Rogers v. Wal-Mart

Decision Date13 September 2000
Docket NumberNo. 99-6348,99-6348
Citation230 F.3d 868
Parties(6th Cir. 2000) Shirley K. Rogers, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Defendant-Appellee. Argued:
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Memphis. No. 99-02342--Jon Phipps McCalla, District Judge. [Copyrighted Material Omitted] Ted S. Angelakis, SKOUTERIS LAW FIRM, Memphis, Tennessee, Daniel F.B. Peel, PEEL & WEIRICH, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant.

Cameron C. Jehl, Lorrie K. Ridder, William O. Luckett, Jr., ROSSIE, LUCKETT, PARKER & RIDDER, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Before: GUY and MOORE, Circuit Judges; DOWD, District Judge*.

OPINION

DOWD, District Judge.

I. Introduction

This case arises out of injuries suffered by Shirley K. Rogers when she tripped and fell on a wooden pallet located in the aisle of a Wal-Mart store in Memphis, Tennessee. Rogers contends that employees of Wal-Mart acted negligently in leaving the pallet in a shopping area.

On October 17, 1997, Rogers filed a complaint in Tennessee state court asserting her negligence claims and seeking approximately $950,000 in damages. On November 18, 1997, Wal-Mart answered and removed to the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee on the grounds of complete diversity among the parties and an amount in controversy exceeding $75,000. On October 9, 1998, the parties stipulated to dismissal, and on October 14, 1998, the district court entered an order dismissing the case without prejudice.

On February 4, 1999, Rogers filed a new complaint in Tennessee state court. The second complaint, arising out of the same occurrence, specified that Rogers sought to recover an amount "not exceeding $75,000." Wal-Mart filed another notice of removal based on answers to interrogatories in the first case in which Rogers estimated her damages at $447,000. Rogers filed a motion to remand on May 14, 1999, asserting that the amount-in-controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction had not been met. Along with her motion to remand, Rogers submitted an affidavit stating that she "had no intention of seeking additional damages against Wal-Mart Stores, Inc." and that she had "instructed [her] attorney to stipulate that [her] demand for damages will not exceed $75,000 at any time in the future." Rogers also attached a stipulation admitting that her total damages did not exceed $75,000 and stating that she would not seek leave of court to amend her complaint for additional damages. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart moved the district court, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(d), to award costs and fees for the previously dismissed action.

The district court denied Rogers' motion to remand on June 23, 1999. On the same day, the district court granted Wal-Mart's Rule 41(d) motion and ordered Rogers to pay costs and attorney fees from the original action representing work that would not benefit Wal-Mart in the second action. The district court also stayed the proceedings and gave Rogers fourteen days to pay Wal-Mart the costs and fees. On September 2, 1999, the district court dismissed the case without prejudice due to Rogers' non-payment of Wal-Mart's costs and fees from the first action.

Rogers has appealed the district court's June 23, 1999 Order denying her motion to remand; its Order of June 23, 1999 granting costs under Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(d); and its Order and Judgment entered on September 2, 1999 dismissing the case without prejudice with costs taxed to the plaintiff.

II. Removal

We review de novo the existence of subject matter jurisdiction as a question of law; factual determinations regarding jurisdictional issues are reviewed for clear error. See Gafford v. General Elec. Co., 997 F.2d 150, 155 (6th Cir. 1993). We also review de novo the denial of a motion to remand. See Ahearn v. Charter Twp. of Bloomfield, 100 F.3d 451, 453 (6th Cir. 1996).

Generally, a civil case brought in a state court may be removed by a defendant to federal court if it could have been brought there originally. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). A federal district court has original "diversity" jurisdiction where the suit is between citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, exclusive of costs and interest. 28 U.S.C. 1332(a). A defendant removing a case has the burden of proving the diversity jurisdiction requirements. See Wilson v. Republic Iron & Steel Co., 257 U.S. 92, 97 (1921).

