Category: Diversity Jurisdiction

Another Sad Adventure in Diversity Jurisdiction Leads To An Award of Attorney Fees


This is an unpublished case Zausa v. Zausa v. Pellin, 18-1896 (7th Circuit 2018). The case is noteworthy because the plaintiff’s counsel believed he could cure a diversity jurisdiction problem by filing the same case in another state. When that failed, he tried again before a second district judge. The second district judge awarded sanctions to the defendant for having to deal with the same meritless jurisdictional arguments twice.

Diversity jurisdiction requires that plaintiff and defendant be citizens of different states. Here, they were both citizens of Illinois. There could never be diversity of citizenship because the parties were from the same state. It would not matter if the case was filed in Illinois or Alaska – there was no diversity of citizenship.

Here, the lawyer made things worse by refiling a dismissed lawsuit before another federal judge. The first attempt to file the lawsuit was dismissed because there was no diversity of citizenship. The plaintiff’s lawyer then made a second such attempt by refiling the same case in another district.  The court set forth the procedural history of the case as follows:

Terri Zausa obtained a multi-million-dollar judgment against Jack in Illinois state court before this became a federal case. Jack has not been able to pay. Jack’s former business partner, Michael Pellin, allegedly owes him roughly $1.8 million for Jack’s share of their business, which Pellin purchased in 1990. In recent years, Pellin has not met the schedule of payments he owes Jack. Although Jack and Pellin executed a release from the purchase agreement in 2004, Terri says that there was no consideration given for the release, which was solely “for tax purpose[s].” And Pellin purportedly continued to make payments to Jack until 2010. Terri now attempts to collect directly from Pellin to satisfy Jack’s debt to her.

Terri’s first crack at collecting from Pellin began when attorney Salem represented her in filing an enforcement action in the Northern District of Illinois. Judge St. Eve dismissed Terri’s claims against Pellin with prejudice for lack of standing because Terri was not a party to Jack and Pellin’s agreements. Since Terri, the original creditor, and Jack, the original debtor, were not completely diverse, Judge St. Eve dismissed the case without prejudice for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

[Plaintiff’s attorney Maurice J.] Salem then brought another lawsuit against Jack on Terri’s behalf, this time in the Northern District of Indiana. The complaint also named Pellin as “Third-Party Respondent.” Contrary to Judge St. Eve’s conclusion, Salem stated that federal jurisdiction existed “by reason of complete diversity of citizenship” because Terri and Jack Zausa are Illinois residents and Pellin is an Indiana resident.

Pellin moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. He pointed to the previous litigation in front of Judge St. Eve and her explanation that complete diversity did not exist because, although Terri was attempting to discover Indiana-citizen Pellin’s assets, her ex-husband (an Illinois citizen) was the judgment debtor.

The jurisdictional theory Salem presented to Judge Moody was:

[I]n Indiana, there is complete diversity jurisdiction because neither Defendant Jack Zausa, nor Plaintiff Terri Zausa are domiciled in Indiana. In other words, Pellin, the only citizen of Indiana is the party of interest that does not share the state of Indiana with any other party. Compared to Illinois where Defendant Jack Zausa, another party of interest, shares the state with Plaintiff. However, the issue is not whether there is complete diversity jurisdiction in Illinois, because we are not in Illinois, the issue is whether there is complete diversity jurisdiction in Indiana.

(Emphasis in original). Unpersuaded, Judge Moody granted Pellin’s motion to dismiss, citing Terri’s (Salem’s) attempt to establish federal jurisdiction “with a skewed logic that is nearly impossible to follow.” He also noted that Terri, as plaintiff, could not sue Pellin as a “Third-Party Respondent.” Because Judge St. Eve had already explained the substantial defects in Terri’s lawsuit, and Salem then maintained the absurd approach to jurisdiction, Judge Moody ordered Salem to show cause why he should not be sanctioned under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b)(1) or (2). He also cautioned the plaintiff to refrain from asserting any more baseless jurisdictional theories.

In response to the show-cause order, Salem reiterated his incorrect understanding of diversity jurisdiction. He argued “as long as the parties with interest are not in the same state, then complete diversity jurisdiction exists.” Judge Moody concluded that there was no credible explanation for Salem’s conduct and granted all parties leave to move for attorney’s fees. Salem moved for reconsideration and asserted yet again that diversity jurisdiction existed. This time he attempted to explain in greater detail that moving the case to federal court in Indiana had solved the jurisdictional problem.

After the motion for reconsideration was denied, Pellin petitioned for reimbursement of the attorney fees that he had incurred. Salem opposed the motion by maintaining—for the fourth time—that diversity jurisdiction existed. He also asked Judge Moody to defer the issue of sanctions to the Northern District of Illinois, where he had filed a third lawsuit against Pellin that apparently was moving forward.

Judge Moody rejected Salem’s arguments, and in bold-face type declared one final time: “[C]omplete diversity means that no plaintiff may be from the same state as any defendant.” The judge ordered Salem to pay all of Pellin’s attorney’s fees. Judge Moody reasoned that sanctions were proper under either Rule 11(b)(1) or (2). He found that Salem filed the complaint with either “an unreasonable lack of legal basis” or “an intent to harass” Pellin and increase his litigation costs. Judge Moody also declined to defer the issue of sanctions to the Northern District of Illinois because that court would have no jurisdiction to rule on sanctionable conduct occurring in this case. Salem filed a motion for reconsideration, insisting Terri was not really suing “defendant” Jack, so it did not matter that the two of them were domiciled in the same state. Judge Moody denied the motion because it presented nothing new, and he renounced any further efforts “on this frivolous matter.”

Salem now appeals the district court’s order awarding attorney fees against him and the order denying his second motion for reconsideration.

Essentially, the court faulted Salem for not understanding the basics of diversity jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the sanctions award against Salem because he raised the same frivolous arguments time and again before two separate federal judges.

The explanation:

Salem’s contentions are better viewed as restatements of his consistently confused theory of diversity jurisdiction, rather than “new” arguments. And, waiver aside, Salem’s arguments are frivolous and sanctionable, just as Judge Moody concluded. No matter how Salem phrases it, his core assertion is that federal subject-matter jurisdiction over a given case exists or does not depending on the state in which the federal court sits. He habitually misunderstands the tenets of diversity jurisdiction and confuses jurisdiction with venue.[3] He was so told, by both Judge St. Eve and Judge Moody, yet in this appeal he persisted with this faulty assertion.

This persistence in asserting frivolous arguments warrants sanctions against an attorney. A district court may sanction a lawyer who submits frivolous legal arguments not warranted “by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law.” FED. R. CIV. P. 11(b)(2); see Berwick Grain Co., Inc. v. Ill. Dep’t of Agric., 217 F.3d 502, 504 (7th Cir. 2000). A “frivolous” argument is one that is baseless or made without a reasonable inquiry into the facts and law. Berwick Grain Co., Inc., 217 F.3d at 504. A district judge may also sanction a lawyer or party who presents a pleading to the court “for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation.” FED. R. CIV. P. 11(b)(1). Consistently asserting a theory—as attorney Salem did here—directly contrary to federal statute (28 U.S.C. § 1332) as interpreted by all federal case law is frivolous.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the sanctions award. The lesson here is an old one – you have to know the law. In federal court it is especially important to understand the procedural and jurisdictional rules.

Plaintiffs win jurisdictional battle – case remanded to state court.


This case deals with the removal of lawsuits to federal court. The plaintiffs were represented by the defendant lawyers in the trial of a personal injury case. After a $32 million verdict was entered against them, they sued their former lawyers for legal malpractice. Plaintiffs filed their case in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Defendants removed the case. To remove they had to show that there was complete diversity of citizenship between the parties. The problem was that two defendants were citizens of Illinois. This would have defeated removal and required that the case be remanded to State Court. Defendants sought to overcome this burden by arguing that the plaintiffs fraudulently joined the two local defendants.

The district court disagreed and remanded the case to the Circuit Court of Cook County. The law is as follows:

The Seventh Circuit directs federal courts to interpret the removal statute narrowly, resolving any doubts in favor of the plaintiff’s choice of forum in the state court. Schur v. L.A. Weight Loss Ctrs., Inc., 577 F.3d 752, 758 (7th Cir. 2009). Under the fraudulent joinder doctrine, a court considering removal may “disregard, for jurisdictional purposes, the citizenship of certain non-diverse defendants, assume jurisdiction over a case, dismiss the non-diverse defendants, and thereby retain jurisdiction.” Id. at 763 (quoting Mayes v. Rapoport, 198 F.3d 457, 461 (4th Cir. 1999)). Fraudulent joinder exists if the plaintiff has made false allegations of jurisdictional fact, or if a claim against a non-diverse defendant has no chance of success. Poulos v. Naas Foods, Inc., 959 F.2d 69, 73 (7th Cir. 1992). Here, the defendants argue that the plaintiffs’ claims against Tannen and TLG have no chance of success.

Defendants seeking to remove a case from state court to federal court based on fraudulent joinder of a non-diverse defendant bear “a heavy burden.” Id. The test for fraudulent joinder is even more favorable to the plaintiff than the standard for deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Livingston v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., No. 09 C 2611, 2009 WL 2448804, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 6, 2009). Warren must show that, after resolving all issues of fact and law in favor of the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs cannot establish a cause of action against Tannen or TLG. Poulos, 959 F.2d at 73. The Court must determine whether there is “any reasonable possibility” that a state court would rule against Tannen or TLG. Id. Warren, however, need not negate “any possible theory” that the plaintiffs might allege in the future; “only [the] present allegations count.” Id. at 74.

The ruling is as follows:

As stated at the outset, defendants seeking removal that depends on a finding of fraudulent joinder face the very high burden of showing that the plaintiff’s case against the non-diverse defendants has no chance of success. The plaintiffs’ prospects for success against Tannen may well be dubious, but that is not enough to warrant disregarding those claims in assessing the Court’s jurisdiction. Because defendants Tannen and TLG and plaintiffs Dillon Transport and Dillon are all citizens of Illinois, complete diversity as required by Section 1332 does not exist. This Court, therefore, lacks jurisdiction over the case and grants the plaintiffs’ motion to remand. Because the Court lacks jurisdiction over this case, it will not address the Warren defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. This case is remanded to the Circuit Court of Cook County.

The court essentially ruled that there was a valid basis to include Tannen as a defendant in the case. Therefore, he was not fraudulently joined. Therefore, the court had no subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, removal was improper and another foray into federal court proved shortlived.

via Dillon v. NAMAN, HOWELL, SMITH & LEE, PLLC, Dist. Court, ND Illinois 2018 – Google Scholar

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

Another Botched Attempt At Removal to Federal Court


The court remanded this case to the state court because the requirements for removal were not met. First, the amount in controversy was $10,000, far less than the $75,000 required for diversity jurisdiction. Second, all the parties appear to be California citizens so there was no diversity of citizenship. Because there was no basis for federal jurisdiction, the court remanded the case to the state court. 28 USC § 1447(c), which provides “If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded.”

via PACIFIC URBAN RESIDENTIAL LLC v. Smith, Dist. Court, ND California 2018 – Google Scholar

Don’t Remove A Case to Federal Court Before Ascertaining Whether The Statute Permits It.


Defendants sued in the state court have a right to remove a case to federal court if there is diversity of citizenship and all defendants join the removal petition.  Here, the Defendants removed the lawsuit from the California courts to federal court before they determined the citizenship of each of the parties. Diversity must be complete. In other words, if a citizen of California sues another citizen of California, there is no diversity and no jurisdiction. Here, the court issued a rule to show cause to require the Defendants to justify the removal petition. They did not respond, but instead sought additional time. The court remanded the case back to state court.

The reasoning:

By failing to respond to the Order to Show Cause Defendants have not assuaged the Court’s concerns regarding jurisdiction. In order to invoke this Court’s diversity jurisdiction, Defendants must demonstrate there is complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. Caterpillar Inc. v. Lewis, 519 U.S. 61, 68 (1996). To meet their burden to establish complete diversity, Defendants must allege the actual citizenship of all of its members/partners. Provincial Gov’t of Marinduque v. Placer Dome, Inc., 582 F.3d 1083, 1087 (9th Cir. 2009). Here, the vague assurances provided that all entities related to Defendants are Delaware entities with their principal places of business in New York, NY are not sufficient. Furthermore, the myriad of reasons[1] provided by Defendants for needing more time to comply with the OSC is evidence that Defendants have not determined the existence of complete diversity between the parties. Thus, although being given the opportunity to do so, Defendants have not met their burden of demonstrating there is complete diversity of citizenship.

Because Defendants fail to establish diversity jurisdiction as required by 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and 1441 removal was improper and the Court sua sponte REMANDS this action back to the San Diego Superior Court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

via EP EX REL. PRESTON v. CHULA VISTA CENTER, LP, Dist. Court, SD California 2018 – Google Scholar

Lawyer’s Claim Dismissed For Lack of Diversity of Citizenship


An Illinois attorney filed suit against a former client and asked the court for guidance as to who should receive sanctions awarded against him and in favor of Jeanine Stevens and John Cushing. Why he filed the case in Wisconsin is a mystery since the lawyer and the defendants he sued are all citizens of Illinois.

Result: case dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; there being no diversity of citizenship between the parties.

I’m surprised that a veteran and experienced lawyer did not take the time to consider and evaluate the diversity of citizenship before filing a case.

