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Matthews v. Island Operating Co., Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

November 28, 2018

ISLAND OPERATING COMPANY, INC., a Louisiana corporation, Defendant.



         I. Background

         The plaintiffs, Steven Aaron Matthews (“Mr. Matthews”) and Vanessa Matthews (“Mrs. Matthews”), originally filed their complaint in the Circuit Court of Wetzel County, West Virginia, against the defendant, Island Operating Company, Inc. (“Island Operating”). ECF No. 1 at 1. Mr. Matthews was allegedly employed by Stone Operating Company (“Stone”), and was working on behalf of his employer at the Howell Pad. ECF No. 1-1 at 2. The plaintiffs allege in their complaint that Island Operating was contracted to provide maintenance and well production services for the Howell Well Pad. ECF No. 1-1 at 6. The plaintiffs further allege that, while following the directions of one of Island Operating's employees, Island Operating created a dangerous environment that was recklessly unsafe, which resulted in an explosion and a fire, and led to Mr. Matthews' serious and permanent injuries. Id. at 7-8. Mrs. Matthews asserts a derivative claim for the loss of consortium and services of her husband. Id. at 7. The plaintiffs seek compensatory damages, punitive damages, and costs, expenses, and fees. Id. at 11-12.

         The defendant removed this civil action to this Court on June 1, 2018. ECF No. 1. In the notice of removal, the defendant asserts that this Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because the parties are of diverse citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. ECF No. 1 at 2. The defendant states that there is complete diversity because the plaintiffs are citizens of West Virginia and the defendant is a Louisiana corporation with its principal place of business in Louisiana. Id. at 3. The defendant states that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00, exclusive of interest and costs, based on the plaintiffs' allegations as pled in the complaint. Id.

         The plaintiffs then filed a motion to remand, in which they argue that the defendant has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. ECF No. 6 at 5. The plaintiffs assert that the defendant, in its notice of removal, merely made conclusory allegations that the plaintiffs' claims exceed the requisite amount. Id. at 3. The plaintiffs contend that the “defendant's notice of removal contains no assertion of monetary amounts in issue and wholly fails to meet any burden of proof concerning the threshold for federal jurisdiction.” Id. at 2.

         The defendant filed a response in opposition to the plaintiffs' motion to remand arguing that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00, exclusive of interest and costs, because Mr. Matthews was hospitalized for four days following the fire. ECF No. 9 at 2-3. The defendant attached the declaration of Angelle N. Guilbeau for support. Id. In addition, the defendant alleges that Mr. Matthews did not return to work until February 20, 2017. Id. Moreover, the defendant asserts that from January 1, 2016, until the start date of disbursement of workers' compensation wages on December 15, 2016, total wages paid by Stone to Mr. Matthews equaled $60, 537.00. Id. The defendant contends that as part of Mr. Matthews' workers' compensation claims, he was paid wages equaling a total of $7, 787.60, and an award of $15, 426.32 in permanent partial disability benefits as of July 10, 2018, for a total of paid wages and permanent partial disability benefits of $23, 213.92. Id. Additionally, the defendant alleges the total cost of medical bills resulting from plaintiff's hospitalization and/or medical treatment as of July 10, 2018, totaled $37, 936.59. Id. at 6. Thus, the defendant concludes that the total for wages paid, partial disability benefits and medical bills to date equals $61, 150.51. Id. In addition, the defendant notes that the plaintiffs seek damages for “severe” injuries, and accompanying severe psychological injuries, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, great pain and suffering of body and mind, past lost income and future earning capacity, and past and future medical bills. Id. at 5-6. Lastly, with respect to punitive damages, the defendant cites Coleman v. Wicker, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45225, *8, 2012 WL 1111465 (S.D. W.Va. Mar. 30, 2012), where the Court noted, after an estimate of $63, 000.00 was reached, that “[a]n austere one-half multiplier for [an] aforementioned $63, 000 award is enough to surmount the jurisdictional minimum [footnote omitted].” Id. at 7. Further, the defendant states that juries have returned verdicts that were many times greater than the total amount of past medical bills here, referencing decisions decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court involving cases relating to burn injuries. Id.

         The plaintiffs filed a reply to the defendant's response arguing that the defendant's response is improperly supported by an unsworn declaration (ECF No. 9-1) that is allegedly based upon information improperly obtained by defendant concerning Mr. Matthews' purportedly private and confidential medical and workers' compensation information. ECF No. 11 at 1-2. The plaintiffs, among other things, cite W.Va. C.S.R. § 114-57-15.1 for the proposition that West Virginia law confers an inherent right to privacy of medical information. Id. at 2. The plaintiffs also cite Morris v. Consolidation Coal Co., 191 W.Va. 426, 446 S.E.2d 648 (1994), for support that there is a privacy and confidential interest in workers' compensation information. Id. at 3. Moreover, the plaintiffs assert that a permanent partial disability award is “absolutely irrelevant and has no place in the calculation of the amount in controversy” and that the actual amount that should be reflected in the defendant's calculations based on the declaration could be no more than $45, 742.19. Id. at 7-8. Lastly, the plaintiffs argue that the defendant's punitive damage analysis is speculative and contains no competent evidence, and that the defendant improperly attempted to aggregate the plaintiffs' claims to reach the jurisdictional amount. Id. at 8-10.

