Breuer v. Jim's Concrete of Brevard, Inc.

Decision Date19 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-337.,02-337.
PartiesBREUER v. JIM'S CONCRETE OF BREVARD, INC.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Petitioner Breuer sued respondent, his former employer, Jim's Concrete of Brevard, Inc., in a Florida state court for unpaid wages, liquidated damages, prejudgment interest, and attorney's fees under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), which provides, inter alia, that "[a]n action to recover ... may be maintained ... in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction," 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Jim's Concrete removed the case to the Federal District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), which reads: "Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a State court of which the [federal] district courts ... have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant ... to the [appropriate federal] district court." Breuer sought an order remanding the case to state court, arguing that removal was improper because § 216(b)'s provision that an action "may be maintained" in state court put forward an express exception to § 1441(a)'s general removal authorization. Though the District Court denied Breuer's motion, it certified the issue for interlocutory appeal. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, saying that although Congress had expressly barred removal in direct, unequivocal language in other statutes, § 216(b) was not comparably prohibitory.

Held: Section 216(b) does not bar removal of a suit from state to federal court. Breuer's case was properly removed under § 1441. Pp. 694-700.

(a) Breuer unquestionably could have begun his action in the District Court under § 216(b), as well as under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and § 1337(a). Removal of FLSA actions is thus prohibited under § 1441(a) only if Congress expressly provided as much. Nothing on the face of § 216(b) looks like an express prohibition of removal, there being no mention of removal, let alone of prohibition. While § 216(b) provides that an action "may be maintained ... in any ... State court of competent jurisdiction," the word "maintain" enjoys a breadth of meaning that leaves its bearing on removal ambiguous at best. "Maintain" in reference to a legal action is often read as "bring" or "file," but "to maintain an action" may also mean "to continue" to litigate, as opposed to "commence" an action. If an ambiguous term like "maintain" qualified as an express provision for § 1441(a) purposes, then the requirement of an "expres[s] provi[sion]" would call for nothing more than a "provision," pure and simple, leaving the word "expressly" without any consequence whatever. The need to take the express exception requirement seriously is underscored by examples of indisputable prohibitions of removal in a number of other statutes, e.g., § 1445, which demonstrate that, when Congress wishes to give plaintiffs an absolute choice of forum, it is capable of doing so in unmistakable terms. Pp. 694-697.

(b) None of Breuer's refinements on his basic argument from the term "maintain" puts him in a stronger position. The Court rejects his argument that "may be maintained" shows up as sufficiently prohibitory once it is coupled with a federal policy of construing removal jurisdiction narrowly, as set forth in Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 108-109. Whatever apparent force this argument might have claimed when Shamrock was handed down has been qualified by the later amendment of § 1441 into its present form, requiring any exception to the general removability rule to be express. Nor does it avail Breuer to emphasize the sense of "maintain" as implying continuation of an action to final judgment, so as to give a plaintiff who began an action the statutory right under § 216(b) to see it through. The right to maintain an action may indeed be a right to fight to the finish, but removal does nothing to defeat that right; far from concluding a case before final judgment, removal just transfers it from one forum to another. Moreover, if "an action ... may be maintained" meant that a plaintiff could insist on keeping an FLSA case wherever he filed it in the first place, it would seem that an FLSA case brought in a federal district court could never be transferred to a different one over the plaintiff's objection, a result that would plainly clash with the provision for change of venue, § 1404(a). Finally, although Breuer may be right that many FLSA claims are for such small amounts that removal to a sometimes distant federal court, often increasing the cost of litigation, may make it difficult for many employees to vindicate their rights effectively, the implications of that assertion keep this Court from going Breuer's way. Because a number of other statutes incorporate or use the same language as 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), see, e.g., § 626(b), there cannot be an FLSA removal exception without wholesale exceptions for other statutory actions, to the point that it is just too hard to believe that a right to "maintain" an action was ever meant to displace the right to remove. Pp. 697-699.

292 F.3d 1308, affirmed.

SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT.

Donald E. Pinaud, Jr., argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Eric Schnapper.

Andrew S. Hament argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Gregory Williamson.

Lisa S. Blatt argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Olson, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Howard M. Radzely, Allen H. Feldman, and Edward D. Sieger.*

JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question is whether the provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA or Act), that suit under the Act "may be maintained ... in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction," 52 Stat. 1069, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), bars removal of a suit from state to federal court. We hold there is no bar.

I

Petitioner, Phillip T. Breuer, sued respondent, his former employer, Jim's Concrete of Brevard, Inc., in a state court of Florida for unpaid wages, liquidated damages, prejudgment interest, and attorney's fees. Section 216(b) provides not only that an employer who violates its minimum wage and overtime provisions is liable to an employee, but that "[a]n action to recover the liability prescribed ... may be maintained against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction."

Jim's Concrete removed the case to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), which reads that "[e]xcept as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, 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 or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending." Breuer sought an order remanding the case to state court, arguing that removal was improper owing to the FLSA's provision that an action "may be maintained" in any state court, a provision that Breuer put forward as an express exception to the general authorization of removal under § 1441(a). Though the District Court denied Breuer's motion, it certified the issue for interlocutory appeal under § 1292(b). The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, saying that Congress had expressly barred removal in "direct, unequivocal language" in other statutes, 292 F.3d 1308, 1310 (2002), but was not comparably prohibitory in § 216(b). The Eleventh Circuit thus joined the First, see Cosme Nieves v. Deshler, 786 F.2d 445 (1986), but placed itself at odds with the Eighth, see Johnson v. Butler Bros., 162 F.2d 87 (1947) (denying removability under FLSA). We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict, 537 U.S. 1099 (2003), and now affirm.

II
A

There is no question that Breuer could have begun his action in the District Court. The FLSA provides that an action "may be maintained ... in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction," 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), and the district courts would in any event have original jurisdiction over FLSA claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States," and § 1337(a), as "arising under any Act of Congress regulating commerce." Removal of FLSA actions is thus prohibited under § 1441(a) only if Congress expressly provided as much.

Nothing on the face of 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) looks like an express prohibition of removal, there being no mention of removal, let alone of prohibition. While § 216(b) provides that an action "may be maintained ... in any ... State court of competent jurisdiction," the word "maintain" enjoys a breadth of meaning that leaves its bearing on removal ambiguous at best. "To maintain an action" may mean "to continue" to litigate, as opposed to "commence" an action.1 Black's Law Dictionary 1143 (3d ed. 1933). But "maintain" in reference to a legal action is often read as "bring" or "file"; "[t]o maintain an action or suit may mean to commence or institute it; the term imports the existence of a cause of action." Ibid.; see 1 A J. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 0.167[5], p. 472 (2d ed. 1996) (calling the "`may be maintained'" language an "ambiguous phrase" and "certainly not an express provision against removal within the meaning of § 1441"); 14C C. Wright, A. Miller, & E. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3729, p. 235 (1998) (referring to "use of the ambiguous term `maintain' in the statute"). The most, then, that Breuer can claim simply from the use of the term "maintain" is that any text, even when ambiguous, that might be read as inconsistent with removal is an "express" prohibiting provision under the statute. But if an ambiguous term like "mainta...

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