The case is David Alan Novoselsky v. Christine Zvunca, 17-cv-427, pending in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. The decision is by Judge Stadtmueller.

https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=12856920532563022533&q=legal+malpractice&hl=en&scisbd=2&as_sdt=400006&as_ylo=2017

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

 

A Reminder that Legal Malpractice Claims Are Creatures of State law and Do Not Confer Federal Jurisdiction


If you sue your lawyer for failing to prosecute your ADA (American’s with Disabilities Act) claim, you do not have federal question jurisdiction. Instead, the claim arises under state law. The explanation:

And, the court explained, plaintiff’s legal malpractice claims arise under state law, not federal law, even though she attempts to invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). See id. (citing Creamer v. Gen. Motors, Nos. 16-4045-SAC, et al., 2016 WL 3197379, at *5 (D. Kan. May 18, 2016) (concluding that plaintiff failed to allege federal question jurisdiction because her citation to the ADA “has no plausible application to plaintiff’s claims that defendant committed legal malpractice” and “absent diversity of citizenship and an amount in controversy over $75,000—which do not exist here—plaintiff’s state law claims of legal malpractice, assuming of course they have any merit, belong in state court”)).

Plaintiff submitted a response to the Show Cause Order. Doc. 5. But, like her Complaint, her response failed to provide any colorable basis for this court to invoke its limited subject matter jurisdiction. Instead, plaintiff reiterated that she was asserting legal malpractice claims against defendants. Id. at 1-4. She provided no basis for the court to exercise federal question or diversity jurisdictAnd, the court explained, plaintiff’s legal malpractice claims arise under state law, not federal law, even though she attempts to invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Sion. See generally id. So, the court dismissed her lawsuit without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Doc. 6.

Source: Creamer v. Martin, Dist. Court, D. Kansas 2017 – Google Scholar

11th Circuit Shows Mercy to Lawyers and Vacates Sanction For Diversity Jurisdiction Error 


LLCs can cause problems for any lawyer attempting to determine if there is diversity jurisdiction. The LLC is a citizen of each state in which one of its members is a citizen. If one LLC owns another LLC, citizenship must be verified through both layers of the LLC.

If there is no diversity, there is no subject matter jurisdiction, and the proceedings in federal court are essentially null and void.

In the Bluestern case, the problem did not become apparent until the case had been pending in federal court for some time, almost two years. Bluestern, the defendant, was sued in Georgia State Court in December 2011. Bluestern, believing that there was diversity jurisdiction, promptly removed the case to federal court. Later, discovery requests were served, but the parties did not notice the problem. Only in late 2012, did the parties and the court fully comprehend the problem. The case was remanded back to state court.

The Court explained the problem in this way:

This case demonstrates the difficulty of applying established diversity jurisdiction principles to 21st-century business organizations. When determining citizenship of the parties for diversity jurisdiction purposes, a limited liability company (LLC) is a citizen of every state that any member is a citizen of. And it is common for an LLC to be a member of another LLC. Consequently, citizenship of LLCs often ends up looking like a factor tree that exponentially expands every time a member turns out to be another LLC, thereby restarting the process of identifying the members of that LLC. The simplest misstep has the potential to derail years of litigation and result in a massive financial sanction, as happened here. It is in everyone’s best interest, both the litigants’ and the courts’, to verify that diversity jurisdictionexists before proceeding with the case. Everyone involved in this case trusted that diversity jurisdiction existed, but no one verified it. The law firms involved trusted their clients. The clients trusted their lawyers. The law firms trusted each other, and the district court trusted them. But there was no verification.

Pursuant to its inherent authority, the district court sanctioned one of the parties in the amount of $550,000 in legal fees. The Eleventh Circuit reversed on the ground that the sanction an abuse of discretion because the party that made the jurisdictional mistake did not abuse the legal process. The court explained that the sanction was a misapplication of the doctrine of the inherent power of the court. Again, a thoughtful explanation from the court:

If a district court is unsure whether to sanction a party under its inherent powers, it should look to the guidance of the Supreme Court in Chambers. The purpose of the inherent power is both to vindicate judicial authority without resorting to contempt of court sanctions and to make the non-violating party whole. See Chambers, 501 U.S. at 45-46, 111 S. Ct. at 2133. The inherent power must be exercised with restraint and discretion. This power is not a remedy for protracted litigation; it is for rectifying disobedience, regardless of whether such disobedience interfered with the conduct of the trial. See id. at 44, 111 S. Ct. at 2132. Courts considering whether to impose sanctions under their inherent power should look for disobedience and be guided by the purpose of vindicating judicial authority. None of these concerns are present here.

In the end, the court concluded that no party engaged in any bad faith conduct. Instead, the court noted that the case was a colossal waste of time and money. The Eleventh Circuit chose to be merciful to the lawyers involved in the case, reasoning that the wasted legal fees and embarrassment were enough punishment.

 

Source: PURCHASING POWER, LLC v. BLUESTEM BRANDS, INC., Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit 2017 – Google Scholar