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Bunton v. Cape Cod Village

July 6, 2009

TODD BUNTON, ALEX ETCHESON, AND JAY ETCHESON, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CAPE COD VILLAGE, LLC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge

ORDER

On May 21, 2009, a Report & Recommendation was filed by Magistrate Judge Byron G. Cudmore in the above-captioned case recommending that this case be remanded to state court. Defendant has filed a timely response to the Report & Recommendation, and this Order follows. For the reasons set forth below, the Court adopts the Report & Recommendation, grants the Motion to Remand, and finds all other pending deadlines or issues moot.

BACKGROUND

The relevant facts were sufficiently set forth in the comprehensive Report & Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge and need not be restated here. Suffice it to say that this action arises out of Plaintiffs' dissatisfaction with the way their security deposits were handled by Defendant, as well as certain fees charged to them in connection with their apartment leases. Defendant removed the case to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction, and Plaintiffs have moved to remand the case to state court claiming a failure to satisfy the amount in controversy requirement. The Magistrate Judge concluded that Plaintiffs' response to Defendant's requests to admit did not constitute an admission that the jurisdictional amount is satisfied and proceeded to make an independent assessment of the jurisdictional amount at issue. After determining that each Plaintiff could not recover more than $3,000 in actual and statutory damages, the Magistrate Judge considered the amount of attorney's fees incurred up to removal and constitutional limitations on punitive damages before concluding that the Defendant failed to establish the jurisdictional amount.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A district court reviews de novo any portion of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which written objections have been made. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). "The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended decision, receive further evidence, or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Id.

ANALYSIS

Defendant objects to the portion of the Report & Recommendation finding that the amount in controversy had not been satisfied.*fn1 In assessing a motion to remand based on a challenge to the amount in controversy, courts must evaluate the amount required to satisfy the plaintiff's demands in full on the day that the suit was removed. Oshana v. Coca-Cola Company, 472 F.3d 506, 510-11 (7th Cir. 2007). The defendant has the "burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence facts that suggest the amount-in-controversy requirement is met." Id., at 511, citing Meridian Sec. Ins. Co. v. Sadowski, 441 F.3d 536, 543 (7th Cir. 2006). A good-faith estimate of the damages is sufficient if plausible and supported by a preponderance of the evidence, and aggregating of class members' claims is not allowed. Id. Once this showing has been made, the plaintiff can defeat federal jurisdiction only if "it appears to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount." Id.

Defendant largely bases its argument on its requests to admit and Plaintiffs' responses thereto. Specifically, Defendant contends that because its requests were similar to those found sufficient to satisfy the amount in controversy in Oshana, it should have been found to have met its burden in this case. Defendant's request was both compound and multi-part, asking Plaintiffs to:

Admit that, . . . You will not individually seek: (i) an award of punitive damages in excess of $75,000; (ii) an award of compensatory damages in excess of $75,000; and (iii) an award of attorneys' fees in excess of $75,000; or (iv) an award of any combination of compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys' fees in excess of $75,000.

Plaintiffs responded, "Deny. Depending on the course of this litigation, it is possible that attorney's fees could eventually exceed $75,000."

Plaintiffs' response makes this case distinguishable from Oshana, where the plaintiff responded solely with a flat denial. Here, Plaintiffs qualified their denial to indicate that the course of the litigation might eventually cause their attorney's fees to exceed $75,000. It is clear from this response that Plaintiffs reasonably interpreted the question as including the totality of the attorney's fees that could be incurred during the entire course of the litigation and not limited to the amount to the fees incurred prior to the removal, which is the only amount that can be considered in determining the amount in controversy. It is also clear from the qualification that Plaintiffs' only basis for denying the request was because the award of attorneys fees that could accrue during the course of the litigation could push their recovery over the $75,000 mark. Had the request to admit been clearly limited to the time of removal, Plaintiffs state that they "would have admitted it." (Response to Objection at 4)

As Defendant relies solely on requests to admit and responses thereto that the Court agrees are insufficient to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy for any Plaintiff exceeds $75,000, the Magistrate Judge did not err in declining to shift the burden to Plaintiffs or finding that the amount in controversy had not been sufficiently established.

Plaintiffs have established that at the time of removal, they had incurred $19,286.17 in attorney's fees. Presumably, Plaintiff Bunton would be responsible for half this amount, as Plaintiff Jay Etchison is only involved as a co-signor for Plaintiff Alex Etchison and cannot recover separately. Bunton, who has the most damages of any Plaintiff, had a $100 security deposit, $300 pet deposit, and a $50 key deposit all claimed to have been wrongfully withheld; a $499 payment to make the apartment ready for move-in; $793.88 in allegedly wrongful charges after Bunton moved out; and denial of interest on his deposits of approximately $22.50, for a total out-of-pocket loss of $1,765.38. Additionally, Bunton would arguably be entitled to $900 for double the recovery of his deposits under Count II, bringing the ...


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