Earth Island Inst. v. The Coca-Cola Co., Civil Action 21-1926 (PLF)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtPAUL L. FRIEDMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Decision Date24 March 2022
PartiesEARTH ISLAND INSTITUTE, Plaintiff, v. THE COCA-COLA COMPANY, Defendant.
Docket NumberCivil Action 21-1926 (PLF)

EARTH ISLAND INSTITUTE, Plaintiff,
v.

THE COCA-COLA COMPANY, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 21-1926 (PLF)

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 24, 2022


OPINION AND ORDER

PAUL L. FRIEDMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

On July 16, 2021, defendant The Coca-Cola Company (“Coca-Cola”) filed a notice of removal, removing this action from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to this Court. See Notice of Removal (“Notice”) [Dkt. No. 1]. As grounds for removal, Coca-Cola asserted that “[t]his Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), as the parties are completely diverse and Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief that, if granted, would cost well in excess of $75, 000 to implement.” Id. at ¶ 5. On August 16, 2021, plaintiff Earth Island Institute (“Earth Island”) moved to remand this action back to the Superior Court, asserting that this Court lacks federal diversity jurisdiction because “Coca-Cola has failed to meet its burden in establishing the amount in controversy.” Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Remand and for Fees and Costs (“Pl. Mot.”) [Dkt. No. 15] at 1. Earth Island simultaneously moved to recoup its fees and costs associated with litigating the remand motion. Id. at 11. Upon careful consideration of the briefs and the relevant legal authorities, the Court concludes that the parties lack diversity jurisdiction because the amount in controversy

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does not exceed $75, 000. The Court therefore will grant Earth Island's motion to remand. The Court will nonetheless deny Earth Island's request for fees and costs.[1]

I. BACKGROUND

On June 4, 2021, Earth Island filed a complaint with the Civil Division of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia seeking injunctive and declaratory relief against Coca-Cola for violations of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act (“the CPPA”), D.C. Code § 28-3901, et seq. Complaint at ¶¶ 20, 27. Earth Island is a non-profit organization whose “mission includes educating consumers, including in the District of Columbia, and engaging in advocacy related to environmental and human health issues.” Id. at ¶ 25. Consistent with the CPPA's private-attorney-general provision, see D.C. Code § 28-3905(k)(1)(D)(i), Earth Island brought this action “[o]n behalf of itself and the general public, and in the interest of consumers.” Complaint at 1.

Earth Island's complaint alleges that “Coca-Cola's marketing is false and deceptive because the company portrays itself as ‘sustainable' and committed to reducing plastic pollution while polluting more than any other beverage company and actively working to prevent effective recycling measures in the U.S.” Complaint at ¶ 28. In other words, Earth Island contends that “Coca-Cola's marketing and advertising tend to mislead and are materially

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deceptive about the true nature and quality of its products and business.” Id. at ¶ 19. Earth Island's prayer for relief seeks:

A. a declaration that Coca-Cola's conduct is in violation of the CPPA
B. an order enjoining Coca-Cola's conduct found to be in violation of the CPPA; and
C. an order granting Plaintiff costs and disbursements including reasonable attorneys' fees and expert fees, and prejudgment interest at the maximum rate allowable by law.

Complaint at 36.

On July 16, 2021, Coca-Cola filed a notice of removal from the Superior Court to this Court, asserting diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Notice at ¶ 4. Coca-Cola asserts that the parties are completely diverse because “Coca-Cola is headquartered in Georgia and incorporated in Delaware, and Plaintiff is a California organization.” Id. at ¶ 13. More relevant here, to satisfy the amount in controversy requirement, Coca-Cola further alleges that “Plaintiff seeks sweeping injunctive relief-to ‘end the lawful conduct directed at D.C. consumers'-that, if granted, would cost Coca-Cola more than $75, 000 to implement.” Id. At ¶ 15. In support of this allegation, Coca-Cola submits a declaration from Alpa Sutaria, the Sustainability General Manager for Coca-Cola's North American Operating Unit, describing how the company would have to spend over $75, 000 to “identify and remove all statements about Coca-Cola's commitment to environmental sustainability and recycling from its website, ” “remove references to recycling from its product labels, ” and “issue other forms of corrective advertising.” Declaration of Alpa Sutaria in Support of the Coca-Cola Company's Notice of Removal [Dkt. No. 1-3] at ¶¶ 5-8.

