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State v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 29, 2018



          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         The State of Connecticut brought this suit under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-298 against inmate Rashad Williams to recover the costs it incurred in providing public defender services to him over the course of several years. Williams removed the case to this Court, citing federal question jurisdiction. (ECF No. 1 at 2). In particular, Williams asserts that this case is related to another case before this Court in which he attained a $300,000 judgment against an employee of the State of Connecticut’s Department of Correction for violations of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”). See Williams v. Murphy, 13CV01154 (MPS) (“2013 case”). After the entry of judgment in that case, the State of Connecticut sought to apply a lien against the judgment for the costs of incarcerating Williams under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-85b. Williams challenged the constitutionality of that action, along with others, in motions filed in that case on the basis that the State’s actions were preempted by Section 1983. (See Id. at ECF No. 240; ECF No. 256). He asserts in his removal notice that the State of Connecticut’s attempt to recover public defender costs from the proceeds of his judgment is similarly preempted by Section 1983. (ECF No. 1 at 3).[1]

         Before me now is the State of Connecticut’s motion to remand the case back to state court and for costs and attorney’s fees. (ECF No. 11). For the reasons set forth below, the State’s motion is granted in part and denied in part. I remand this case to Connecticut Superior Court but I do not award the State of Connecticut costs and attorney’s fees.

         I. Discussion

         a. Removal

         “In evaluating the propriety of a removal, courts start with the baseline principle that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.” Veneruso v. Mount Vernon neighborhood Health Center, 933 F. Supp. 2d 613, 618 (S.D.N.Y. 2013). Thus, “removal jurisdiction exists in a given case only when that jurisdiction is expressly conferred on the courts by Congress.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Under “28 U.S.C. § 1441, a civil action filed in state court may be removed by the defendant to federal district court if the district court has original subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claim.” Lupo v. Human Affairs Intern., Inc., 28 F.3d 269, 271 (2d Cir. 1994); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) (“Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a state court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.”). “[D]istrict courts . . . have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         While “[t]his provision for federal-question jurisdiction is invoked by and large by plaintiffs pleading a cause of action created by federal law,” “[t]here is . . . another longstanding, if less frequently encountered variety of federal ‘arising under’ jurisdiction.” Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. v. Darue Engineering & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 312 (2005). “[E]ven where a claim finds its origins in state rather than federal law,” the Supreme Court has “identified a ‘special and small category’ of cases in which arising under jurisdiction still lies.” Gunn v. Minton, 568 U.S. 251, 258 (2013) (quoting Empire Healthchoice Assurance, Inc. v. McVeigh, 547 U.S. 677, 699 (2006)). A state-law claim falls within this limited category when it “necessarily raise[s] a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which a federal forum may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.” Id. (quoting Grable, 545 U.S. at 314). Thus, “federal jurisdiction over a state law claim will lie if 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.” (Id.). “The removing party bears the burden of establishing that removal is proper.” Zerafa v. Montefiore Hosp. Hous. Co., 403 F. Supp. 2d 320, 325 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

         Williams argues that the State’s claim falls within this narrow category of federal “arising under” jurisdiction. (ECF No. 15 at 5). However, he fails to meet the first factor of the Gunn test. With regard to the first factor, “[a] state-law claim ‘necessarily’ raises federal questions where the claim is affirmatively ‘premised’ on a violation of federal law.” New York ex rel. Jacobson v. Wells Fargo National Bank, N.A., 824 F.3d 308, 315 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting Grable, 545 U.S. at 314). By contrast, a state law-claim does not necessarily raise a federal question “where all [of the plaintiff’s] claims s[eek] relief under state law and none necessarily raise[s] a federal issue.” Id. (quoting Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. v. Manning, 136 S. Ct. 1562, 1575 (2016)). Thus, the relevant inquiry concerns whether the plaintiff’s state law claim requires a showing under federal law to succeed. See In re Standard & Poor's Rating Agency Litig., 23 F. Supp. 3d 378, 396 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (concluding state law claim did not “necessarily” raise a federal question because it did not require plaintiff to prove a violation of federal law to prevail on the claim).

