Drawhorn v. Qwest Communications Intern., Inc.

Decision Date30 May 2000
Docket NumberNo. CIV. A. 1:99-CV-415.,CIV. A. 1:99-CV-415.
Citation121 F.Supp.2d 554
PartiesPaul D. DRAWHORN, Jeanatte Mazzu, Robert C. Barr and Barbara S. Barr, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs v. QWEST COMMUNICATIONS INTERNATIONAL, INC., Qwest Communications Corporation, Qwest Transmission Inc., Qwest USLD Communications Corporation, Qwest USLD Communications, Inc. and Qwest Network Construction Services Defendants
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Texas

George Michael Jamail, Wayne Reaud, Reaud Law Firm, Gilbert I. Low, Orgain Bell & Tucker, Beaumont, TX, Nels J. Ackerson, the Ackerson Group, Washington, DC, John B. Massopust, Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Gette, Minneapolis, MN, for Plaintiff.

David W. Ledyard, Theodore P. Ray, Strong Pipkin Nelson & Bissell, Beaumont, Jerry L. Beane, William Laurie Fouche', Jr., Strasburger & Price, Dallas, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

COBB, District Judge.

Before the court is Paul D. Drawhorn's, Jeanatte Mazzu's, Robert C. Barr's and Barbara S. Barr's, as well as all others similarly situated (collectively referred to as the "Plaintiffs") Motion to Remand. The court, after reviewing the Motion, the responses in opposition, the pleadings of record, and hearing the arguments of the parties is of the opinion that this Motion should be DENIED.

I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

The plaintiffs in this case are owners of two tracts of land in Texas and Colorado, and seek to be class representatives of owners of land throughout the United States whose property is or was subject to easements by railroads, pipelines, energy or other utility companies. The plaintiffs allege that the defendants have installed or maintained fiber optic cable on the land owned by the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs further allege that the defendants have maintained these cables on their property without obtaining the consent of the plaintiffs and without just compensation.

The defendants are the operators of a nationwide network of fiber optic cables that are used for the high-speed transmission of telephone messages and other electronic data. Pursuant to agreements with railroad companies made in 1991, the defendants have been authorized to construct and operate their fiber optic cables on railroad and utility rights of way located throughout the country.

The plaintiffs have alleged that the easements owned by the railroads and utilities did not include the right to permit the defendants to install fiber optic networks. Accordingly, the plaintiffs have brought actions for trespass, unjust enrichment, slander of title, and declaratory relief.

This case was originally filed as a nationwide class action in the District Court of Jefferson County, Texas, 172nd Judicial District on May 13, 1999. On July 6, 1999, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 14411 the defendants timely removed this case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Beaumont Division. The defendants contend that removal is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) which provides that removal is proper for all civil actions filed in state court for which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction. Furthermore, the defendants base removal on 28 U.S.C. § 1441(c) which provides that an entire case shall be removed when a separate and independent claim, which is removable, is joined with one or more otherwise non-removable claims. The defendants contend that this court has original jurisdiction over this cause of action by reason of 28 U.S.C. § 1331 — federal question jurisdiction. Section 1331 provides that the federal district courts "shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." It is the defendants' position that since they acquired their rights in and over plaintiffs' lands from the railroad companies this case necessarily involves a federal question. The defendants argue that the railroads acquired their rights from federal statutes such as the Pacific Railroad Act and the Federal Right of Way Act of 1875 and from various other federal land grants and patents. According to the defendants, the construction of these federal statutes will be an essential issue in each of the causes of action. Hence, the plaintiffs' claims arise under the laws of the United States within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and this court has original jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441.

Plaintiffs, on the other hand, contend that any federal issues raised in this case will be the result of a defense thus precluding federal question jurisdiction under the longstanding principle that federal defenses do not give rise to federal jurisdiction. See, e.g., Rivet v. Regions Bank of Louisiana, 522 U.S. 470, 471, 118 S.Ct. 921, 139 L.Ed.2d 912 (1998); Wichita Falls Indep. Sch. Dist., 44 F.3d 362, 365 (5th Cir.1995). The plaintiffs own petition asserts that the railroads did not have the ability to grant Qwest the right to install fiber optic cable systems.2 Thus, the issue for the court to decide is whether the interpretation of federal railroad statutes, which Qwest relies on to assert proper ownership of the easements, is either a federal defense or a necessary and substantial part of the plaintiffs' well-pleaded complaint.

II. DISCUSSION
A. General Principles

The Constitution gives federal courts the power to hear cases "arising under" the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States. U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1. It must be noted, however, that federal courts do not automatically have this power. In fact, it was not until 1875 that Congress gave federal courts general federal question jurisdiction. Act of Mar. 3, 1875, ch. 137, § 1, 18 Stat. 470.3 From 1875 to the present, there has not been a clear definition of what is and what is not a federal question.4 The Supreme Court has recognized that the "statutory phrase `arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States' has resisted all attempts to frame a single, precise definition for determining which cases fall within, and which cases fall outside, the original jurisdiction of the district courts.... [T]he phrase `arising under' masks a welter of issues regarding the interrelation of federal and state authority and the proper management of the federal judicial system." Franchise Tax Board v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 6, 103 S.Ct. 2841, 77 L.Ed.2d 420 (1983).

Even though there is not a set standard for determining whether a claim involves a federal question, there are some guiding principles which aid courts in their evaluations of claims. For instance, in removal cases the defendant bears the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction over the state-court suit. Carpenter v. Wichita Falls Indep. Sch. Dist., 44 F.3d 362, 365 (5th Cir.1995) (citing Wilson v. Republic Iron & Steel Co., 257 U.S. 92, 42 S.Ct. 35, 66 L.Ed. 144 (1921)). Furthermore, because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction the removal statute is subject to strict construction. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 810, 106 S.Ct. 3229, 92 L.Ed.2d 650 (1986) (recognizing that removal "determinations about federal jurisdiction require sensitive judgments about congressional intent, judicial power, and the federal system"); Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 107, 61 S.Ct. 868, 85 L.Ed. 1214 (1941); Willy v. Coastal Corp., 855 F.2d 1160, 1164 (5th Cir.1988). Moreover, doubts about the propriety of removal must be resolved in favor of remand. Dardeau v. West Orange-Grove Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist., 43 F.Supp.2d 722, 730 (E.D.Tex.1999). Keeping these general principles in mind, the first step in a removal case is examining the plaintiffs' complaint.

B. Federal Jurisdiction Exists if the Plaintiffs' Well-Pleaded State Law Claims Contain a Substantial Federal Issue.

It is a well settled principle that the plaintiff is the master of her complaint. Healy v. Sea Gull Specialty Co., 237 U.S. 479, 480, 35 S.Ct. 658, 59 L.Ed. 1056 (1915) ("the plaintiff is the absolute master of what jurisdiction he will appeal to"); Carpenter, 44 F.3d at 365 (5th Cir.1995). Thus, plaintiffs may choose to pursue state law causes of actions only even though a federal claim may also be available. Merrell Dow, 478 U.S. at 809, 106 S.Ct. 3229 ("Jurisdiction may not be sustained on a theory that the plaintiff has not advanced."). Whether a case presents a federal question is determined by the "well-pleaded complaint" rule. Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392, 107 S.Ct. 2425, 96 L.Ed.2d 318 (1987). The "well-pleaded complaint" rule was articulated by the Supreme Court in Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 29 S.Ct. 42, 53 L.Ed. 126 (1908). Essentially, the "well-pleaded complaint" rule requires that a federal question appear on the face of the plaintiffs' complaint in order for a party to invoke federal question jurisdiction. See id. at 152, 29 S.Ct. 42. The "well-pleaded complaint" rule prevents defendants from removing cases to federal court based on a federal defense or counterclaim. Gully, 299 U.S. at 113, 57 S.Ct. 96; Taylor v. Anderson, 234 U.S. 74, 75-76, 34 S.Ct. 724, 58 L.Ed. 1218 (1914) (recognizing that the federal issue must exist on the face of plaintiff's complaint "unaided by anything alleged in anticipation or avoidance of defenses which it is thought the defendant may interpose"); Oliver v. Trunkline Gas Co., 796 F.2d 86, 88 n. 1 (5th Cir.1986). Consequently, to support removal in this case, Qwest must "locate the basis of federal jurisdiction in those allegations necessary to support the plaintiff's claim, ignoring his own pleadings and petition for removal." Carpenter, 44 F.3d at 366 (5th Cir.1995).

In this case, plaintiffs' complaint on its face is based on state law. The plaintiffs's complaint brings state law causes of actions in trespass, unjust...

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