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Aldridge v. The Marion County Coal Co.

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

August 10, 2017

JAMES L. ALDRIDGE, GARY BARNETT, KEVIN B. CARTER, DAVID L. CHAPMAN, CHARLES D. GLASPELL, WILLIAM F. GOSS, JOHN KELLAWAY, JEFFREY D. WATSON, and THOMAS S. ZAPACH, Plaintiff,
v.
THE MARION COUNTY COAL CO.; MURRAY AMERICAN ENERGY, INC.; ROBERT E. MURRAY; PAUL B. PICCOLINI; PAMELA S. LAYTON; BRIAN FREDERICKSON; MATTHEW C. EFAW; and THOMAS H. SIMPSON, a/k/a "Pete, " Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO STRIKE AND GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTIONS TO REMAND

          IRENE M. KEELEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On March 14, 2017, nine individual plaintiffs filed separate employment discrimination complaints in the Circuit Court of Marion County, West Virginia ("Circuit Court"), against the defendants, The Marion County Coal Co. ("TMCC"), Murray American Energy, Inc., Robert E. Murray ("Murray"), Paul B. Piccolini, Pamela S. Layton ("Layton"), Brian Frederickson, Matthew C. Efaw ("Efaw"), and Thomas H. Simpson, a/k/a "Pete" ("Simpson"). On May 15, 2017, the defendants removed each case, invoking diversity jurisdiction based on the allegation that Layton and Simpson, both West Virginia residents, had been fraudulently joined to defeat diversity.

         At a combined scheduling conference held on July 24, 2017, the Court heard argument on the pending motions. With the consent of the parties, it consolidated the nine cases prior to ruling on the pending motions, and designated as lead case the complaint filed by the plaintiff, James L. Aldridge ("Aldridge").[1] For the reasons stated on the record during the scheduling conference and those that follow, the Court DENIED the defendants' motions to strike, GRANTED the plaintiffs' motions to remand, and REMANDED these cases to the Circuit Court of Marion County.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiffs' allegations arise primarily out of three reductions in force that took place at TMCC mines in May 2015, December 2015, and April 2016. On March 14, 2017, each of the plaintiffs filed a complaint in the Circuit Court, alleging violations of the West Virginia Human Rights Act ("WVHRA") and public policy. All nine were employed by TMCC and allege that the decision to terminate their employment, or to engage in a discriminatory course of conduct that caused them to resign, was improperly based on each plaintiff's age or disability.

         With few exceptions, Aldridge's complaint is a fair representation of those filed in each of the removed cases. Aldridge named three allegedly non-diverse defendants. Those include Layton, who is the TMCC Human Resources Supervisor, Efaw, who is is a TMCC mine manager, [2] and Simpson, who is TMCC s Vice President (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 7). According to Aldridge, he was employed by the defendants as a safety inspector from December 5, 2013, until May 29, 2015, when he was terminated after being provided a letter announcing a reduction-in-force due to adverse market conditions. Id. at 8.

         In his first claim for relief, Aldridge alleges that his "termination . . . was based, in whole or in part, upon [his] age, in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act, West Virginia Code § 5-11-9(1)."[3] He asserts damages based on "the defendants' actions." Id. Aldridge's second claim contends that "[t]he Defendants refused to provide the Plaintiff a reasonable accommodation, " and that such "[d]iscrimination based upon a disability violates the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va. Code § 5-11-1 et seq." Although he claims that age discrimination led to his termination, Aldridge also alleges that disability discrimination led to his constructive discharge.[4] In his third and fourth claims, Aldridge alleges that the defendants violated the WVHRA, conferring jurisdiction on the Circuit Court pursuant to W.Va. Code § 55-7-9, and that they violated West Virginia public policy. Id. at 9-10. For relief, he seeks "lost wages and benefits, back pay, front pay, damages for indignity, embarrassment and humiliation, and punitive damages." Id. at 11.

         When the defendants removed the cases to this Court on May 15, 2017, they alleged fraudulent joinder. To rebut that, Layton and Simpson each executed an affidavit averring that they "did not have input into, and participated in no way in" TMCC s decision to terminate the plaintiffs (Dkt. Nos. 1; 1-2; 1-4). They argued that the plaintiffs therefore could not possibly establish a cause of action against them under the WVHRA (Dkt. No. 1 at 4) . The next day, the defendants all filed three motions seeking to dismiss each complaint (Dkt. Nos. 5; 7; 9).

         On May 24, 2017, each plaintiff filed an amended complaint as of right (Dkt. No. 13), a motion to remand (Dkt. No. 16), and a motion to stay rulings on the pending motions to dismiss until after the Court ruled on the motion to remand or, in the alternative, to deny the motions to dismiss as moot (Dkt. No. 14). On June 2, 2017, the Court denied the defendants' motions to dismiss as moot (Dkt. No. 18) . After briefing the motions to remand, the defendants moved to strike as untimely the plaintiffs' reply briefs or, in the alternative, their corresponding affidavits (Dkt. No. 22).

