Earth Island Inst. v. Bluetriton Brands, Civil Action 21-2659 (JEB)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Decision Date27 January 2022
Docket NumberCivil Action 21-2659 (JEB)



Civil Action No. 21-2659 (JEB)

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 27, 2022



As first-year law students are well aware, suits brought in federal court under 28 U.S.C § 1332 must (1) involve parties from different states and (2) satisfy an amount-in-controversy requirement of over $75, 000. While those students no doubt spend many hours scrutinizing the finer details of the first component, they likely commit far less attention to the ins and outs of the second. Yet that amount in controversy is indeed the controversy covered in this Opinion.

Plaintiff Earth Island Institute initially brought this action in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against Defendant BlueTriton Brands, which owns well-known bottled-water brands such as Poland Spring. Earth Island alleged violations of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act, contending that the company's representations about its sustainability practices misled and deceived D.C. consumers. Asserting diversity jurisdiction, BlueTriton removed the case to this Court. Plaintiff now moves to remand. As the Court agrees with Earth Island that the amount in controversy does not exceed $75, 000, it will grant the Motion. It will deny, however, Plaintiff's request for fees and costs.


I. Background

Taking the facts alleged in the Complaint as true, the Court begins with Earth Island, which is a “public-interest organization whose mission is to advocate for environmental and human health through activist projects, legal advocacy, leadership, and an award-winning journal.” ECF No. 1-2 (Complaint), ¶ 28. Its Complaint alleges that BlueTriton, formerly known as Nestle Waters North America, uses marketing that is “false and deceptive because the company portrays itself as being sustainable and committed to reducing plastic pollution through its recycling targets while falling short of those targets and continuing its environmentally harmful practices.” Id., ¶ 43. In other words, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant's “marketing and advertising tend to mislead and are materially deceptive about the true nature and quality of its products and business.” Id., ¶ 19.

Earth Island originally brought this action in Superior Court “on behalf of itself, its members, and the general public of the District of Columbia” under the CPPA's private-attorney-general provision, D.C. Code § 28-3905(k). Id., ¶ 137; see Toxin Free USA v. J.M. Smucker Co., 507 F.Supp.3d 40, 43-45 (D.D.C. 2020) (discussing such provision). Plaintiff's Prayer for Relief seeks the following:

A. a declaration that Blue Triton's conduct is in violation of the CPPA
B. an order enjoining Blue Triton'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

Compl. at 29.

On October 11, 2021, Defendant filed a Notice of Removal from Superior Court, asserting diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). See ECF No. 1 (Notice of Removal)


at 1. In support of its assertion that there is more than $75, 000 in controversy, BlueTriton submitted a declaration from Laetitia Allexant-DelRossi, its then-Marketing Director for Brand Strategy & Storytelling, describing how the company would have to spend over $75, 000 to correct its marketing if found liable. See ECF No. 1-7 (Allexant-DelRossi Decl.) at 1-2; ECF No. 9 (Def. Opp.) at 3-4. Shortly after the case was assigned to this Court, Plaintiff moved to remand on the ground that subject-matter jurisdiction is lacking. See ECF No. 8-1 (Motion to Remand).

II. Legal Standard

Federal courts are courts of limited subject-matter jurisdiction and “possess only that power authorized by [the] Constitution and statute.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). The issue of federal subject-matter jurisdiction “goes to the foundation of the court's power to resolve a case.” Doe by Fein v. District of Columbia, 93 F.3d 861, 871 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (citing Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541 (1986)).

“Ordinarily, the plaintiff is entitled to select the forum in which he wishes to proceed.” Araya v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., 775 F.3d 409, 413 (D.C. Cir. 2014). A defendant may, however, remove “any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Removal is thus appropriate when the case raises a cognizable question “arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, ” 28 U.S.C. § 1331, or when the case involves citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. Id. § 1332(a). “The removing party bears the burden of showing that removal is proper.” Toxin Free USA, 507 F.Supp.3d at 43. “If the removing party fails to make such a showing, the court must remand the case.” Id. (citing


Animal Legal Def. Fund v. Hormel Foods Corp., 249 F.Supp.3d 53, 56 (D.D.C. 2017)); see Republic of Venezuela v. Philip Morris Inc., 287 F.3d 192, 196 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (“When it appears that a district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a case that has been removed from a state court, the district court must remand the case.”).

III. Analysis

Plaintiff contends that remand is required because the Court does not have subject-matter jurisdiction over this action. See Motion to Remand at 3-11. Earth Island also seeks to “recoup its just costs and actual expenses, including attorneys' fees, associated with returning this case to the District of Columbia Superior Court, on the basis that BlueTriton lacked an objectively reasonable basis for removal.” Id at 11. The Court considers each issue in turn.

A. Diversity Jurisdiction

As referenced above, under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), district courts “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 . . . citizens of different States.” Here, the parties agree that there is complete diversity of parties. See Def. Opp. at 4; ECF No. 10 (Reply) at 3. The lone jurisdictional issue for the Court to decide is thus whether the amount in controversy is met. More specifically, the parties dispute how to calculate that amount, whether it must be apportioned amongst all consumers in Washington, D.C, and how Earth Island's request for attorney fees affects the amount at issue.

1. Calculation of Amount

A threshold question is how a court should determine the amount in controversy where, as here, only injunctive relief and no damages are sought. A number of courts in this district have made clear that when “resolving similar motions to remand CPPA actions in which the only


relief sought was injunctive and declaratory relief and attorneys' fees, ” it is appropriate to consider the total “cost [the defendant] would incur by complying with the requested injunctive relief in [the] calculation of the amount in controversy.” Organic Consumers Ass'n v. R.C. Bigelow, Inc., 314 F.Supp.3d 344, 348-49 (D.D.C. 2018) (collecting cases). The Court will assume, as Defendant urges it to, that this is an appropriate method for determining the overall amount at issue here. See Def Opp. at 4-5. The Court will similarly assume that, notwithstanding Plaintiffs objections, Defendant's estimate of its cost to comply with the desired injunctive relief - approximately $800, 000, see Allexant-DelRossi Decl. at 2 - is reasonable and nonspeculative. See Def. Opp. at 5-7; Motion to Remand at 7-9. The Court makes those assumptions because, even drawing such inferences in favor of BlueTriton, the amount-in-controversy requirement has nonetheless not been met here. That holding flows from the Court's conclusions in the next two sections.

2. Non-Aggregation

Plaintiff first contends that even if the total cost to Defendant of complying with the sought-after injunctive relief would exceed $75, 000, the amount-in-controversy requirement is not satisfied here because that cost must be apportioned among all consumers in this city, on behalf of whom Earth Island brings this challenge. The Court agrees.

The non-aggregation principle 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).


See Inst. for Truth in Mktg. v. Total Health Network Corp., 321...

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