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Forde v. Hornblower New York LLC

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 26, 2017

Crystal Forde et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Hornblower New York, LLC d/b/a Hornblower Cruises & Events et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          ALISON J. NATHAN United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Forde and Charles originally filed this dram shop admiralty lawsuit in New York state court. Defendants subsequently removed the case to federal court, and Plaintiffs filed a motion to remand. After Plaintiffs Forde and Charles filed their motion to remand, another potential plaintiff intervened to oppose remand and then later filed a complaint against the same defendants. Because there was no basis for removal beyond admiralty jurisdiction, the Court remands Forde and Charles' case to state court. For largely prudential reasons, the Court declines to exercise its discretion to consider Intervenor Figueroa's complaint and accordingly dismisses that complaint without prejudice.

         I. Background

         This dram shop tort action stems from a drunk driving accident that occurred in the wake of a "booze cruise." According to the allegations in the state court complaint, on May 10, 2014, multiple people - including decedent Prince Stoney, Plaintiff Taleisha Charles, decedent Peter Figueroa, and Defendant Rafaella Maranhao - attended a "Rock the Yacht - Saturday Night Party Cruise." Compl. ¶¶ 26, 41 (Dkt No. 1-1); Intervenor Compl. ¶ 27 (Dkt No. 20). Referred to as "a 'booze cruise' to nowhere, " the cruise started and ended in New York City. Compl. ¶¶ 26, 34; Mot. at 2 (Dkt No. 9). The ship was owned by Defendants Hornblower New York LLC and Hornblower Yachts LLC. Compl ¶¶ 11, 13, 26.

         Defendant Maranhao became intoxicated during this cruise. According to the allegations in the complaint, the Hornblower Defendants "served and continued to serve [Maranhao] intoxicating liquor beverages even after they knew, or should have known, that [Maranhao] had become intoxicated." Compl. ¶ 40. After the cruise ended and the boat docked for the night, Maranhao got into her car with Stoney, Charles, and Figueroa. Compl ¶¶ 41-42. While driving home to New Jersey, Maranhao lost control of the car, and it overturned. Id. Stoney and Figueroa both died in the accident, and Charles suffered serious injuries. Compl. ¶ 43; Intervenor Compl. ¶¶ 42, 49.

         On May 4, 2016, this lawsuit was filed in New York Supreme Court by the administrator of Stoney's estate (Crystal Forde) and Charles (collectively, "Plaintiffs"). Dkt No. 1-1 at 2; Mot. at 3; Opp. at 3 (Dkt No. 15). The suit alleged violations of New York Alcoholic Beverage Control Laws §§65 and 117-a, among other state law claims, and it named Maranhao, Hornblower New York LLC, and Hornblower Yachts LLC as defendants. Compl. ¶¶ 47, 57. The Hornblower Defendants subsequently removed the action to federal court, asserting admiralty jurisdiction as the sole justification for removal. Dkt No. 1.[1]

         On June 30, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a motion to remand. Dkt No. 7. Plaintiffs argued that, because the tortious acts alleged in their complaint "are not of a traditional maritime character, " admiralty jurisdiction does not exist in this case. Mot. at 1. The Hornblower Defendants opposed the motion to remand. Dkt No. 15. On July 21, 2016, the Court granted leave for the administrator of Figueroa's estate to intervene, and Intervenor Figueroa also filed a brief opposing the motion to remand. Dkt Nos. 16-17. Plaintiffs did not file a reply. On September 8, 2016, Intervenor Figueroa also filed a complaint against the Hornblower Defendants and Maranhao. Dkt Nos. 19-20. Like Plaintiffs' complaint, Intervenor Figueroa's complaint asserts a number of state law causes of action. Intervenor Compl. ¶¶ 55, 69 (Dkt No. 20).

         II. Standard of Review & Issue Presented

         The question presented is whether removal was proper in this case. "Only state-court actions that originally could have been filed in federal court may be removed to federal court by the defendant." Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). The defendant typically bears the burden of proving that removal was proper. See Bounds v. Pine Belt Mental Health Care Res., 593 F.3d 209, 215 (2d Cir. 2010); Phoenix Glob. Ventures, Inc. v. Phoenix Hotel Assocs., Ltd., No. 04 Civ. 4991RJH, 2004 WL 2360033, *2 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 19, 2004). In light of federalism concerns, federal courts construe the removal statute narrowly and resolve any doubts against removability. Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 108-09 (1941); Goel v. Ramachandran, 823 F.Supp.2d 206, 209 (S.D.N.Y. 2011).

         Plaintiffs' motion seeks remand solely on the ground that the alleged wrongs "are not substantially related to traditional maritime activities, " and therefore that admiralty jurisdiction does not exist. Mot. at 7. However, as the Hornblower Defendants point out in their opposition brief, another jurisdictional issue exists. Opp. at 7-16. Even assuming that the wrongs alleged in the complaint are "related to traditional maritime activities" and thus that admiralty jurisdiction exists, there is a separate question of whether a defendant may remove an admiralty action from state court absent a separate basis for jurisdiction.

         Plaintiffs do not address this separate question. It was not mentioned in their motion to remand, and Plaintiffs did not file a reply to the briefs opposing remand filed by the Hornblower Defendants and Intervenor Figueroa. Notwithstanding Plaintiffs' failure to raise the issue, the Court has "an independent obligation to examine [its] own jurisdiction." FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215, 231 (1990); see also Joseph v. Leavitt, 465 F.3d 87, 89 (2d Cir. 2006); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). "Subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived." Luo v. Mikel, 625 F.3d 772, 775 (2d Cir. 2010). As a consequence, if jurisdiction is lacking in this case, the Court must remand the case, notwithstanding Plaintiffs' failure to raise the argument. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) ("If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded."); Newman and Cahn, LLP. v. