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Worldwide Executive Job Search Solutions, LLC v. North Bridge Group, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 27, 2017

WORLDWIDE EXECUTIVE JOB SEARCH SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTH BRIDGE GROUP, et. al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion to remand this case to state court (ECF No. 10).

         Plaintiff argues that Defendant's Notice of Removal, was improperly filed on March 22, 2017, after the 30-day deadline for removal as set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(1) had passed. (See Pls. Br. at 7; ECF. No. 10-1.) Plaintiff argues that, because the Complaint was filed on February 6, 2017, Defendant was required to remove the action within 30 days of that date. Id. The following are facts relevant to this motion.

         On February 6, 2017 Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the Law Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Hunterdon County, and Defendants were served on that date. The Complaint contains four counts against Defendant: 1) defamation (libel), 2) tortious interference with contractual relations, 3) tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and 4) demand for permanent injunctive relief. (See Compl. ¶ 42-62; ECF No. 1-1.)

         Following review of Plaintiff's Complaint, on March 7, 2017, Defendant requested a written statement of damages, pursuant to New Jersey Court Rule 4:5-2, in order to ascertain the amount in controversy. (Defs. Br. at pg. 1; ECF No. 12.) On March 8, 2017, Plaintiff provided a statement of damages to Defendant, claiming damages of $4, 500, 000. (Pls. Br. at pg. 7.)

         On March 22, 2017, Defendant filed a Notice of Removal, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), based upon diversity jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). (Defs. Br. at pg. 1.) Federal jurisdiction based on diversity is undisputed by the parties. Plaintiff filed the current motion seeking to remand the matter back to New Jersey State Court. (Defs. Br. at pg. 1.) Plaintiff allege that Defendant's removal was untimely, as it was filed more than 30 days after Defendants were first served with the Complaint. (Pls. Br. at pg. 7.)

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(1), a defendant may file a notice of removal of a civil court action, within 30-days from its receipt of the Complaint. This general rule allows for an exception, 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(3), establishing that, where the initial pleadings was not removable, the 30-day timeline will be triggered by a defendant's receipt of an amended pleading or a document “from which it may be first ascertained that the case is one which is or has become removable.” See 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(3).

         The main issue in this case is whether the 30 day removal clock required by 28 U.S.C. § 1446 started running on February 6, 2017 when Defendant received the initial Complaint or on March 8, 2017 when Defendant received the statement of damages claiming $4, 500, 000.

         Because this action was originally filed in Superior Court, New Jersey State Court rules initially governed the pleadings. N.J. Ct. R. 4:5-2 states, "[i]f unliquidated money damages are claimed in any court . . . the pleading shall demand damages generally without specifying the amount. N.J. Ct. R. 4:5-2. Although the Complaint did not plead a specific amount of damages, it still complied with the state rules.

         Nevertheless, for Federal Courts to have jurisdiction of civil actions between citizens of different states, the amount in controversy must exceeds exceed $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). Since the Complaint failed to state an amount, it is unclear whether the amount-in-controversy requirement was evident in Plaintiff's pleadings.

         New Jersey District Court judges have applied two approaches in resolving matters such as the present one. Buchanan v. Lott, 255 F.Supp.2d 326, 329-30 (D.N.J. 2003). The Third Circuit has not endorsed either standard. Romano v. Wal-Mart Stores E., LP, No. CV 16-7420, 2017 WL 119471, at *2 (D.N.J. Jan. 11, 2017).

         The first approach holds that if a Complaint does not plead specific damages, and does not otherwise make clear that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, the 30-day clock for removal does not begin to run until the defendant receives a document that clearly states the amount in controversy is more than $75, 000. Vartanian v. Terzian, 960 F.Supp. 58, 61-62 (D.N.J. 1999). The Vartanian court relied on Third Circuit authority, which states, "the relevant test is not what the defendants purportedly knew, but what [the pleadings or other documents] said." Foster v. Mut. Fire, Marine & Inland Ins. Co., 968 F.2d 48, 54 (3d Cir. 1993), overruled on other grounds, Sikrica v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 214 (3d Cir. 2005).

         Because there is an inherent tension between the federal court's reliance upon demands in pleadings and the New Jersey court rule prohibiting pleadings from specifying a dollar amount for unliquidated damages, Vartanian also relied on a Fifth Circuit rule. Vartanian, 960 F.Supp. at 61. The Fifth Circuit uses a bright-line rule that states that, a plaintiff who wishes to trigger the 30-day removal clock mandated by 28 U.S.C. § 1446 must include in the initial pleading a statement that damages are "in excess of the federal jurisdictional amount." Chapman v. Powermatic Inc., 969 F.2d 160, 163 (5th Cir. 1992). Vartanian adopted this approach, holding that if a plaintiff did not include such an allegation in the complaint, and nothing else in the complaint indicated that the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000, the 30-day clock does not begin to run until the defendant receives a document noting the damages, as outlined by 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b)(3). Vartanian, 960 F.Supp. at 62. In summary, if the plaintiff "does not or cannot plead damages in a specific dollar amount but wishes the 30-day period to run from the defendant's receipt of the initial pleading, the plaintiff must place in the initial pleading a specific allegation that damages exceed the minimum federal jurisdictional amount.” Id. at 61-62.

         The second approach holds that even if the complaint does not include specific damages, the time for removal begins to run from the filing date of the Complaint so long as the defendant "can reasonably and intelligently conclude from the pleadings that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional ...


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