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Seals v. Wal-Mart Stores

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division

April 26, 2019

DEBRA SEALS, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, L.P. and CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          GREGORY F.VAN TATENHOVE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are Defendant Christopher Taylor's Motion to Dismiss, and Plaintiff Debra Seals's Motion to Remand. [R. 4; R. 7.] These motions are interrelated: Mr. Taylor moves to dismiss on the grounds that he was fraudulently joined after the applicable statute of limitations had already run in order to defeat diversity jurisdiction and prevent removal to federal court. Ms. Seals argues that remand is appropriate, as Mr. Taylor was not fraudulently joined because the claim against him relates back to the time the initial pleading was filed. For the following reasons, Mr. Taylor's Motion to Dismiss will be GRANTED, and Ms. Seals's Motion to Remand will be DENIED.

         I

         The facts of this case begin in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Plaintiff Debra Seals alleges that, on or around December 13, 2016, she purchased a fire place from a Wal-Mart store in Letcher County, Kentucky. [R. 1-3 at 32.] When Defendant Christopher Taylor, a Wal-Mart employee at that location, attempted to load the fireplace into Ms. Seals's vehicle, he dropped it on her and she was injured. [R. 1-3 at 118-23.] Ms. Seals's daughter witnessed the incident. [R. 4-2.]

         One day shy of a year later, Ms. Seals initiated a lawsuit against Wal-Mart in Letcher County Circuit Court for her injuries. [R. 1-3 at 3.] The original complaint named Wal-Mart as the sole defendant and stipulated that the amount in controversy was less than $75, 000. [R. 1-3 at 12.] Ms. Seals moved to amend her complaint on August 6, 2018 in order to add claims against Mr. Taylor as the employee whose negligence allegedly injured her. [R. 1-3 at 29.] The Amended complaint also sought to remove the limit on the amount of damages sought. [R. 1-3 at 31-35; R. 5.] Wal-Mart opposed that motion. At a hearing in Letcher County Circuit Court and by brief, Wal-Mart argued-and still argues-that the claim against Mr. Taylor was time-barred, and that Ms. Seals fraudulently joined Mr. Taylor to the lawsuit in order to defeat diversity and avoid removal to federal court. Mr Taylor argues for dismissal for the same reasons. To be clear, Mr. Taylor does not dispute that he was the employee who assisted Mr. Seals in loading the fireplace into her car. His sole argument for dismissal- as well as Wal-Mart's argument for fraudulent joinder-is that the claim against him is time barred.

         In Kentucky, personal injury claims such as Ms. Seals's are subject to a one-year statute of limitations. Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 413.140(1)(a) (“The following actions shall be commenced within one (1) year after the cause of action accrued: (a) An action for an injury to the person of the plaintiff[.]”). It is undisputed that Ms. Seals filed her complaint against Wal-Mart before the one-year statute of limitations expired. It is also undisputed that Ms. Seals moved to amend her complaint to add Mr. Taylor as a party in August, 2018, almost eight months after the one year had elapsed. Thus, the crux of both pending motions is whether the claim against Mr. Taylor relates back to the date of the filing of the initial complaint. If the claim relates back, then Mr. Taylor was not fraudulently joined, the Motion to Dismiss must be denied, and the Motion to Remand must be granted. If the claim does not relate back, then the opposite is true.

         II

         A

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a plaintiff's complaint. In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court “construe[s] the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept[s] its allegations as true, and draw[s] all inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” DirecTV, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). The Court, however, “need not accept as true legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences.” Id. (quoting Gregory v. Shelby County, 220 F.3d 433, 446 (6th Cir. 2000)). The Supreme Court explained that in order “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). See also Courier v. Alcoa Wheel & Forged Products, 577 F.3d 625, 629 (6th Cir. 2009).

         B

         A defendant may remove a civil action brought in state court to federal court only if the action is one over which the federal court could have exercised original jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441, 1446. This Court has original “diversity” jurisdiction over all civil actions when “the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and the dispute is between” those who are “citizens of different states.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). In making this assessment, the Court considers whether federal jurisdiction existed at the time of removal. See Everett v. Verizon Wireless, Inc., 460 F.3d 818, 822 (6th Cir. 2006). Because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, “the removal statute should be strictly construed, ” and any doubts should be resolved in favor of remanding the case to state court. Eastman v. Marine Mech. Corp., 438 F.3d 544, 549 (6th Cir. 2006); see also Cole, 728 F.Supp. at 1307 (citations omitted).

         Fraudulent joinder is a “judicially created doctrine that provides an exception to the requirement of complete diversity.” Coyne v. Am Tobacco Co., 183 F.3d 488, 493 (6th Cir. 1999) (quoting Triggs v. John Crump Toyota, Inc., 154 F.3d 1284, 1287 (11th Cir. 1998)). This doctrine is used by courts “when the non-removing party joins a party against whom there is no colorable cause of action.” Saginaw Housing Comm'n v. Bannum, Inc., 576 F.3d 620, 624 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Jerome-Duncan Inc. v. Auto-By-Tel, LLC, 176 F.3d 904, 907 (6th Cir. 1999)). This doctrine was created to prevent plaintiffs from asserting claims against nondiverse defendants “for the sole purpose of preventing removal.” McLeod v. Cities Serv. Gas Co., 233 F.2d 242, 246 (10th Cir. 1956). If Ms. Seals's claim against Mr. Taylor has no hope of success, then the “fraudulent joinder of non-diverse defendants will not defeat removal on diversity grounds.” Saginaw Housing Com'n, 579 F.3d at 624 (quoting Coyne v. Am. Tobacco Co., 183 F.3d 488, 493 (6th Cir. 1999)).

         1

         Ms. Seals argues that this court should refuse to find fraudulent joinder under the law of the case doctrine. According to Ms. Seals, the Letcher Circuit Court has already considered, and rejected, Wal-Mart's arguments about relation back when it granted her Motion to Amend her complaint. “Under the law of the case doctrine, a court is ordinarily precluded from reexamining an issue previously decided by the same court, or a higher court in the same case.” Pacific Emplrs. Ins. Co. v. Sav-A-Lot, 291 F.3d 392, 398 (6th Cir. 2002). The doctrine also applies to rulings made by state courts prior to removal. Id. However, for the law of the case doctrine to apply, there must actually be some such ruling. It is true that the Letcher Circuit Court granted Ms. Seals's Motion to Amend, but it did so without any analysis of Wal-Mart's arguments. [R. 1-3 at 118.] In fact, in granting the motion the presiding Judge stated, on the record, “those statute of limitations. . . they might be ripe for another day.” [R. 5.] This is not a decision on the merits of an ...


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