         The defendant then filed a motion for leave to file a surreply in opposition to plaintiffs' motion to remand, which was granted. ECF Nos. 12 and 13. In its surreply, the defendant first indicates that Island Operating has not requested, obtained, reviewed, or accessed any medical records or confidential information by Mr. Matthews, attaching an affidavit of counsel for Island Operating for support. ECF No. 15 at 1-2. Second, the defendant indicates that the information contained in the declaration of Angelle Guilbeau is not confidential medical information. Id. at 2. Specifically, the defendant indicates that the plaintiffs have failed to cite a “single case supporting the proposition that mere reference to the fact of an individual's hospitalization, medical treatment, and amount of medical bills is considered confidential medical information.” Id. Moreover, the defendant argued that West Virginia does not have a constitutional right to privacy of medical information and that since there has been no production of medical or mental health records in this litigation, the plaintiffs' reliance on W.Va. C.S.R. § 114-57.1 is misplaced since “[i]t relates to actions of insurers and no insurer produced nonpublic health information.” Id. at 5-6. The defendant argues that since there were no oral or written communications between Island Operating and Mr. Matthews' physicians, Morris is inapplicable here. Third, the defendant argues that the punitive damages analysis is not speculative and that the plaintiffs have made a good faith claim based on Island Operating's allegedly reckless conduct. Id. at 7-9. The defendant contends that “[e]ven using the lower numbers posited by plaintiffs in their reply memorandum with respect to medical bills and lost wages - totaling $45, 724.19, a multiplier of 1, clearly exceeds the jurisdictional threshold.” Id. at 9. Lastly, with respect to Mrs. Matthews' loss of consortium claim, the defendant asserts that the Court may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over this claim. Id. at 9-15.

         The plaintiffs filed a response to the defendant's motion for leave to file surreply in opposition to the plaintiffs' motion to remand the same day this Court entered an order granting the defendant's motion for leave to file a surreply. ECF No. 14. In the response, the plaintiffs assert that Island Operating violated Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 7.02 by attaching a complete surreply. Id. at 2. Moreover, the plaintiffs argue that Island Operating obtained information that came from private and confidential records. Id. at 2-3. The plaintiffs, however, did not file a response to the defendant's surreply (ECF No. 15).

         II. Applicable Law

         A defendant may remove a case from state court to a federal court with original jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), district courts have original jurisdiction where the dispute is between citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00. The parties must be completely diverse, meaning that “the citizenship of each plaintiff must be different from the citizenship of each defendant.” Hoschar v. Appalachian Power Co., 739 F.3d 163, 170 (4th Cir. 2014). Diversity is “assessed at the time the action is filed.” Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. v. K N Energy, Inc., 498 U.S. 426, 428 (1991).

         The party seeking removal bears the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction. See In re Blackwater Security Consulting, LLC, 460 F.3d 576, 583 (4th Cir. 2006). When removal is challenged, the defendant must establish jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Strawn v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 530 F.3d 293, 297-98 (4th Cir. 2008). Further, this Court must strictly construe its removal jurisdiction and remand if federal jurisdiction is doubtful. Hartley v. CSX Transp., Inc., 187 F.3d 422, 425 (4th Cir. 1999). However, courts are not required “to leave common sense behind” when determining the amount in controversy. Mullens v. Harry's Mobile Homes, 861 F.Supp. 22, 24 (S.D. W.Va. 1994). When the amount in controversy is not apparent on the face of the plaintiff's complaint, the court must attempt to ascertain the amount in controversy by considering the plaintiff's cause of action as alleged, the notice of removal, and any other relevant materials in the record at the time of removal. 14C Charles Allen Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3725.1 (4th ed. 2013). Typically, removal jurisdiction should be evaluated based solely on the filings available when the notice of removal was filed. Tamburin v. Hawkins, No. 5:12CV79, 2013 WL 588739, *1 (N.D. W.Va. Feb. 13, 2013) (citing Chase v. Shop ‘N Save Warehouse Foods, Inc., 110 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 1997)). However, it may be proper for the court to consider other evidence in the record where the amount in controversy is not readily ascertainable from the pleadings. See Wright & Miller, supra § 3725.1; Mullins, 861 F.Supp. at 23.

         III. Discussion

         There is no dispute in this civil action that complete diversity exists. In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Mr. Matthews suffered and will continue to suffer severe burns, severe injuries, great pain and suffering of body and mind, loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish, loss of income and earning potential, and medical bills for past and future treatment. See ECF No. 1-1 at 10. The plaintiffs also seek punitive damages. ECF No. 1-1 at 6-7; see Asbury-Castro v. GlaxoSmithKline, Inc., 352 F.Supp.2d 729, 732 (N.D. W.Va. 2005) (noting that “[u]nder West Virginia law, a good faith claim for punitive damages may augment ...

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