         II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         A. Removal and Remand

         Title 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) provides that "any civil action brought in a state court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants." See also King v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 337 F.3d 421, 424 (4th Cir. 2003) . Nonetheless, "federal courts, unlike state courts, are courts of limited jurisdiction, created by Congress with specified jurisdictional requirements and limitations, " Strawn v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 530 F.3d 293, 296 (4th Cir. 2008), and federalism counsels that removal jurisdiction should be strictly construed. Palisades Collections LLC v. Shorts. 552 F.3d 327, 334 (4th Cir. 2008) (citing Md. Stadium Auth. v. Ellerbe Becket Inc., 407 F.3d 255, 260 (4th Cir. 2005)).

         "The burden of establishing federal jurisdiction is placed upon the party seeking the removal." Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems., Inc., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994). "All doubts about the propriety of removal should be resolved in favor of retaining state court jurisdiction, " and thus remanding a case to state court. Vitatoe v. Mylan Pharm., Inc., 2008 WL 3540462, at *2 (N.D. W.Va. Aug. 13, 2008) (citing Hartley v. CSX Transo., Inc., 187 F.3d 422, 425 (4th Cir. 1999)).

         B. Fraudulent Joinder

         "The district courts have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and is between citizens of different states . . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). This provision has been consistently interpreted "to require complete diversity of citizenship of each plaintiff from each defendant." Rosmer v. Pfizer Inc., 263 F.3d 110 (4th Cir. 2001) (Motz, J., dissenting) (citing Strawbridqe v. Curtiss, 7 U.S. (3 Cranch) 267 (1806)).

         Naming a non-diverse defendant does not necessarily defeat diversity jurisdiction. The doctrine of fraudulent joinder "effectively permits the district court to disregard, for jurisdictional purposes, the citizenship of certain nondiverse defendants, assume jurisdiction over a case, dismiss the nondiverse defendants, and thereby retain jurisdiction." Mayes v. Rapoport, 198 F.3d 457, 461 (4th Cir. 1999). In the Fourth Circuit, "[t]he party alleging fraudulent joinder bears a heavy burden-it must show that the plaintiff cannot establish a claim even after resolving all issues of law and fact in the plaintiff's favor." Johnson v. Am. Towers, LLC, 781 F.3d 693, 704 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Hartley, 187 F.3d at 424).

         "The removing party must show either outright fraud in the plaintiff's pleading of jurisdictional facts or that there is no possibility that the plaintiff would be able to establish a cause of action against the in-state defendant in state court." Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted). When a removing party contends that there is "no possibility" of establishing a cause of action, "a plaintiff s claim against a non-diverse defendant 'need not ultimately succeed to defeat removal; only a possibility of a right to relief need be asserted.'" Id. (quoting Marshall v. Manville Sales Corp., 6 F.3d 229, 233 (4th Cir. 1993)).

         A mere "glimmer of hope" suffices, a standard "even more favorable to the plaintiff than the standard for ruling on a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b) (6) ." Mayes, 198 F.3d at 466 (quoting Hartley, 187 F.3d at 424). "[T]he court is not bound by the allegations of the pleadings, but may instead 'consider the entire record, and determine the basis of joinder by any means available.'" AIDS Counseling & Testing Ctrs. v. Grp. W Television, Inc., 903 F.2d 1000, 1004 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Dodd v. Fawcett Publ'ns, Inc., 329 F.2d 82, 85 (10th Cir. 1964)).

         III. APPLICABLE LAW

         The WVHRA makes it an "unlawful discriminatory practice . . . [f]or any employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, hire, tenure, terms, conditions or privileges of employment if the individual is able and competent to perform the services required." W.Va. Code § 5-11-9(1) . An "employer" is "any person employing twelve or more persons within the state." Id. § 5-11-3(d).

         In addition, the WVHRA imposes liability on individuals. It is an "unlawful discriminatory practice . . . [f]or any person to":

(A) Engage in any form of threats or reprisal, or to engage in, or hire, or conspire with others to commit acts or activities of any nature, the purpose of which is to harass, degrade, embarrass or cause physical harm or economic loss or to aid, abet, incite, compel or coerce any person to engage in any of the unlawful discriminatory practices defined in this section[.]

Id. § 5-11-9(7).

         "The term 'person, ' as defined and utilized within the context of the West Virginia Human Rights Act, includes both employees and employers. Any contrary interpretation, which might have the effect of barring suits by employees against their supervisors, would be counter to the plain meaning of the statutory language and contrary to the very spirit and purpose of this particular legislation." Sy1. Pt. 3, Holstein v. Norandex, Inc., 461 S.E.2d 473 ( W.Va. 1995); see also W.Va. Code ยง 5-11-3 (a). "A cause of action may be maintained by a plaintiff employee as against another employee under the West Virginia Human Rights Act. Further, the cause of action may properly be ...


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