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Morales v. Allstate Texas Lloyds

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Laredo Division

September 19, 2019



          Marina Garcia Marmolejo, United States District Judge

         Before the Court are Defendant's Notice of Removal and Plaintiffs Motion to Remand. As explained below, Plaintiffs motion, (Dkt. No. 4), is GRANTED, and this case is REMANDED to state court.

         I. Background

         In February 2019, Plaintiff sued Defendant in state court, alleging various insurance-related causes of action for storm damage to Plaintiffs property. (Dkt. No. 1-2). In accordance with Rule 47 of the Texas Rule of Civil Procedure, the complaint recited that "Plaintiff seeks only monetary relief of $100, 000 or less including damages of any kind, penalties, costs, pre-judgment interest and attorney's fees." (Dkt. No. 1-2 at 10). The complaint specified, further, that the damages in this case "do not exceed $74, 999.99," excluding interest and costs. (Id.).

         The complaint also included a "binding stipulation" that Plaintiff would "neither seek nor accept from Defendant any damages, recovery, or award" that exceeded $74, 999.99, excluding interest and costs. (Id.). The complaint defined "damages, recovery, or award" to include applicable statutory damages, exemplary damages, punitive damages, penalties, and attorney's fees. (Id. at 10-11).[1]

         In April 2019, Defendant timely removed to this Court, asserting that the parties are completely diverse and the amount in controversy likely exceeds $75, 000. (Dkt. No. 1 at 3). In its Notice of Removal, Defendant urges the Court to disregard Plaintiffs binding stipulation as a bad faith attempt to avoid federal jurisdiction. (Id. at 4-7). Defendant maintains that, without the stipulation, Plaintiffs claimed damages exceed the jurisdictional threshold. (Id.).

         Plaintiff, in turn, moved to remand to state court, arguing that the damages demand and binding stipulation in his complaint fix the amount in controversy below $75, 000. (Dkt. No. 4 at 2). Appended to his motion is a second "binding stipulation," which reaffirms that: (1) the amount in controversy does not exceed $75, 000; (2) Plaintiff does not seek damages above $75, 000; and (3) "Plaintiff understands and agrees that [his] total recovery is limited to an amount less than $75, 000." (Dkt. No. 4-1 at 1). The stipulation is signed by Plaintiffs attorney and accompanied by a notarized verification signed by Plaintiff. (Id. at 2). In its response, Defendant counters that the Court may not consider Plaintiffs post-removal stipulation because the amount in controversy was not ambiguous at the time of removal. (Dkt. No. 8 at 2-3).

         II. Legal Standard

         In general, a defendant may remove a case to federal court if the case originally could have been filed there. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). The "removing defendant bears the burden of establishing removal jurisdiction." Ashford v. Aeroframe Servs., L.L.C., 907 F.3d 385, 395 (5th Cir. 2018). An action may be removed under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 if the parties are completely diverse and the "amount in controversy is greater than $75, 000 exclusive of interests and costs." Allen v. Walmart Stores, L.L.C., 907 F.3d 170, 183 (5th Cir. 2018). In determining jurisdiction, the Court "must 'resolve all contested factual issues and ambiguities of state law in favor of the plaintiff.'" Allen, 907 F.3d at 183 (citation omitted); Manguno v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 276 F.3d 720, 723 (5th Cir. 2002).

         In diversity cases, typically "the sum demanded in good faith in the initial pleading shall be deemed to be the amount in controversy." 28 U.S.C. § 1446(c)(2). In that regard, a plaintiff who wishes to try his case in state court may defeat removal by suing for less than $75, 000, even if he otherwise would be entitled to more. De Aguilar v. Boeing Co., 47 F.3d 1404, 1410 (5th Cir. 1995) (citing St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 294 (1938)). After all, the "[p]laintiff is, to some extent, still the master of his own claim." Id.

         The pleadings will not control the amount in controversy, however, when "made in bad faith or when state practice does not permit demand for a specific sum of damages." Cavazos v. Allstate Vehicle & Prop. Ins. Co., 7:17-CV-368, 2017 WL 11317904, at *2 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 12, 2017) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1446(c)(2)); De Aguilar, 47 F.3d at 1410. Under those circumstances, the defendant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the actual amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. De Aguilar, 47 F.3d at 1412. The preponderance standard "forces the defendant to do more than point to a state law that might allow the plaintiff to recover more than what is pled." Id. Rather, a defendant may satisfy this burden by "(1) showing it is 'apparent from the claims of the petition that the claims are likely to exceed $75, 000' or (2) setting forth 'summary judgment-type evidence of facts in controversy that support a finding of the requisite amount.'" Chavez v. State Farm Lloyds, 15-CV-487, 2016 WL 641634, at *l (S.D. Tex. Feb. 18, 2016) (quoting Manguno v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 276 F.3d 720, 723 (5th Cir. 2002)), aff'd 746 Fed.Appx. 337 (5th Cir. 2018).

         If a defendant makes that showing, a plaintiff can avoid removal only if he can demonstrate that it is "legally certain that his recovery will not exceed the amount stated in the state complaint." De Aguilar, 47 F.3d at 1412. If a plaintiff cannot cite a state law that bars such recovery, he can file a "binding stipulation" with his complaint that limits his possible recovery to an amount below the jurisdictional threshold. Id. at 1412. To determine whether a stipulation is binding, the "general principle is that plaintiffs will have to show that they are bound irrevocably by their state pleadings." Id. at n.10.

         The "jurisdictional facts that support removal must be judged at the time of the removal." Gebbia v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 233 F.3d 880, 883 (5th Cir. 2000). If it is "facially apparent from the petition that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 at the time of removal, post-removal affidavits, stipulations, and amendments reducing the amount do not deprive the district court of jurisdiction." Id. However, post-removal filings may be considered if the "basis for jurisdiction is ambiguous at the time of removal." Id. In that case, even though the court is considering post-removal filings, it is "still examining the jurisdictional facts as of the time the case is removed." Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala O Artesanales de Colombia (ANPAC) v. Dow Quimica de Colombia S.A., 988 F.2d 559, 565 (5th Cir. 1993).

         III. ...

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