CASE REMANDED BECAUSE NO PROOF TO A LEGAL CERTAINTY THAT PUNITIVE DAMAGES CLAIM WOULD TAKE THE CASE ABOVE $75,000 (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM breach of contract and bad faith case was removed to federal court. The court sua sponte remanded the matter to state court. Significantly for this action, the tortfeasor driver was also named as a defendant.

The ad damnum clauses in the complaint’s various counts expressly state damages do not exceed $50,000. The bad faith count’s ad damnun clause specifically only seek an “’award of compensatory and punitive damages in an amount not in excess of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000).’” The civil cover sheet states the damages were not in excess of $50,000. Pennsylvania’s Rules provide compulsory arbitration for cases at or below $50,000.

Any federal jurisdiction would have to be based on (1) diversity of citizenship, and (2) a jurisdictional minimum amount-in-controversy above $75,000. The removing party bears the burden of proving these two jurisdictional elements, and doubts concerning jurisdiction are resolved in favor of remand. Because subject matter jurisdiction is involved, the court always has the power to review diversity jurisdiction, and can raise the issue sua sponte.

The court first ruled there was no diversity. The plaintiff insureds and defendant tortfeasor driver were all Pennsylvania citizens. The court rejected the notion that because the non-diverse tortfeasor defendant had not been served, the diverse insurer defendant could remove the case. [This is not the situation where diversity otherwise exists, and a non-forum defendant can remove because the forum defendant has not been served, as in the Third Circuit’s 2018 Encompass case.]

Second, the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum amount-in-controversy was not established. A plaintiff is the master of its own claim and may limit a claim so it falls below the jurisdictional threshold. In those circumstances “’a defendant seeking removal must prove to a legal certainty that plaintiff[s] can recover the jurisdictional amount.’” Three principles guide a court under these circumstances:

“(1) The party wishing to establish subject matter jurisdiction has the burden to prove to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy exceeds the statutory threshold;

(2) A plaintiff, if permitted by state laws, may limit her monetary claims to avoid the amount in controversy threshold; and

(3) Even if a plaintiff states that her claims fall below the threshold, this Court must look to see if the plaintiff’s actual monetary demands in the aggregate exceed the threshold, irrespective of whether the plaintiff states that the demands do not.”

The insurer failed to makes its case here. First, the insureds limited their demand below $50,000, putting themselves within the state court’s compulsory arbitration threshold. Eastern District courts have found that a plaintiff expressly limiting damages to $50,000, so as to fall within the compulsory arbitration limit, does not meet the $75,000 federal jurisdiction minimum.

The court looked further into whether the facts pleaded could result in more than $75,000 in damages, to a legal certainty. Here the UIM $15,000 policy limit fell well below $75,000, but the insurer argued punitive damages could bring the case above that sum, implying a punitive damages multiplier of four times compensatory damages. The court rejected that argument (1) because the insurer provided no basis why a multiplier of four would be applied and (2) a multiplier of four would bring the case up to $75,000, but federal jurisdiction requires the damages exceed $75,000.

In sum, the insurer could not prove to a legal certainty the amount in controversy would exceed $75,000.

Date of Decision: November 5, 2019

Mordecai v. Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-4351, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 192331 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 5, 2019) (Younge, J.)

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