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Boggs v. Merideth

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville

March 21, 2017



          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge United States District Court.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant William H. Merideth's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [DN 14.] Plaintiff John David Boggs responded. [DN 15.] Merideth replied. [DN 16.] Boggs filed a supplemental pleading in support of his response. [DN 17.] Fully briefed, this matter is ripe for adjudication. For the following reasons, Merideth's motion to dismiss [DN 14] is GRANTED. The Court will enter a separate Order and Judgment consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.


         Plaintiff Boggs brought the instant action after Defendant Merideth shot down Boggs' unmanned aircraft, or “drone, ” with a shotgun. [DN 1.] Plaintiff first seeks a declaratory judgment finding that 1) an unmanned aircraft is an “aircraft” under federal law, 2) an unmanned aircraft operating in Class G airspace is operating in “navigable airspace” within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, 3) Boggs was operating his unmanned aircraft in this navigable airspace in the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, rather than on Merideth's property, 4) the operating of his unmanned aircraft in this manner did not violate Merideth's reasonable expectation of privacy, and 5) a property owner cannot shoot at an unmanned aircraft operating in navigable airspace within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States when operating in the manner in which Boggs alleges his unmanned aircraft was operating. [DN 1 at 7-8.] Second, Boggs brings a claim for trespass to chattels under Kentucky state law, for which he seeks damages in the amount of $1, 500.00, the amount in which Boggs alleges his unmanned aircraft was damaged by Merideth. [Id. at 8.]

         Merideth brought the instant motion, alleging that Boggs' complaint merely anticipates defenses Merideth could raise and that Boggs' claim for a declaratory judgment does not provide this Court with subject matter jurisdiction. [DN 14.] Boggs makes several arguments in response, the essence of which is that Boggs was flying his unmanned aircraft in the “sovereign navigable airspace of the United States, ” and therefore that resolution of his claims in federal court is proper. [DN 15.]


         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), a party may assert by motion the defense of “lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). “A Rule 12(b)(1) motion can either attack the claim of jurisdiction on its face, in which case all allegations of the plaintiff must be considered as true, or it can attack the factual basis for jurisdiction, in which case the trial court must weigh the evidence and the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that jurisdiction exists.” DLX, Inc. v. Kentucky, 381 F.3d 511, 516 (6th Cir. 2004). Because the parties here do not request that the Court make any factual determinations in ruling on the motion to dismiss, but rather dispute only the sufficiency of Boggs' complaint, the Court “will treat this as a ‘facial' 12(b)(1) motion.” Id. “A facial attack on the subject-matter jurisdiction alleged in the complaint questions merely the sufficiency of the pleading.” Gentek Bldg. Prods., Inc. v. Steel Peel Litig., 491 F.3d 320, 330 (6th Cir. 2007). “If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3); see also Bauer v. RBX Indus. Inc., 368 F.3d 569 (6th Cir. 2004).


         Of the two types of this Court's original jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331-1332, this case involves the type known as “federal question.” [DN 1 at 2.] Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, this Court has “original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. “In order to trigger federal-question jurisdiction under § 1331, a lawsuit must satisfy the well-pleaded complaint rule. Under this rule, a federal question must appear on the face of the complaint rather than as part of a defense, even if a federal-law defense is anticipated.” Chase Bank USA, N.A. v. City of Cleveland, 695 F.3d 548, 554 (6th Cir. 2012). “For statutory purposes, a case can ‘aris[e] under' federal law in two ways.” Gunn v. Minton, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 133 S.Ct. 1059, 1064 (2013). See also Hampton v. R.J. Corman R.R. Switching Co., 683 F.3d 708, 711 (6th Cir. 2012). First, “a case arises under federal law when federal law creates the cause of action asserted.” Gunn, 133 S.Ct. at 1064 (citing Am. Well Works Co. v. Layne & Bowler Co., 241 U.S. 257, 260 (1916)).

         Second, even in situations when a plaintiff brings state law claims, the Supreme Court has “identified a ‘special and small category' of cases in which arising under jurisdiction still lies.” Id. These are “state-law claims that implicate significant federal issues.” Grable & Sons Metal Prod., Inc. v. Darue Eng'g & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 312 (2005). This type of federal question jurisdiction exists in cases in which “a federal issue is: (1) necessarily raised, (2) actually disputed, (3) substantial, and (4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance approved by Congress.” Gunn, 133 S.Ct. at 1065 (citing Grable, 545 U.S. at 314). When all of the requirements are satisfied, “jurisdiction is proper because there is a ‘serious federal interest in claiming the advantages thought to be inherent in a federal forum, ' which can be vindicated without disrupting Congress's intended division of labor between state and federal courts.” Id. (citing Grable, 545 U.S. at 313-14).

         A. Boggs' State Law Trespass to Chattels Claim

         Boggs argues in his response that his Kentucky state law trespass to chattels claim satisfies the requirements for federal question jurisdiction because it “necessarily raises a disputed federal issue” under the Grable standard; that is, whether Boggs was flying his unmanned aircraft in federal airspace. [DN 15 at 8-9.] For this proposition, Boggs relies, in part, on the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) definition of “aircraft” as “a[ny] device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.” 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. Additionally, federal law provides that “[t]he United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.” 49 U.S.C. § 40103. However, as explained in the following analysis, Boggs' state law tort claim still does not satisfy the Grable standard of raising “significant federal issues.”

         1. Necessarily Raised

         Under Kentucky law, a plaintiff can establish trespass to chattels by showing that another person intentionally dispossessed another of his or her chattel or intentionally used or intermeddled with the chattel of another. Ingram Trucking, Inc. v. Allen, 372 S.W.3d 870, 872 (Ky. Ct. App. 2012) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 217 (1965)). Boggs asserts that, pursuant to the first Grable requirement, this claim necessarily raises a federal issue because Merideth will “not be liable for trespass to chattels if his ...

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