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Lafferty v. Jones

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 5, 2018

ERICA LAFFERTY, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ALEX EMERIC JONES, et al., Defendants.

          RULING RE: MOTION FOR REMAND (DOC. NO. 37)

          Janet C. Hall, United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the court is plaintiffs' Motion to Remand (Doc. No. 37). In addition, plaintiffs seek an award of attorney's fees. Defendants argue that the Motion to Remand should be denied because plaintiffs fraudulently joined a non-diverse party to defeat diversity jurisdiction.[1] For the reasons stated below, the Motion for Remand is GRANTED, insofar as it seeks to remand the case, and DENIED insofar as it seeks attorney's fees.

         II. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. See Notice of Removal, Ex. 1 (Summons and Complaint) (“Complaint”) (Doc. No. 1-1) ¶ 1. Plaintiffs Erica Lafferty, David Wheeler, Francine Wheeler, Jacqueline Barden, Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley, Ian Hockley, Jennifer Hensel, Jeremy Richman, Donna Soto, Carlee Soto-Parisi, Carlos M. Soto, and Jillian Soto (collectively “plaintiffs”), filed suit against defendants Alex Emeric Jones, Infowars, LLC, Free Speech Systems, LLC, Infowars Health, LLC, Prison Planet TV, LLC, Wolfgang Halbig, Cory T. Sklanka, Genesis Communications Network, Inc., and Midas Resources, Inc. (collectively “defendants”), in the Superior Court, Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport, Connecticut, on May 23, 2018. Id. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants are liable for (1) invasion of privacy by false light; (2) defamation; (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (4) negligent infliction of emotional distress; and (6) violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 42-110a, et. seq, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (“CUTPA”). See id. ¶¶ 336-94.

         On July 13, 2018, defendants filed a Notice of Removal. See generally, Notice of Removal (Doc. No. 1). Defendants argued that removal was proper because plaintiffs fraudulently joined the only non-diverse defendant, Cory Sklanka. See Id. ¶ 18. They argued that plaintiffs' “sole purpose” in naming Sklanka as a defendant was to “attempt to break diversity, ” see id. ¶ 10, and that “there is no possibility, based on the pleadings, that [plaintiffs could] state a cause of action against Mr. Sklanka in state court, ” id. ¶ 19 (quotations and citations omitted).

         On July 31, 2018, plaintiffs filed the Motion to Remand now pending before this court. See generally, Motion to Remand (“Mot. to Remand”) (Doc. No. 37). In their Memorandum of Law in Support of the Motion to Remand (“Pls.' Mem. in Supp.”) (Doc. No. 38), plaintiffs argued that this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because (1) complete diversity of citizenship between the parties is lacking, and (2) defendants failed to meet their burden to prove that plaintiffs fraudulently joined. See Pls.' Mem. in Supp. at 1. Defendants Alex Jones, Infowars, LLC, Infowars Health, LLC, Free Speech Systems, LLC, and Prison Planet TV, LLC filed an Opposition to the Motion to Remand on September 25, 2018. See Infowars Defendants' Opposition to Motion to Remand (“Infowars Defs.' Opp'n”) (Doc. No. 51) at 1. Defendant Midas Resources, Inc. filed an Opposition to the Motion to Remand on September 28, 2018. See generally Midas Resources, Inc.'s Opposition to Motion to Remand (“Midas Opp'n”) (Doc. No. 54). Plaintiffs filed an Omnibus Reply to Defendants' Oppositions to Remand (“Pls.' Reply”) (Doc. No. 57), on October 19, 2018.[2]

         III. Legal Standard

         Defendants bear the burden of proving that removal is proper. See O'Donnell v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co., 887 F.3d 124, 128 (2d Cir. 2018) (citing California Pub. Employees' Ret. Sys. v. WorldCom, Inc., 368 F.3d 86, 100 (2d Cir. 2004)). Federal courts strictly construe the removal statute, section 1441 of title 28 of the United States Code, and resolve any doubts against removability. Syngenta Crop Prot., Inc. v. Henson, 537 U.S. 28, 32 (2002) (holding that “statutory procedures for removal are to be strictly construed”); Whitaker v. Am. Telecasting, Inc., 261 F.3d 196, 201 (2d Cir. 2001). Strict construction of the removal statute is consistent with congressional intent to restrict federal court jurisdiction, and due respect for principles of federalism and the independence of state courts. See, e.g., Lupo v. Human Affairs Int'l, Inc., 28 F.3d 269, 274 (2d Cir. 1994).

         Defendants may remove “any civil action of which the district courts . . . have original jurisdiction.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Generally, district courts have diversity jurisdiction over an action only where all plaintiffs are citizens of different states from all defendants. Strawbridge v. Curtiss, 7 U.S. (3 Cranch) 267 (1806); Pampillonia v. RJR Nabisco, Inc., 138 F.3d 459, 460 (2d Cir.1998); 28 U.S.C. § 1332. However, plaintiffs may not join non-diverse defendants against whom they have no real claims, in an effort to defeat federal jurisdiction. The doctrine of “fraudulent joinder” is designed to prevent this tactic. See Briarpatch Ltd., L.P. v. Phoenix Pictures Inc., 373 F.3d 296, 302 (2d Cir. 2004).

         Under the doctrine of fraudulent joinder, courts disregard the presence of non-diverse parties “if from the pleadings there is no possibility that the claims against that defendant could be asserted in state court.” Briarpatch, 373 F.3d at 302 (citing Pampillonia, 138 F.3d at 461).[3] District courts in this Circuit strictly apply the “no possibility” standard. See Mihok v. Medtronic, Inc., 119 F.Supp.3d 22, 34 (D. Conn. 2015) (collecting cases). Defendants bear the heavy burden of proving fraudulent joinder by clear and convincing evidence, “with all factual and legal ambiguities resolved in favor of plaintiff.” Briarpatch, 373 F.3d at 302. To meet their burden, “defendants must do more than show that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Read v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. 3:06-CV-00514 (JCH), 2006 WL 2621652, at *1 (D. Conn. Sept. 13, 2006) (citing Stan Winston Creatures, Inc. v. Toys “R” Us, Inc., 314 F.Supp.2d 177 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)).

         In determining whether a fraudulent joinder occurred, the court may examine evidence outside of the pleadings, but only if that evidence “clarifies or amplifies claims actually made in the notice of removal.” Wilmington Sav. Fund Soc'y, FSB v. Universitas Educ., LLC, 164 F.Supp.3d 273, 284 (D. Conn. 2016) (quoting 16 Moore's Federal Practice - Civil § 107.52 (2018)) (alterations omitted). However, the court will not reach the merits of the case, “beyond determining whether the claim is arguable under state law.” 16 Moore's Federal Practice - Civil § 107.52 (2018).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiffs argue that this court is without jurisdiction, and this case must be remanded to the Connecticut Superior Court, because complete diversity of the parties is lacking, and because the defendants failed to meet their burden to demonstrate that Sklanka was fraudulently joined. See Pls.' Mem. in Supp. at 1. The defendants respond that the Motion to Remand should be denied because plaintiffs fraudulently joined Sklanka as a defendant, and he should be overlooked for the purposes of diversity, and this court therefore has jurisdiction over the underlying claims. See Infowars Defs.' Opp'n at 14; Midas Opp'n at 13. The parties do not dispute, however, that if Sklanka is properly joined, his Connecticut citizenship bars diversity jurisdiction and mandates a remand of this action to ...


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