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On August 16, 2021, Earth Island moved to remand the case back to the Superior Court. The motion to remand advances three main arguments. First, Earth Island alleges that Coca-Cola's estimate of the amount in controversy fails because “the cost of compliance must be calculated on a per-affected-individual basis, according to the non-aggregation principle.” Pl. Mot. at 3. Second, Earth Island contends that even without the application of the non-aggregation principle, Coca-Cola's estimate is “speculative, [and] unsupported by evidence.” Id. at 7. And third, Earth Island argues that their request for attorneys' fees cannot meet the jurisdictional minimum under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Id. at 9-11. In addition, Earth Island asserts that they are entitled to recoup the fees and costs associated with litigating the remand motion. Id. at 11-12

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, with the ability to hear only cases entrusted to them by a grant of power contained either in the Constitution or in an act of Congress. See, e.g., Beethoven.com LLC v. Librarian of Congress, 394 F.3d 939, 945 (D.C. Cir. 2005); Abulhawa v. U.S. Dep't of the Treasury, 239 F.Supp.3d 24, 30 (D.D.C. 2017) (“[Courts] have ‘an affirmative obligation to consider whether the constitutional and statutory authority exist for [them] to hear each dispute' brought before them.”) (quoting James Madison Ltd. ex rel. Hecht v. Ludwig, 82 F.3d 1085, 1092 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). The Court's subject-matter jurisdiction “goes to the foundation of the court's power to resolve a case.” Goldman v. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US, LLC, 211 F.Supp.3d 322, 325 (D.D.C. 2016) (citing Doe by Fein v. District of Columbia, 93 F.3d 861, 871 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). “Because removal implicates significant federalism concerns, a court must strictly construe[] the scope of its removal

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jurisdiction.” Beyond Pesticides v. Exxon Mobil Corp., Civ. No. 20-1815, 2021 WL 1092167, at *2 (D.D.C. Mar. 22, 2021) (internal quotations omitted).

Under the federal removal statute “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.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a).[2] This provision is not limited to federal question jurisdiction but also extends to those actions in which original jurisdiction exists on the basis of diversity of citizenship. See Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). The diversity statute provides that “district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and is between . . . [c]itizens of different States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). The burden falls on the removing party to demonstrate the federal district court's jurisdiction. See Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). “If the removing party fails to make such a showing, the court must remand the case.” Toxin Free USA v. J.M. Smucker Co., 507 F.Supp.3d 40, 43 (D.D.C. 2020).

In actions for injunctive relief, the amount in controversy requirement is calculated based on “‘the value of the right that [the] plaintiff seeks to enforce or to protect' or [] the cost to the defendants to remedy the alleged denial.” Bronner on Behalf of Am. Studies Ass'n v. Duggan, 962 F.3d 596, 610 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (quoting Smith v. Washington, 593 F.2d 1097, 1099 (D.C. Cir. 1978)); see also 14AA Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3708 (4th ed. 2021). This

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calculation, however, is subject to the non-aggregation principle, which provides that “separate and distinct claims of two or more plaintiffs cannot be aggregated in order to satisfy the jurisdictional amount requirement.” Snyder v. Harris, 394 U.S. 332, 335 (1969); see also Zahn v. Int'l Paper Co., 414 U.S. 291, 294 (1973). “‘Although the D.C. Circuit has not spoken to the application of the non-aggregation principle to [CPPA] suits such as this one, courts in this district routinely apply this rule when considering the amount in controversy in cases that seek injunctive relief' under D.C. Code. § 28-3905(k)(1).” Earth Island Institute v. BlueTriton Brands, Civ. No. 21-2659, 2022 WL 252031, at *3 (D.D.C. Jan. 27, 2022) (quoting Inst. for Truth in Mktg. v. Total Health Network Corp., 321 F.Supp.3d 76, 91 (D.D.C. 2018)).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Diversity Jurisdiction

Diversity jurisdiction requires complete diversity of citizenship and an amount in controversy that exceeds $75, 000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). The parties agree that there is complete diversity of citizenship. See Notice at ¶ 13; Pl. Reply at 3. The parties disagree, however, as to whether the amount in controversy requirement is met, and if the non-aggregation principle applies to this action. The parties further disagree as to whether Earth Island's request for attorneys' fees should factor into the total calculation of cost that Coca-Cola would incur by complying with the requested relief.

The Court agrees with Earth Island that the non-aggregation principle applies to the relief requested in this case, and therefore...

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