A problem arises where, as here, a plaintiff alleges an amount in controversy below the jurisdictional amount. Generally, because the plaintiff is "master of the claim," a claim specifically less than the federal requirement should preclude removal. See Gafford v. General Elec. Co., 997 F.2d 150, 157 (6th Cir. 1993). State counterparts to Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(c) might enable a plaintiff to claim in her complaint an amount lower than the federal amount in controversy but nevertheless seek and recover damages exceeding the amount prayed for. Id. Tennessee has one such rule. Its Civil Procedure Rule 54.03 provides that, except in the case of default, "every final judgment shall grant relief to which the party in whose favor it is rendered is entitled, even if the party has not demanded such relief in the party's pleadings." In such situations, the removing defendant must show that it is "more likely than not" that the plaintiff's claims meet the amount in controversy requirement. Gafford, 997 F.2d at 158.

To meet its burden for removal, the defendant in this case relied on the fact that plaintiff's first action sought nearly $1 million and that plaintiff made sworn responses to discovery requests stating that her amount of damages exceeded $447,000. The district court cited these facts in finding that it was more likely than not that the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000. Rogers, however, argues that the district court should have granted her motion to remand because she (1) filed a complaint in the second action seeking damages under the jurisdictional amount; and (2) stipulated that her damages were under the required amount in controversy for diversity jurisdiction.

Neither of these facts suffices to require a remand to state court. This circuit has recognized a rule that the determination of federal jurisdiction in a diversity case is made as of the time of removal. See Ahearn v. Charter Twp. of Bloomfield, 100 F.3d 451, 453 (6th Cir. 1996). Hence, in reviewing the denial of a motion to remand, a court looks to "whether the action was properly removed in the first place." Id. (citing Fakouri v. Pizza Hut of Am., Inc., 824 F.2d 470, 472 (6th Cir. 1987)). If one does not take into account plaintiff's post-removal stipulation, then there is no question that the district court was correct to deny the motion to remand because defendant showed that, at the time of removal, the amount in controversy was "more likely than not" above the $75,000 pleaded in plaintiff's complaint1.

Therefore, the main issue here is the effect, if any, of plaintiff's stipulation. The Seventh Circuit has held that a post-removal stipulation reducing the amount in controversy to below the required jurisdictional amount is ineffective to deprive a district court of jurisdiction. See In re Shell Oil Co., 970 F.2d 355, 356 (7th Cir. 1992). The court based its decision on St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283 (1938), in which the Supreme Court considered whether a post-removal amendment of a complaint could destroy diversity jurisdiction. In ruling that it could not, the St. Paul Court stated that "[e]vents occurring subsequent to the institution of suit which reduce the amount recoverable below the statutory limit do not oust jurisdiction." Id. at 290. On the strength of this rule, the Shell Oil court reasoned that "because jurisdiction is determined as of the instant of removal, a post-removal affidavit or stipulation is no more effective than a post-removal amendment of the complaint." 970 F.2d at 356; see also Chase v. Shop 'N Save Warehouse Foods, Inc., 110 F.3d 424, 429 (7th Cir. 1997) ("because the stipulation came one month post-removal, [it was] too late for the court to consider").

Although no published opinion of this circuit has directly addressed the effect of a post-removal stipulation on diversity jurisdiction, in Sanford v. Gardenour, No. 99-5504, 2000 WL 1033025 (6th Cir. July 17, 2000), the court found there was jurisdiction even though the plaintiffs had stipulated after removal that "the amount they were seeking was less than $75,000." Id. at *2. The plaintiffs had made Rule 26 disclosures that the amount of damages was about $500,000. In addition, the plaintiffs' stipulation had not been binding--a fact the court used to distinguish its case from several district court cases that had given effect to a binding post-removal stipulation. Id. at *3. Also, in Mitchell v. White Castle Sys., Inc., No. 94-1193, 1996 WL 279863 (6th Cir. May 24, 1996), although noting that the plaintiff had offered to file a post-removal stipulation, the court interpreted St. Paul as holding that "a post-removal stipulation has no effect on federal jurisdiction over the original complaint." Id. at *2 n.2.

We conclude that post-removal stipulations do not create an exception to the rule articulated in St. Paul. Because jurisdiction is determined as of the time of removal, events occurring after removal that reduce the amount in controversy do not oust jurisdiction. Therefore, consistent with St. Paul and previous unpublished Sixth Circuit opinions, we hold that a post-removal stipulation reducing the amount in controversy to below the jurisdictional limit does not require remand to state court. This rule is grounded not only in precedent, but also in sound policy. If plaintiffs were able to defeat jurisdiction by way of a post-removal stipulation, they could unfairly manipulate...

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