         The State of Connecticut’s sole claim in this case relies upon Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-298, which provides a right of action under Connecticut state law against any person who has received public defender services from the State. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-298 (“The [Connecticut Public Defender] [C]ommission shall have a claim against any person represented by a public defender, assistant public defender, deputy assistant public defender or Division of Public Defender Services assigned counsel pursuant to this chapter, for the reasonable value of services rendered to him, as determined in accordance with the schedule of reasonable charges for public defender services provided by the [Public Defender Services Commission].”). This claim does not turn on any construction of federal law and therefore does not “necessarily” raise a federal question. Even if, as Williams suggests, the State is only bringing the claim because Williams has won a federal judgment, that does not make proof of the federal judgment-or the underlying Section 1983 claim-a necessary component of the State’s claim. This remains true even if, as Williams argues, the State must prove that Williams has “become financially able to meet all or some part of the cost of the [public defender] services rendered to him,”[2] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-298(a), and the State can make that showing only because Williams won the Section 1983 judgment. That circumstance would not necessarily raise an issue of federal law for the Court to decide.

         Williams also argues that this Court “may appropriately exercise its ancillary jurisdiction arising from the [2013 case] to adjudicate this case.” (ECF No. 15 at 5); see also K.C. ex rel. Erica C. v. Torlakson, 762 F.3d 963, 966 (9th Cir. 2014) (“The ‘doctrine of ancillary jurisdiction . . . recognizes federal courts’ jurisdiction over some matters (otherwise beyond their competence) that are incidental to other matters properly before them.’” (quoting Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 378 (1994))). However, the Supreme Court foreclosed this avenue of removal in Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc. v. Henson, 537 U.S. 28 (2002). Syngenta concerned attempted removal by defendants of a state court proceeding they alleged was initiated in violation of a settlement in a related but separate federal court case. See Id. at 30. The defendants claimed that the removal was justified, in part, on the basis that the federal court possessed “ancillary enforcement jurisdiction” over the state law claims at issue due to their violation of the settlement in federal court. Id. at 33-34.

         The Syngenta Court rejected this contention. Id. at 34. It noted that the defendants “fail[ed] to explain how the [federal district court’s] retention of jurisdiction over the . . . settlement [in the related case] authorized removal of the [state court] action.” Id. at 34. Removal, the Court noted, “is governed by statute, and invocation of ancillary jurisdiction . . . does not dispense with the need for compliance with statutory requirements.” Id. The Court also rejected the defendants’ claim “that ancillary jurisdiction authorizes removal under 28 U.S.C. § 1441.” Id. Since “a court must have jurisdiction over a case or controversy before it may assert jurisdiction over ancillary claims,” the Court noted, ancillary jurisdiction “cannot provide the original jurisdiction that petitioners must show in order to qualify for removal under § 1441.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Thus, even if this Court did possess ancillary jurisdiction over the issues presented by this case, that would not provide a valid basis for removal of this action from state court.

         I therefore conclude that this matter must be remanded to Connecticut Superior Court.[3]

         b. Costs and Attorney’s Fees

         “An order remanding the case may require payment of just costs and any actual expenses, including attorney fees, incurred as a result of the removal.” 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). “Absent unusual circumstances, courts may award attorney’s fees under § 1447(c) only where the removing party lacked an objectively reasonable basis for seeking removal.” Martin v. Franklin Capital Corp., 546 U.S. 132, 141 (2005). “In applying this rule, district courts retain discretion to consider whether unusual circumstances warrant a departure from the rule in a given case.” Id. The Martin Court provides as examples of such unusual circumstances “a plaintiff’s delay in seeking remand or failure to disclose facts necessary to determine jurisdiction. . . .” Id. “When a court ...

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