184 F.3d 1292 (11th Cir. 1999), 98-4787, Cohen v Office Depot

Docket Nº:98-4787.
Citation:184 F.3d 1292
Party Name:Cheryl COHEN, on behalf of herself and others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. OFFICE DEPOT, INC., a Florida corporation, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:August 17, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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184 F.3d 1292 (11th Cir. 1999)

Cheryl COHEN, on behalf of herself and others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

OFFICE DEPOT, INC., a Florida corporation, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 98-4787.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 17, 1999

Page 1293

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. (No. 97-3611-Civ-JAL), Joan A. Lenard, Judge.

Before BIRCH and CARNES, Circuit Judges, and MILLS[*], Senior District Judge.

CARNES, Circuit Judge:

Cheryl Cohen appeals the district court's dismissal of her Florida state law deceptive advertising suit against Office Depot. The district court struck Cohen's prayer for punitive damages from her complaint for failure to comply with a

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Florida statute requiring a plaintiff to obtain leave of court before requesting punitive damages. Finding that the other relief Cohen requested did not satisfy the amount-in-controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction, the court dismissed her suit on jurisdictional grounds. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse.

I. BACKGROUND

A. FACTS

Cohen's complaint alleges that Office Depot made representations and statements in its catalogues which led "customers to believe that Office Depot's prices for merchandise in its catalog will be as low, if not lower, than the prices of identical merchandise purchased from any other office supply store, including Office Depot's own stores[,]" when "[i]n fact, ... Office Depot's catalog prices are often significantly higher than the price of the same item in the Office Depot stores." The complaint also alleges that Cohen relied upon such advertisements in the Fall 1997 catalogue when she purchased by phone a color cartridge for $26.99 and file folder labels for $1.99. When those items were subsequently delivered, the accompanying invoice reflected no delivery charges in the price of the items. A few days later, Cohen went into an Office Depot store and saw the same cartridge priced at $2.00 less, and the same labels priced at $0.30 less, than their prices in the catalogue. An Office Depot spokesman allegedly admitted to a newspaper that the claim of free delivery was false when the spokesman explained the difference between the store and catalogue prices by saying, "It is certainly not uncommon that catalog pricing would be a little higher because of providing free delivery."

B. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On November 12, 1997, Cohen filed a complaint in federal district court on behalf of herself and a proposed nationwide class of approximately 39,000 Office Depot customers, alleging that Office Depot had made deceptive statements regarding the pricing of its merchandise in violation of the Florida laws governing unfair and deceptive trade practices, fraud, and misleading and negligent advertising. In addition to compensatory damages, the complaint sought $10,000,000.00 in punitive damages, an injunction prohibiting deceptive advertising in the future, attorney fees, and costs. Because no violation of federal law was alleged, subject matter jurisdiction was founded solely upon diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

Office Depot moved to strike the punitive damages request from the complaint and dismiss the lawsuit. The court granted the motion to strike the punitive damages request on the ground that Cohen had failed to comply with Florida Statutes § 768.72, which requires a plaintiff to obtain leave from the court before including a prayer for punitive damages in a pleading. The court then determined that the other relief requested by Cohen failed to meet the $75,000 amount-in-controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction. Accordingly, the court granted Office Depot's motion to dismiss Cohen's suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.1

II. DISCUSSION

The issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in concluding that Cohen had not met the $75,000 amount-in-controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction. For diversity cases originally brought in federal court, the amount in controversy is simply the sum claimed in the plaintiff's complaint, "if the claim is apparently made in good faith. It must appear to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount to justify dismissal." St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 288-89, 58 S.Ct. 586, 590, 82 L.Ed. 845 (1938).

Cohen argues that her requests for punitive damages, attorney fees, and injunctive

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relief, taken individually or together, satisfy the amount-in-controversy requirement and establish diversity jurisdiction. Because we conclude that her request for punitive damages alone is sufficient for jurisdictional purposes, we need not consider whether the other relief she requests would suffice.

