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Grey v. Johansson

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 26, 2014

CAITLIN M. GREY, Plaintiff,

Caitlin M. Grey, West Chester, NJ, Pro Se Plaintiff.

Stephen R. McDonnell, Esq., Gawthorp Greenwood, PC, West Chester, PA, Attorney for Defendant.


JEROME B. SIMANDLE, Chief District Judge.


This matter comes before the Court by way of Plaintiff Caitlin M. Grey's (hereinafter, "Plaintiff") motion to remand [Docket Item 5] and Defendant Jonas Johansson's (hereinafter, "Defendant") motion to dismiss [Docket Item 4]. This action arises out of the last will and testament of Laura Brindle Johansson (hereinafter, "Johansson"), Defendant's now deceased spouse. In her complaint, Plaintiff, Johansson's former attorney, seeks a judgment declaring Johansson's will valid in its entirety, and particularly to the extent the will conferred on Plaintiff the continuing right to possess one of Johansson's horses, Navarra D (hereinafter, "Navy"). Plaintiff also asserts a quantum meruit claim for the value of services she provided in connection with Navy and, relatedly, seeks reimbursement for costs and expenses associated with Navy's maintenance and care. Defendant removed this action from the New Jersey Superior Court, Chancery Division. The issue before the Court is whether the Court may exercise subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims.

As explained below, the Court finds that the probate exception to federal diversity jurisdiction bars this action from proceeding in Federal Court. Plaintiff's motion to remand will accordingly be granted, and Defendant's motion to dismiss will be dismissed as moot.


A. Plaintiff's Complaint

Laura Brindle Johansson died on February 9, 2009, survived by her husband, Defendant Jonas Johansson. (Compl. [Docket Item 1-3], ¶ 1.) On or about March 17, 2009, Defendant filed an application in the Salem County Surrogate's Court to admit Johansson's will to probate and to appoint Defendant executor of Johnasson's estate. (Id. at ¶¶ 2-6.) The Salem County Surrogate issued an "Executor Short Certificate" on April 6, 2009, admitting Johansson's will to probate, and "duly" authorizing Defendant to administer the estate. (Id. at ¶ 7.) Johansson's will devised, among other bequests, all "personal effects, jewelry, household effects, furniture, automobiles[, ]" and "like" articles to Defendant, but directed Johansson's "attorney, [Plaintiff] Caitlin M. Grey, Esquire, to sell or adopt out or otherwise dispose" of Johansson's horses at Plaintiff's "sole discretion." (Id. at ¶ 8.) The will specifically directed Plaintiff to place the animals in a setting deemed "preferable" and in the horses' "best interests[, ]" irrespective of the income derived from the sales and/or placements of the horses. (Id. (emphasis omitted).)

In accordance with the provisions of the will, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant "sought and then followed" her "advice and recommendations" with respect to the horses, and specifically approved sales by Plaintiff of three of Johansson's ten horses, namely, Winter Storm Warning, Rudy, and Ricki. (Id. at ¶¶ 9-10.) Rather than arrange a sale of Navy, however, Plaintiff, purportedly at Defendant's direction and with his express authorization, transported Navy from Defendant's home in Woodstown, New Jersey, to a more suitable stable in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. (Id. at ¶ 12.) By letter dated August 15, 2009, Plaintiff addressed the disposition of Johansson's horses, and specifically discussed Plaintiff's "general" opposition to the sale of Navy. (Id. at ¶¶ 16-18.) Plaintiff further asserted at that time that Johansson purchased Navy with "personal monies" received from Johansson's father, rather than marital assets. (Id. at ¶ 19.) Defendant allegedly never responded to Plaintiff's correspondence (nor objected to any of the assertions set forth therein), but instead "acted and continued to act" in accordance with Plaintiff's advice. (Id. at ¶¶ 20-27.)

On October 24, 2013, Defendant filed "an Emergency ex Parte Petition for Injunctive Relief" in the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County, Pennsylvania. (Id. at ¶ 29.) Defendant generally alleges in the pending state court action that Defendant "jointly owned'" Navy with Johansson, and accordingly, that Navy passed to Defendant outside of Johansson's will. (Id. at ¶ 30.) Defendant therefore contends that Johnasson's will is "void as a matter of law'" to the extent the will directs Plaintiff "to sell or adopt out or otherwise dispose' of" Navy. (Id. at ¶ 31.) Defendant thereafter filed a "Complaint in Replevin" in the state court action in order to recover possession of Navy-the horse Defendant now contends he owns without limitation. (Id. ¶ 32.)

In the complaint in this action, Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment finding Johansson's will valid in all respects, particularly to the extent the will provided for the disposition of Johnasson's horses. (Compl. [Docket Item 1-3], 8.) Plaintiff further seeks a declaration that ownership of the horses "did not pass to Defendant" by operation of law, and that Plaintiff's "present and continuing possession" of Navy is therefore "proper and lawful." (Id.) Plaintiff also seeks an order directing Defendant Johansson to compensate Plaintiff in quantum meruit for the value of Plaintiff's work and services related to the disposition of Johansson's horses. (Id. at 9-10.) Finally, in the event the Court finds Defendant the rightful owner of Navy, Plaintiff seeks reimbursement for the costs and expenses incurred in caring for Navy. (Id. at 10-11.)

B. Removal

Plaintiff filed this action in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, on November 18, 2013. Defendant timely removed ...

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