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Jenkins v. Delta Air Lines, Inc.

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

December 21, 2018

HENRIETTA JENKINS PLAINTIFF
v.
DELTA AIR LINES, INC. DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Charles R. Simpson III, Senior Judge

         I. Introduction

         This case is before the Court on three related motions. Plaintiff, offering a stipulation that her claim seeks damages in an amount less than $75, 000, has moved to remand this case to the state court. DN 4. Defendant, content with remaining in this Court (if only briefly), opposes that motion (DN 8) and offers a motion to dismiss (DN 6). Rather than respond to that motion, Plaintiff has filed a motion to stay a ruling on the motion to dismiss pending remand. DN 7. Delta responded in opposition. DN 9. Finding that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, but that the stipulation is an unequivocal and binding limitation, the Court will grant the motion to remand and deny all other pending motions as moot.

         II. Factual Background and Procedural History

          Henrietta Jenkins was employed by Delta Air Lines, Inc. as a gate agent at Louisville International Airport. DN 1-2 at 3.[1] In that position, Jenkins alleges she was repeatedly subjected to inappropriate sexual comments and demeaning gender-based comments. Id. at 4. She complained to Delta about the harassment utilizing the company's approved policies. Id. She alleges she was then fired on March 22, 2013, in retaliation for those complaints. Id. Jenkins filed suit in Jefferson County Circuit Court, bringing claims of workplace discrimination pursuant to the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, Ky. Rev. Stat. § 344.010, et seq, on March 14, 2018. Id. at 4-5. Delta removed the case to this Court based on diversity of citizenship jurisdiction. DN 1. The pending motions followed.

         III. Discussion

         A civil case brought in state court may be removed to the federal district court embracing the place where the state action is pending so long as the federal court would have subject matter jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). A federal court has subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship when the parties are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). In this case, no party contends that the complete diversity requirement is not met. Jenkins is a citizen of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Delta is a citizen of Delaware (its state of incorporation) and Georgia (the location of its principal place of business). See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(1). The parties disagree, however, as to the amount in controversy.

         This case presents two issues: “(1) whether the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, and (2) whether Plaintiff's postremoval stipulation destroys the $75, 000 amount-in-controversy requirement for § 1332 jurisdiction.” Agri-Power, Inc. v. Majestic JC, LLC, 5:13-CV-46-TBR, 2013 WL 3280244, at *4 (W.D. Ky. June 27, 2013). Ultimately, the Court concludes that Delta has carried its burden and demonstrated by a preponderance that the amount in controversy well exceeds $75, 000. However, the Court also determines that the post-removal stipulation is an unequivocal clarification of the relief sought. Therefore, the Court will remand this case to the Jefferson County Circuit Court.

         A. Amount in Controversy

         Ordinarily, the plaintiff's asserted amount in controversy controls so long as it is demanded in good faith. 28 U.S.C. § 1446(c)(2). However, where state pleading rules do not permit a demand for a specific sum or permit the recovery of damages exceeding the amount prayed for, the defendant may assert the amount in controversy in the notice of removal. 28 U.S.C. § 1446(c)(2)(A)(ii); Rogers v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 230 F.3d 868, 871 (6th Cir. 2000) (citing Gafford v. General Elec. Co., 997 F.2d 150, 158 (6th Cir. 1993)). Under such a scenario, the burden is on the defendant to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy is met at the time of removal. Rogers, 230 F.3d at 872.

         In Kentucky, state law prohibits a plaintiff from reciting a specific sum as alleged damages, Ky. R. Civ. P. 8.01(2), and permits recovery in excess of the amount prayed for, Ky. R. Civ. P. 54.03(2). Therefore, Delta is entitled to prove by a preponderance that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. Delta does so by adducing evidence that Jenkins made $9 per hour and worked approximately 40 hours per week. DN 1 at 3. Therefore, lost wages would amount to roughly $18, 720 per year. With claims from March 22, 2013 (the date of Jenkins's termination) to March 14, 2018 (the date of filing the state complaint at issue here) alone, the amount in controversy neared $94, 000. When that amount is coupled with potential attorney's fees and punitive damages, the preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. This method of valuation has been repeatedly endorsed by this Court. See Proctor v. Swifty Oil Co., 3:12-CV-490-TBR, 2012 WL 4593409, at *2-3 (W.D. Ky. Oct. 1, 2012) (properly considering potential punitive damages and attorney's fees in determining the amount in controversy); Sanders v. Print Fulfillment Servs., LLC, 3:17-CV-245- CRS, 2017 WL 2624550, at *2 (W.D. Ky. June 16, 2017) (the evidence of the amount in controversy must come from evidence in the case at bar).

         Jenkins attempts to escape the conclusion that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 by claiming in her complaint that “[t]he amount in controversy exceed [sic] the jurisdictional limit of [the state] court, however, is less than $75, 000 inclusive of fees, punitive damages and the fair value of any injunctive relief.” DN 1-2 at 4. However, “a statement in a complaint declaring that the plaintiff is seeking less than $75, 000 is insufficient to affirmatively establish that the amount in controversy for diversity jurisdiction cannot be met.” Cook v. Estate of Moore, 3:12-CV-485-H, 2012 WL 5398064, at *1 (W.D. Ky. Nov. 2, 2012). Therefore, that statement is disregarded. Without any other dispute from Jenkins at the time of removal, it appears that Delta has met its burden of demonstrating, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. However, that is not the end of the inquiry.

         B. Effect of Post-Removal Stipulation

          This Court has repeatedly held that “plaintiffs are entitled to stipulate that they do not seek, nor will they accept, damages in an amount exceeding $75, 000, which would destroy the amount in controversy requirement for § 1332 jurisdiction.” Spence v. Centerplate, 931 F.Supp.2d 779, 781 (W.D. Ky. 2013) (citation omitted). For such a stipulation to have an effect, it must be both unequivocal and a ...


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