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Hunt v. Tri-State Care Flight, LLC

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 4, 2018

LEE HUNT, as Personal Representative of Estate of James Butler, and PEARL YEAST, Plaintiffs,
TRI-STATE CARE FLIGHT, LLC, and VALERIE CAVIGNEAUX, as Personal Representative of Estate of David Cavigneaux, Defendants.


         Plaintiffs filed this case in state court and Defendants promptly removed it to federal court, alleging that Plaintiffs' joinder of Defendant Estate of David Cavigneaux ("Defendant Estate") was fraudulent. Doc. 1. Plaintiffs disagree and seek remand to state court. Doc. 22. United States District Judge Martha Vazquez referred Plaintiffs' motion to remand to me to issue proposed findings and a recommended disposition. Doc. 43. Because Plaintiffs do not state a cause of action against Defendant Estate and they have failed to make any allegations inside or outside the pleadings under which they could possibly prevail against Defendant Estate, I recommend denying Plaintiffs' motion for remand.

         I. Factual Allegations

         In the early morning hours of July 17, 2014, a helicopter air ambulance owned by Defendant Tri-State Care Flight, LLC ("Tri-State") and piloted by David Cavigneaux crashed, killing Cavigneaux, James Butler, and Rebecca Serkey. Compl. (Doc. 1-2) at¶¶ 76-82. Plaintiffs (the Estate of James Butler and the wife of James Butler) allege that Defendant Tri-State contacted Cavigneaux and arranged the flight without providing Cavigneaux information essential to making an informed decision about whether to accept the flight. Compl. ¶¶ 77, 79-80. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Tri-State did not advise Cavigneaux about the dangerous weather conditions that night or that other pilots had turned down the same flight because of dangerous weather conditions. Compl. at ¶¶ 79-80. Plaintiffs also allege that Defendant Tri-State pressured pilots to take flights into dangerous weather conditions and that, when it pressured Cavigneaux to take the July 17, 2014 flight, it "either expected an injury or death to occur to a crew member like Jamie Butler, or utterly disregarded the consequences of its decisions . . .." Compl. at ¶ 90.

         In contrast to the complaint's many references to Defendant Tri-State, references to Defendant Estate comprise a small part of Plaintiffs' complaint. What, if any, allegations Plaintiffs make against Defendant Estate are central to resolution of Plaintiffs' motion to remand and so discussion of allegations against Defendant Estate are incorporated into the analysis below rather than set forth now.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs filed their complaint in state court on May 16, 2017. Doc. 1-2. Defendant Tri-State removed this case to federal court on June 29, 2017 based on diversity jurisdiction and the premise that Plaintiffs fraudulently joined Defendant Estate. Doc. 1 at 1-2. Plaintiffs responded to this removal by filing the present motion for remand. Doc. 22.

         III. Legal Standard

         An action is removable from state court if the federal district court has original jurisdiction over the matter. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), a federal district court possesses original subject-matter jurisdiction over a case when the parties are diverse in citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00. See Johnson v. Rodrigues, 226 F.3d 1103, 1107 (10th Cir. 2000). As the party invoking the Court's jurisdiction in this case, Defendants "bear the burden of establishing that the requirements for the exercise of diversity jurisdiction are present." See Martin v. Franklin Capital Corp., 251 F.3d 1284, 1290 (10th Cir. 2001) abrogated on other grounds by Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co., LLC v. Owens, 135 S.Ct. 547 (2014); see also Montoya v. Chao, 296 F.3d 952, 955 (10th Cir. 2002) ("The burden of establishing subject-matter jurisdiction is on the party asserting jurisdiction."). There is a presumption against removal jurisdiction. See Laughlin v. Kmart Corp., 50 F.3d 871, 873 (10th Cir. 1995); see also Okla. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. JSSJ Corp., 149 Fed.Appx. 775, 778 (10th Cir. 2005) (unpublished) (explaining that "[g]iven the limited scope of federal jurisdiction, there is a presumption against removal, and courts must deny such jurisdiction if not affirmatively apparent on the record.").

         IV. Analysis

         Defendants do not dispute that Defendant Estate is a New Mexico resident that, if properly joined, would defeat federal diversity jurisdiction. Instead, Defendants argue that the New Mexico Workmen's Compensation Act ("WCA") precludes Plaintiffs' lawsuit against Defendant Estate and, therefore, the inclusion of Defendant Estate in this lawsuit was fraudulently done to defeat federal diversity jurisdiction. Specifically, Defendants assert that, to step outside the boundaries of the WCA and successfully sue Cavigneaux, Plaintiffs must be able to demonstrate that Cavigneaux's conduct was willful and that it proximately caused Plaintiffs' injuries. Defendants assert that Plaintiffs' complaint fails to set forth facts under which Plaintiffs' lawsuit against Defendant Estate could possibly succeed. Conversely, Plaintiffs contend that their complaint does contain allegations against Defendant Estate under which they could possibly prevail. Plaintiffs alternatively assert that the Court should allow them to amend their complaint. I agree with Defendants that Plaintiffs' complaint does not allege facts under which their lawsuit against Defendant Estate could possibly succeed. I do not address Plaintiffs' request to amend their complaint because that issue is not properly before me.

         Plaintiffs also argue that any deficiencies in their complaint are not fatal to their remand motion because, in considering whether Plaintiffs could possibly prevail against Defendant Estate, the Court may look outside the pleadings. If the Court does so, Plaintiffs argue, it will see that Plaintiffs' lawsuit against Defendant Estate is viable. I disagree. Defendants have met their burden of demonstrating that Plaintiffs' lawsuit against Defendant Estate could not possibly succeed and nothing Plaintiffs have cited to indicates otherwise.

         Finally, Plaintiffs argue that this case is not removable because it originated under the WCA and federal law bars removal of a worker's compensation lawsuit to federal court. Doc. 23 at 15. Defendants counter that Plaintiffs are not suing under the WCA and, because Plaintiffs' claims arise outside the WCA, federal law precluding the removal of WCA cases to federal court does not apply. Defendants are correct.

         A. Law Regarding Fraudulent Joinder

         "In order to invoke diversity jurisdiction, a party must show that complete diversity of citizenship exists between the adverse parties. . . . Complete diversity is lacking when any of the plaintiffs has the same residency as even a single defendant." Dutcher v. Matheson, 733 F.3d 980, 987 (10th Cir. 2013). As stated above, while Defendants do not dispute that Plaintiff and Defendant Estate are both citizens of New Mexico, Defendants contend that the case was ...

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