Salter v. Quality Carriers, Inc.

Decision Date08 September 2020
Docket NumberNo. 20-55709,20-55709
Citation974 F.3d 959
Parties Clayton SALTER, individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. QUALITY CARRIERS, INC., an Illinois Corporation; Quality Distribution, Inc., a Florida Corporation, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Christopher J. Eckhart (argued), E. Ashley Paynter, and James A. Eckhart, Scopelitis Garvin Light Hanson & Feary, P.C., Indianapolis, Indiana, Christopher C. McNatt, Jr., Scopelitis Garvin Light Hanson & Feary, P.C., Pasadena, California; for Defendants-Appellants.

Jennifer D. Bennett (argued), Gupta Wessler, PLLC, San Francisco, California Matthew W.H. Wessler, Gupta Wessler PLLC, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Taras Kick and Daniel Joseph Bass, The Kick Law Firm, Los Angeles, California; for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Before: Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain and Consuelo M. Callahan, Circuit Judges, and Michael H. Watson,* District Judge.

CALLAHAN, Circuit Judge:

Clayton Salter, a truck driver, filed this putative class action against Quality Carriers, Inc. and Quality Distribution, Inc. (collectively "Quality"), alleging that Quality failed to provide truck drivers with meal breaks, rest periods, overtime wages, minimum wages, and reimbursement for necessary expenditures as required by California law. The crux of Salter's claim is that Quality misclassified the truck drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. In January 2020, Quality removed the action to the United States District Court for the Central District of California asserting that the amount in controversy exceeded $5 million. Salter filed a motion to remand to state court. The district court granted the motion finding that the declaration submitted by Quality failed to adequately show that the amount in controversy exceeded $5 million. We hold that Salter challenged the form, not the substance, of Quality's showing, and the form of that showing was sufficient under our case law. Accordingly, we vacate the remand order and remand this case to the district court.

I

In October 2019, Clayton Salter filed a class action lawsuit against Quality in the Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that Quality misclassified its truck drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees. The complaint asserted claims under California law for: (1) failure to provide required meal periods; (2) failure to provide required rest periods; (3) failure to pay overtime wages; (4) failure to pay minimum wages; (5) failure to pay all wages due to discharged or quitting employees; (6) failure to maintain required records; (7) failure to provide accurate itemized statements; (8) failure to indemnify employees for necessary expenditures incurred in discharge of duties; (9) unlawful deductions from wages; and (10) unfair and unlawful business practices. Quality was served on October 18, 2019.

In January 2020, Quality filed a notice of removal with the district court invoking federal court jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 1332(d), the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA).1 Section 1332(d)(2) provides that a district court "shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action in which the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $5,000,000, exclusive of interest and costs." Salter moved to remand the case to state court asserting that Quality's notice of removal failed to demonstrate that at least $5 million was in controversy. Quality responded by submitting a declaration by Cliff Dixon, its Chief Information Officer, in support of its assertion that the amount in controversy exceeded $5 million.

Dixon's declaration states that he has been the Chief Information Officer since February 2018, has personal knowledge and understanding of company practices and records, and is familiar with Quality's record keeping programs. According to Dixon, those records reflect that: (1) between October 2015, and January 2020, "approximately 118 Contractors performed work in connection with one of [Quality's] California terminals"; (2) "[o]ne hundred and six or 89.8% of the Contractors are California residents as determined by their mailing addresses"; and (3) "approximately 186 Contractors who were connected with [Quality's] "independently owned California terminals received settlement statements between October 3, 2015 and November 9, 2019." The critical paragraphs of Dixon's declaration state that Quality's records indicated that between October 2015 and November 2019 it deducted over $14 million from the truck drivers' weekly settlements, including a total of $11,512,642.46 for fuel purchases alone. Dixon's declaration further states that based on the records maintained by Quality as part of the International Fuel Tax Agreement, of a total of approximately 105,177,266 miles reported driven during the relevant time period, approximately 67,376,290 miles, or 64% were driven in California.2