The Supreme Court has held that "[w]here both actual and punitive damages are recoverable under a complaint[,] each must be considered to the extent claimed in determining jurisdictional amount." Bell v. Preferred Life Assur. Soc. of Montgomery, Alabama, 320 U.S. 238, 240, 64 S.Ct. 5, 6, 88 L.Ed. 15 (1943). Here, Cohen requests $10,000,000 in punitive damages, which is obviously greater than the amount-in-controversy threshold of $75,000. It is undisputed that under state law Cohen would be entitled to an unspecified amount of punitive damages on two of her claims if she is successful.

Under our holding in Tapscott v. MS Dealer Service Corporation, 77 F.3d 1353, 1358-59 (11th Cir.1996), in a class action lawsuit punitive damages may be aggregated to satisfy the amount-in-controversy requirement for each class member. To be sure, Tapscott involved Alabama law, not Florida law, and it did not establish a broad rule that all punitive damages claims may be aggregated for purposes of determining the amount in controversy. Tapscott did hold, however, that punitive damages may be aggregated where state law provides that an award of punitive damages is for the "public benefit" or "collective good," and the award would reflect "the wrongfulness of the defendant's course of conduct as a whole." Tapscott, 77 F.3d at 1358.

Those conditions are met in this case. Because Florida law, like Alabama law, provides that "punitive damages are warranted only where the egregious wrongdoing of the defendant ... constitutes a public wrong," Chrysler Corp. v. Wolmer, 499 So.2d 823, 825 (Fla.1986), awarding punitive damages is for the public benefit or collective good. Likewise, as in Tapscott, 77 F.3d at 1358-59, the award of punitive damages will reflect not the wrong done to any single individual but the wrongfulness of the conduct as a whole.

Accordingly, under Tapscott, punitive damages in this Florida diversity case may be aggregated to satisfy the amount-in-controversy requirement for each class member. But that can occur only if Cohen is permitted to assert her request for punitive damages. The district court struck Cohen's prayer for punitive damages, because she failed to comply with the conditions for seeking punitive damages set forth in Florida Statutes § 768.72. Section 768.72 provides as follows:

In any civil action, no claim for punitive damages shall be permitted unless there is a reasonable showing by evidence in the record or proffered by the claimant which would provide a reasonable basis for recovery of such damages. The claimant may move to amend her or his complaint to assert a claim for punitive damages as allowed by the rules of civil procedure. The rules of civil procedure shall be liberally construed so as to allow the claimant discovery of evidence which appears reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence on the issue of punitive damages. No discovery of financial worth shall proceed until after the pleading concerning punitive damages is permitted.

Cohen argues that she satisfied the requirements of § 768.72 because she proffered evidence of malice and wanton and reckless conduct sufficient to establish a reasonable basis for her punitive damages claim. However, the Florida Supreme Court has interpreted § 768.72 as requiring the dismissal of any request for punitive damages asserted without leave of the court. See Simeon, Inc. v. Cox, 671 So.2d 158, 160 (Fla.1996) (concluding "[i]t was inconsequential that the trial court ... held a hearing" to determine whether there was an evidentiary basis for a punitive damages claim stated in the initial

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complaint, because under the statute "any punitive damages claim alleged prior to a party asking for and receiving leave of the court must be dismissed or stricken."). See also WFTV, Inc. v. Hinn, 705 So.2d 1010, 1011 (Fla. 5th Dist.Ct.App.1998); Mayer v. Frank, 659 So.2d 1254, 1255 (Fla. 4th Dist.Ct.App.1995).

Thus, if § 768.72 applies in this case, the district court correctly struck the request for punitive damages from Cohen's complaint, which means that request could not provide a basis for federal diversity jurisdiction. If, on the other hand, § 768.72 does not apply, then the request for punitive damages should not have been struck, and would provide a sufficient basis to satisfy the amount-in-controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction. Accordingly, we must determine whether the pleading requirements of § 768.72 apply here, which entails resolving whether they conflict with any Federal Rule of Civil Procedure.2

Federal courts sitting in diversity are required to apply state substantive law and federal procedural law. See Erie R. Co. v....

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