C/A No. 2:20-3969-JFA-PJG
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, originally filed this action in the Clarendon County Court of Common Pleas (Case No. 2020-CP-14-00376). The defendants removed the action, asserting the court has federal question jurisdiction. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.). Out of concern that the court may lack subject matter jurisdiction over this action, the court directed the parties to brief the issue of the court's jurisdiction. (ECF No. 12.) Only the defendants filed a brief responsive to the court's order. Having reviewed the state court complaint, the defendants' brief, and Plaintiff's various filings, in accordance with applicable law, the court concludes that this matter should be remanded to the Clarendon County Court of Common Pleas because the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.
I. Procedural Background
Plaintiff brings this action over a dispute about taxes on real and personal property which Plaintiff contends he does not own, but for which the defendants assessed taxes against him. Plaintiff seeks damages and to enjoin a foreclosure sale of the property based on eight causes of action, including but not limited to, defamation, negligence, violations of South Carolina tax laws, and for "Violating The State of South Carolina and the US Constitutional Rights of the plaintiff." (Compl., ECF No. 1-1 at 8.) Based on Plaintiff's asserted cause of action that mentions a violation of "US Constitutional Rights," and references a "severe violation of USFC Rights," the defendants asserted in the Notice of Removal that the court has federal question jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Contemporaneous with the Notice of Removal, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss for insufficient process, insufficient service of process, and failure to state a claim.
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, see Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994), and a district court is charged with ensuring that all cases before it are properly subject to such jurisdiction. In re Bulldog Trucking, Inc., 147 F.3d 347, 352 (4th Cir. 1998). Generally, a case can be filed in federal district court if there is diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, or if there is federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1441, allows a state court defendant to remove a case to a federal district court if the state court action could have been originally filed there. See Darcangelo v. Verizon Commc'ns, Inc., 292 F.3d 181, 186 (4th Cir. 2002). However, the removing defendant has the burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction, Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., Inc., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994), and a district court may sua sponte remand a case to state court if federal jurisdiction is lacking. See Ellenburg v. Spartan Motors Chassis, Inc., 519 F.3d 192, 196 (4th Cir. 2008).
The United States Supreme Court has commanded that, when considering jurisdiction over a removed case, federal courts must "scrupulously confine their own jurisdiction to the precise limits which the statute has defined." Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 109 (1941) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In addition, "[r]emoval statutes must be strictly construed against removal," Scott v. Greiner, 858 F. Supp. 607, 610 (S.D. W. Va. 1994), and a federal court must "resolve all doubts about the propriety of removal in favor of retained state court jurisdiction." Marshall v. Manville Sales Corp., 6 F.3d 229, 232 (4th Cir. 1993); see also Palisades Collections LLC v. Shorts, 552 F.3d 327, 333-34 (4th Cir. 2008); Mulcahey, 29 F.3d at 151 ("If federal jurisdiction is doubtful, a remand is necessary.").
It is well settled that a federal question must be presented on the face of a plaintiff's complaint to satisfy federal question jurisdiction. Harless v. CSX Hotels, Inc., 389 F.3d 444, 450 (4th Cir. 2004) (discussing the well-pleaded complaint rule). Further, a plaintiff may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusively relying on state law. Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386 (1987). Here, the defendants argue that Plaintiff's assertion of a "severe violation of USFC Rights" and "the US Constitutional Rights of the plaintiff" shows that the court has federal question jurisdiction. The court disagrees.
Neither party asserts that the court would have jurisdiction over this matter based on the diversity of the parties, and the limited record before the court provides no apparent basis to find that the parties are diverse. See generally 28 U.S.C. § 1332. --------
Plaintiff's two vague and conclusory references to federal law and the United States Constitution are insufficient to invoke the court's federal question jurisdiction. See Warthman v. Genoa Twp. Bd. of Trustees, 549 F.3d 1055, 1064 (6th Cir. 2008) ("A reference to the U.S. Constitution in a complaint should be read in the context of the entire complaint to fairly ascertain whether the reference states a federal cause of action or . . . simply supports an element of a state claim."); Burgess v. Charlottesville Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 477 F.2d 40, 43-44 (4th Cir. 1973) ("[T]he mere assertion in a pleading that the case is one involving the construction or application of the federal laws does not authorize the District Court to entertain the suit[,] nor does federal jurisdiction attach on the bare assertion that a federal right or law has been infringed or violated or that the suit takes its origin in the laws of the United States.") (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Rather, the Complaint includes specific and substantive state law tort claims and claims based on state tax law. (Compl., ECF No. 1-1 at 7-8.) On the other hand, the Complaint lacks any specific references to federal statutory or constitutional rights, and even liberally construing the complaint in light of Plaintiff's pro se status, no federal claims are apparent from the pleading.
Tellingly, the defendants do not identify any specific federal cause of action or constitutional violation that can be gleaned from the Complaint. Instead the defendants assert that they "assume" Plaintiff is alleging unspecified violations of constitutional rights. (Def.'s Brief, ECF No. 15 at 3.) Also, while Plaintiff did not brief the subject matter jurisdiction issue, in his response in opposition to the defendants' motion to dismiss, Plaintiff asserts, verbatim, that "Most if not all the Laws that the defendants violated against me, the plaintiff in the The State Court were violations of The State of South Carolina Laws and that was why it filled in The State Court" and requests that the case be remanded to state court. (Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 8., ECF No. 18 at 5.) Plaintiff also does not identify a cognizable federal cause of action or federal constitutional issue in his various filings. Therefore, Plaintiff indicates that he filed the action in state court because his claims were based on state law.
Based on the preceding analysis, the court finds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction in this matter, and the matter should be remanded sua sponte to Clarendon County Court of Common Pleas. See Ellenburg v. Spartan Mortors Chasis, Inc., 519 F.3d 192, 196 (4th Cir. 2008) ("In the case where remand is based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the remand order may be entered at any time, for jurisdiction goes to the very power of the court to act.").
Accordingly, the court recommends that this matter be remanded to the Clarendon County Court of Common Pleas for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In light of the court's recommendation, all pending motions should be terminated as moot. (ECF Nos. 4, 7, & 19.) January 28, 2021
Columbia, South Carolina
Paige J. Gossett
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
The parties are directed to note the important information in the attached
"Notice of Right to File Objections to Report and Recommendation."
Notice of Right to File Objections to Report and Recommendation
The parties are advised that they may file specific written objections to this Report and Recommendation with the District Judge. Objections must specifically identify the portions of the Report and Recommendation to which objections are made and the basis for such objections. "[I]n the absence of a timely filed objection, a district court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must 'only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'" Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 72 advisory committee's note).
Specific written objections must be filed within fourteen (14) days of the date of service of this Report and Recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(a), (d). Filing by mail pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5 may be accomplished by mailing objections to:
Robin L. Blume, Clerk
United States District Court
901 Richland Street
Columbia, South Carolina 29201
Failure to timely file specific written objections to this Report and Recommendation will result in waiver of the right to appeal from a judgment of the District Court based upon such Recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985); Wright v. Collins, 766 F.2d 841 (4th Cir. 1985); United States v. Schronce, 727 F.2d 91 (4th Cir. 1984).