleading doctrine. This doctrine prevents a plaintiff from avoiding federal jurisdiction by "artfully pleading" a state claim for what is essentially a federal claim. See Burda v. M. Ecker Co., 954 F.2d 434, 438 (7th Cir. 1992). In some cases, therefore, a federal court may look beyond the face of the complaint to determine whether the plaintiff has artfully pleaded its complaint "so as to couch a federal claim in terms of state law." Id. The removal statute, however, should be strictly construed, and any doubts should be resolved against removing a case. Her Majesty the Queen v. City of Detroit, 874 F.2d 332, 339 (6th Cir. 1989).
Best argues that the artful pleading exception applies to Ready's breach of contract claim because interstate shipping is regulated by federal law. Under the ICA, a motor carrier, such as Ready, must publish its shipping rates in a tariff filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission. All of Ready's customers must then pay the published rates. 49 U.S.C. § 11902. The rates may not be altered by contract. See Maislin Industries, U.S., Inc. v. Primary Steel, Inc., 497 U.S. 116, 126, 111 L. Ed. 2d 94, 110 S. Ct. 2759 (1990).
In Transport Auditing, Inc. v. Sea-Land Service, Inc., 897 F. Supp. 34 (D. P.R. 1995), the court granted the plaintiff's motion to remand a factually similar case to state court. In Transport Auditing, the plaintiff sued a maritime shipping company, alleging that the shipper had overcharged the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed suit in state court seeking to recover its alleged overpayments, and the defendant filed a notice of removal, arguing that the suit turned on federal law because its shipping rates were set pursuant to federal law. Id. at 37. The court rejected this argument:
In order to determine what were the legal rights at the time of the shipments, it may be necessary to refer to the rates on file with the Federal Maritime Commission and the Interstate Commerce Commission. Transport Auditing's claim does not, however, require the resolution of a substantial question of federal law. The rates on file will serve only as guideposts to the resolution of [the state law claim]. ... Transport Auditing's claim may require some analysis of federal law. Such an analysis, however, is not sufficient to invoke federal jurisdiction.
Id. Like the suit in Transport Auditing, Ready's claim does not involve a substantial question of federal law.
The fact that the contract price term is set by federal law does not transform Ready's cause of action into a suit arising under federal law.
Best argues that because parties to an interstate shipping contract may not vary from the filed tariffs in their contract, the parties may not sue to enforce their contract without presenting a federal question. As the court in Transport Auditing recognized, however, the state law breach of contract claim may stand as such, even where resolution of the claim requires reference to the controlling rates, i.e., the filed tariff.
See also American Inmate Phone Systems, Inc. v. US Sprint Communications Co., 787 F. Supp. 852 (N.D. Ill. 1992) (rejecting defendant's ...