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Willyard v. Wal-Mart Stores

February 6, 2009

LISA WILLYARD, INDIVIDUALLY AND TONY WILLYARD, MINOR CHILD BY AND THROUGH HIS NEXT FRIEND, LISA WILLYARD, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Counts II and III of Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 3), which has been fully briefed by the Parties. However, upon review of both the Notice of Removal (Doc. 2) and the allegations of the Complaint (Doc. 2, Ex. A), the Court finds that it must raise the issue, sua sponte, of whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over this case. See Wisconsin Knife Works v. National Metal Crafters, 781 F.2d 1280, 1282 (7th Cir. 1986) ("The first thing a federal judge should do when a complaint is filed is check to see that federal jurisdiction is properly alleged."); McCready v. White, 417 F.3d 700, 702 (7th Cir. 2005) ("Ensuring the existence of subject matter jurisdiction is the court's first duty in every lawsuit.").

"Without jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any cause. Jurisdiction is power to declare the law, and when it ceases to exist, the only function remaining to the court is that of announcing the fact and dismissing the cause." Ex parte McCardle, 7 Wall. 506, 514 19 L.Ed. 264 (1868); Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998). In fact, federal courts are "obliged to police the constitutional and statutory limitations on their jurisdiction" and should raise and consider jurisdictional issues regardless of whether the matter is ever addressed by the parties to the suit. See Kreuger v. Cartwright, 996 F.2d 928, 930-31 (7th Cir. 1993); Kanzelberger v. Kanzelberger, 782 F.2d 774, 777 (7th Cir. 1986). Moreover, the party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of demonstrating that the jurisdictional requirements have been met. Chase v. Shop 'N Save Warehouse Foods, Inc., 110 F.3d 424, 427 (7th Cir. 1997).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Removal Based Upon Diversity Jurisdiction

Defendants removed this case on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The statute regarding diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, requires complete diversity between the parties plus an amount in controversy exceeding $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs. Complete diversity means that "none of the parties on either side of the litigation may be a citizen of the state of which a party on the other side is a citizen." Howell v. Tribune Entertainment Co., 106 F.3d 215, 217 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted).

The removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1441, is construed narrowly and doubts concerning removal are resolved in favor of remand. Doe v. Allied-Signal, Inc., 985 F.2d 908, 911 (7th Cir. 1993).Defendant bears the burden to present evidence of federal jurisdiction once the existence of that jurisdiction is fairly cast into doubt. See In re Brand Name Prescription Drugs Antitrust Litig., 123 F.3d 599, 607 (7th Cir. 1997). "A defendant meets this burden by supporting [its] allegations of jurisdiction with 'competent proof,' which in [the Seventh Circuit] requires the defendant to offer evidence which proves 'to a reasonable probability that jurisdiction exists.'" Chase v. Shop 'N Save Warehouse Foods, Inc., 110 F.3d 424, 427 (7th Cir. 1997)(citations omitted). However, if the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the action must be remanded to state court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).

The status of the case as disclosed by a plaintiff's complaint is controlling on the issue as to whether the case is removable. St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 291 (1938). When the amount in controversy is at issue, if the face of the complaint establishes that the suit cannot involve the necessary amount, the case should be remanded. Id. at 291-92. "Accepted wisdom" provides that a plaintiff's evaluation of the stakes must be respected when deciding whether a claim meets the amount in controversy requirement for federal diversity jurisdiction. Barbers, Hairstyling for Men & Women, Inc. v. Bishop, 132 F.3d 1203, 1205 (7th Cir. 1997) (citing St. Paul Mercury, 303 U.S. at 289). If the Plaintiff's prayers for relief do not specify a monetary amount, "the [C]court may look outside the pleadings to other evidence of jurisdictional amount in the record." Chase, 110 F.3d at 427 (internal citations omitted). Yet, the Court must only analyze "evidence of amount in controversy that was available at the moment the petition for removal was filed." Id. (citing In re Shell Oil Co., 970 F.2d 355, 356 (7th Cir. 1992)). The evidence shown to be available at the time of removal must prove to a reasonable probability that the jurisdictional amount was met. Id.

In determining whether the jurisdictional threshold amount has been met, pursuant to § 1332, the Court must evaluate "the controversy described in the plaintiff's complaint and the record as a whole, as of the time the case was filed." Uhl v. Thoroughbred Tech. and Telecomm., Inc., 309 F.3d 978, 983 (7th Cir. 2002) (citing Shaw v. Dow Brands, Inc., 994 F.2d 364, 366 (7th Cir. 1993)). Refusing to stipulate that the damages sought were $75,000 or less at the time of removal creates the inference that a plaintiff believes her claim(s) could be worth more. Workman v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 243 F.3d 998, 1000 (7th Cir. 2000). If little information is provided as to the value of a plaintiff's claims from the onset, a court can find, at times, that a defendant's "good-faith estimate of the stakes is acceptable if it is plausible and supported by a preponderance of the evidence." Oshana v. Coca-Cola Co., 472 F.3d 506, 511 (7th Cir. 2006) (citing Rubel v. Pfizer, Inc., 361 F.3d 1016, 1020 (7th Cir. 2004)).

B. Analysis

In this case, the Court notes pleading deficiencies in showing both that diversity of citizenship and amount in controversy exist to meet the requirements of § 1332. First, in Defendant's Notice of Removal, it merely states that Plaintiffs are "residents of the State of Missouri" (Doc. 2, ¶ 5). Asserting a party's residency as opposed to citizenship is a fatal error to diversity jurisdiction.What is more problematic, however, is the issue of whether the allegations show that the amount in controversy has been met.

Defendant argues that the amount in controversy requirement is met for three reasons. First, the language in Plaintiff's Complaint that describes Plaintiff"s injuries suggests that damages could exceed $75,000 (Doc. 2, ¶ 8). Second, a physician who treated the Plaintiff concluded that Plaintiff had permanent pain as a result of the accident (Doc. 2, ¶ 10). Third, counsel for Plaintiff refused to stipulate that he would not seek to enforce a judgment against Defendant in excess of $75,000 (Doc. 2, ¶ 11).

First, all that can be reliably gleaned from Plaintiff's Complaint is that Plaintiff's counsel believes the total damages exceeds $50,000 (Doc. 2, Ex. B). While Plaintiff's Complaint describes Plaintiff's injuries as "severe" and "permanent," the Court will not read such adjectives, without other supporting evidence, as sufficient to establish to a ...


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