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Daniels v. American Water Works Service Co., Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

May 16, 2018

JOHN D. DANIELS, Plaintiff,
v.
AMERICAN WATER WORKS SERVICE COMPANY, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH R. GOODWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the court is Plaintiff, John Daniels' Motion to Remand [ECF No. 12]. The motion is ripe for adjudication. For the reasons stated herein, the court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part the Motion to Remand [ECF No. 12].

         I. Background

         The plaintiff, John Daniels, commenced this action by filing a four-count complaint in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, West Virginia. Compl. [ECF No. 1-2]. The plaintiff's four-count Complaint arises out of the alleged wrongful termination of his employment. Specifically, the Complaint alleges three counts of West Virginia Human Rights Act violations and one count of retaliatory discharge in violation of substantial West Virginia public policies. Id. The retaliatory discharge count, which is at issue here, states

Defendants' acts and/or omissions constitute unlawful discriminatory practices, which violated substantial public policies of the State of West Virginia as set forth in W.Va. Code § 21-3-1; the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., including but not limited to §§ 2615; and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C. § 651, including but not limited to § 654. Accordingly, Defendants' actions constitute retaliatory/wrongful discharge in violation of substantial public policy pursuant to Harless v. First Nat'l Bank, 246 S.E.2d 270 (1978).”

Id. at 9.

         The defendants, American Water Works Company, Inc. and American Water Works Service Company, Inc. removed the action to federal court, with co-defendant Jason Kessler's consent. See Not. Removal [ECF No. 1]; Not. Consent Removal [ECF No. 2]. The defendants based their removal on the contention that the “plaintiff alleges violations of the FMLA.” Not. Removal 6. The plaintiff moved to remand the case, arguing that the cause of action alleged is not one under the FMLA but one under state common law, as articulated in Harless. See Pl.'s Mem. Law Supp. Mot. Remand 3 [ECF No. 13].

         II. Standard of Review

         An action may be removed from a state court to a federal court if it is one over which the district court would have had original jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Federal district courts have original jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A cause of action arises under federal law “only when the plaintiff's well-pleaded complaint raises issues of federal law.” Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 63 (1987); see Custer v. Sweeney, 89 F.3d 1156, 1165 (4th Cir. 1996) (“[Courts] ordinarily . . . look no farther than the plaintiff's complaint in determining whether a lawsuit raises issues of federal law capable of creating federal-question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.”) This rule provides two distinct pathways into federal court. Either (1) federal law creates the cause of action, Franchise Tax Bd. v. Const. Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 27 (1983)), or (2) the plaintiff's claim raises “a federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which a federal forum may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.” Grable & Sons Metal Prods. Inc. v. Darue, 545 U.S. 308, 314 (2005).

         When a case is removed to federal court, the removing party bears the burden of establishing the federal court's jurisdiction over the matter. Wilson v. Republic Iron & Steel Co., 257 U.S. 92 (1921); Strawn et al. v. AT&T Mobility, LLC et al., 530 F.3d 293, 296 (4th Cir. 2008); Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994). Removal jurisdiction must be strictly construed. Mulcahey, 29 F.3d at 151. If federal jurisdiction is doubtful, the federal court must remand the case. Id.

         III. Discussion

         a. Remand

         The defendants assert that the plaintiff's complaint “alleges violations of the FMLA.” Not. Removal 3. Specifically, the defendants state that “[i]n his Complaint at Count IV, or his retaliatory discharge in violation of public policy claim, Plaintiff alleges Defendants violated two federal statutes: the Family and Medical Leave Act . . . and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. . . .” Resp. Opp. To Pl.'s Mot. Remand 1-2 [ECF No. 16]. Despite the defendants' contentions, the plaintiff does not allege FMLA or OSHA violations. Instead, the plaintiff alleges a claim for retaliatory discharge in violation of a substantial West Virginia public policy. Under West Virginia law, an at-will employee can bring such a claim (a “Harless claim”) when the employer's motivation for termination contravenes a “substantial public policy principal.” Harless v. First Nat'l Bank in Fairmont, 289 S.E.2d 692 ( W.Va. 1982). To state a Harless claim, the plaintiff must prove four elements, the first of which is relevant to this analysis: “(1) That a clear public policy existed and was manifested in a state or federal constitution, statute or administrative regulation, or in the common law (the clarity element).” Herbert J. Thomas Mem'l Hosp. Assoc. v. Nutter, 238 W.Va. 375, 386 (2016).

         Thus, in alleging a Harless claim, the plaintiff is required to state a clear manifestation of the public policy that was allegedly violated. There is no indication, other than mere reference to the FMLA and OSHA, that the plaintiff intended to pursue any federal claims. The “well-pleaded complaint rule is designed to protect the plaintiff from a defendant reading a cause of action into a complaint when none is stated. . . . The rule is designed to allow the plaintiff the right to choose the forum.” Spaulding v. Mingo Cty. Bd. of Educ., 897 F.Supp. 284, 287 (S.D. W.Va. 1995); see Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987) (“The rule makes the ...


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