The district court found that the notice of removal assumed that Quality had deducted in excess of $5 million for fuel, insurance, maintenance, repairs, and tax expenses. The court concluded that the "unsupported and conclusory statements in Dixon's declaration are insufficient to establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million." The court noted that "Dixon fails to attach a single business record, spreadsheet, or other supporting document to his declaration to corroborate his testimony." It further noted that although Dixon states he is familiar with Quality's record keeping program, "absent from his declaration is any attestation as to precisely what these records include or whether he actually reviewed any records before his declaration was drafted." Addressing Quality's damage calculations, the district court noted that Quality "simply assumes" that Salter "seeks the return of 100 percent of the deductions made ... without setting forth any basis in Plaintiff's Complaint or otherwise supporting that assumption."

III
A.

CAFA gives federal courts jurisdiction over specified class actions if the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million.3 28 U.S.C § 1332(d). In order to remove a class action filed in state court to federal court, the defendant must file "a notice of removal signed pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and containing a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal." 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a). Where "it is unclear or ambiguous from the face of a state-court complaint whether the requisite amount in controversy is pled, the removing defendant bears the burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional threshold." Fritsch v. Swift Transp. Co. of Ariz., LLC , 899 F.3d 785, 793 (9th Cir. 2018) (quoting Urbino v. Orkin Servs. of Cal., Inc. , 726 F.3d 1118, 1121-22 (9th Cir. 2013) ).

The Supreme Court in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Sys. Co., LLC v. Owens , 574 U.S. 81, 83, 135 S.Ct. 547, 190 L.Ed.2d 495 (2014), considered the question: "To assert the amount in controversy adequately in the removal notice, does it suffice to allege the requisite amount plausibly, or must the defendant incorporate into the notice of removal evidence supporting the allegation?" The Court answered that "[a] statement ‘short and plain’ need not contain evidentiary submissions." Id at 84, 135 S.Ct. 547. The Court noted that "no antiremoval presumption attends cases invoking CAFA, which Congress enacted to facilitate adjudication of certain class actions in federal court." Id . at 89, 135 S.Ct. 547. The Court further explained that where a plaintiff contests a defendant's allegation concerning the amount in controversy, both sides may "submit proof and the court decides, by a preponderance of the evidence, whether the amount-in-controversy requirement has been satisfied." Id . at 88, 135 S.Ct. 547.

Following Dart , we held that when the claimed amount in controversy is challenged "CAFA's requirements are to be tested by consideration of real evidence and the reality of what is at stake in the litigation, using reasonable assumptions underlying the defendant's theory of damages exposure." Ibarra , 775 F.3d at 1197-98. Developing this reasoning further in Arias v. Residence Inn by Marriott , 936 F.3d 920 (9th Cir. 2019), we stated:

First, a removing defendant's notice of removal "need not contain evidentiary submissions" but only plausible allegations of the jurisdictional elements. Second, when a defendant's allegations of removal jurisdiction are challenged, the defendant's showing on the amount in controversy may rely on reasonable assumptions.

Id . at 922 (quoting and citing Ibarra , 775 F.3d at 1197-99 ).

B.

This appeal focuses on what a defendant must show for removal of a class action under CAFA when the amount in controversy is not clear from the complaint. Here, because the amount in controversy was not clear from Salter's complaint, Quality submitted Dixon's declaration to show that more than $5 million was in controversy. The district court, however, held that "[t]he unsupported and conclusory statements in Dixon's declaration are insufficient to establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million." In support of the district court, Salter notes, quoting Abrego , 443 F.3d at 682, that "the removing defendant has ‘always’ borne the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction, including any applicable amount in controversy requirement." He further argues that pursuant to Leite v. Crane Co. , 749 F.3d 1117, 1121 (9th Cir. 2014), Quality "must support [its] jurisdictional allegations with competent proof, under the same evidentiary standard that governs in the summary judgment...

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