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Town of Westport v. Cuseo Family, LLC

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 1, 2018



          MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff the Town of Westport (“the Town”) brought this action against Defendants Cuseo Family, LLC, A&J Farm Stand, LLC, and Albert Cuseo, III (collectively, “Defendants”) on June 26, 2015, in the Superior Court for the Judicial District of Bridgeport-Fairfield. The Town sought to foreclose upon real estate tax and sewer use liens on a parcel of commercial property located at 1680 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut. (ECF No. 1 at 17, 27-36.) Defendant Albert Cuseo, III removed the case to this Court on June 4, 2018, citing diversity jurisdiction and federal question jurisdiction, and arguing that removal was timely on the grounds of the plaintiff's bad faith in preventing removal. (ECF No. 1.)

         In his Notice of Removal, Cuseo states that co-defendants Cuseo Family, LLC-which he claims was registered in Colorado after being dissolved in Connecticut-and A&J Farm Stand LLC, consent to removal.[1] Cuseo takes issue with the foreclosure proceedings that occurred in Superior Court since 2015, in which the Superior Court entered a judgment of foreclosure in the Town's favor, and states that he “is now turning to the Federal Courts.” (ECF No. 1 at 8.) He argues that the Court has federal question jurisdiction because the foreclosure proceedings implicate several of his federal constitutional rights and because they involved alleged violations of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”).

         Shortly after removal, the Court issued an order to show cause why remand was not warranted for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. (ECF No. 6.) The Order to Show Cause notified Mr. Cuseo that neither diversity nor federal question jurisdiction appeared to exist, and that federal jurisdiction also appeared barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. (Id.)

         Before me now are motions to remand the case back to state court filed by the Town and Defendant Cuseo Family LLC. (ECF Nos. 8, 11.) For the reasons set forth below, the motions are granted. I remand this case to Connecticut Superior Court.

         II. Discussion

         “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.”). “[T]he party asserting jurisdiction bears the burden of proving that the case is properly in federal court.” United Food & Comm. Workers Union, Local 919, AFL-CIO v. CenterMark Props. Meriden Square, Inc., 30 F.3d 298, 301 (2d Cir. 1994). Because “statutory procedures for removal are to be strictly construed, ” courts “resolve any doubts against removability.” In re Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (“MTBE”) Prods. Liab. Litig., 488 F.3d 112, 124 (2d Cir. 2007).

         a. Diversity Jurisdiction

         Mr. Cuseo first argues that the Court may exercise jurisdiction over this case on the basis of diversity of citizenship. “Federal courts have original jurisdiction over civil actions” in which diversity jurisdiction exists. MBIA Ins. Corp. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 706 F.Supp.2d 380, 385 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Diversity jurisdiction “exists over ‘civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and is between . . . citizens of different States.” Hallingby v. Hallingby, 574 F.3d 51, 56 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1)). “Citizens of different States means that there must be complete diversity, i.e., that each plaintiff's citizenship must be different from the citizenship of each defendant.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Cuseo claims in the Notice of Removal that Plaintiff does not reside in the same state as Defendant Cuseo Family, LLC, which is now allegedly domiciled in Colorado. (ECF No. 1 at 12.) Even so, Cuseo, whose address is listed on the docket as 1680 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, himself appears to be domiciled in Connecticut, destroying complete diversity. Moreover, as a citizen of the state in which the action was brought, Cuseo may not remove the action to federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2); see also Wells Fargo Bank, Nat'l. Ass. v. White, No. 3:17-CV-858 (VAB), 2018 WL 650372, at *2 (D. Conn. Jan. 31, 2018) (remanding where the defendant seeking removal was a Connecticut citizen). Because it is Cuseo's burden to establish removal jurisdiction and he has failed to do so on diversity grounds, diversity does not provide a proper basis for federal jurisdiction.

         b. Federal Question Jurisdiction

         Mr. Cuseo next argues that the Court may exercise jurisdiction over this case on the basis of a federal question. To show removal was proper on the basis of federal question jurisdiction, a defendant must show that the plaintiff's claims “arise[] under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A claim arises under those laws if either (i) federal law creates one of the causes of action asserted in the complaint, or (ii) Plaintiff's claims fall in a “small category” of cases where “a claim that finds its origins in state rather than federal law” raises a “substantial” federal question. Gunn v. Minton, 133 S.Ct. 1059, 1064 (2013). More specifically, in the latter category, “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. at 1065. All four requirements must be met for a case to fall into this “special and small category.” Id. at 1064-65. “Under the ‘well-pleaded complaint rule,' a defendant generally may not remove a case to federal court unless the plaintiff's complaint establishes that the case arises under federal law.” McCulloch Orthopaedic Surgical Servs., PLLC v. Aetna Inc., 857 F.3d 141, 145 (2d Cir. 2017) (quoting Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 207 (2004)).

         The complaint in this case alleges no causes of action created by federal law. Rather, the complaint sought foreclosure of the Town's property tax and sewer use liens under state law, specifically, Connecticut General Statutes §§ 12-181 and 7-258. Therefore, whether federal question jurisdiction exists in this case depends on whether Plaintiff's case falls within the “special and small category of cases, ” id. at 1064, in which the Court must resolve “a substantial question of federal law in dispute between the parties.” ...

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