District Court Remands Ugly Feud Between Lawyers To State Court


Fenton v. DUDLEY, Dist. Court, ND Illinois 2014 – Google Scholar.

This is an unusual removal action. Kelli Dudley is a lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. She represents a client, Tonya Davis, who brought a legal malpractice action against Ernest Fenton.

Davis alleged legal malpractice, as well as violations of the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act.  That case is pending in federal court before Judge Castillo.

Fenton then filed his own state court complaint against Dudley, alleging tortious interference with contract, defamation and other torts. Fenton’s case against Dudley alleged state law causes of action. Dudley and a co-defendant removed the case to federal court on the ground that the case implicated concerns under the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Judge Pallmeyer remanded the Fenton v. Dudley case to state court. To remove a case to federal court, the party seeking removal must establish jurisdiction. Dudley chose to use 28 U.S.C. 1441(a), which requires a showing of a federal question.  The boilerplate law on this issue is as follows:

“The question whether the court has federal-question jurisdiction is “governed by the well-pleaded complaint rule, which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff’s properly pleaded complaint.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987) (internal quotations omitted). The fact that a state claim involves a contested federal issue is not by itself sufficient to trigger the federal court’s jurisdiction. Merrell Dow Pharm. Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 813 (1986). Instead, federal jurisdiction over a state-law action “demands not only a contested federal issue, but a substantial one, indicating a serious federal interest in claiming the advantages thought to be inherent in a federal forum.” Grable & Sons Metal Prods., Inc., v. Darue Eng’g & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 313 (2005).”

Here, there was no federal question because the complaint filed in the state court did not allege a federal cause of action. Instead, it alleged state court claims under Illinois law. The court followed the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Gunn v. Minton, 133 S.Ct. 1059 (2013), which held that cases alleging legal malpractice concerning patents did not implicate federal concerns and did not raise a federal question.

The court declined to sanction the attorneys for removing the case to federal court.

Conclusion: removal issues and federal jurisdiction issues can often cause a layperson’s eyes to glaze over. Here the case was remanded because no federal cause of action was alleged in the complaint. Had the complaint alleged a violation of the civil rights law or the Fair Housing Act, the case would then have raised a federal question and it would then have been properly removed to federal court. In my experience, many cases that are removed are often remanded promptly because the federal courts often find a flaw in the jurisdictional arguments. Removal of a case often leads to disappointment.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

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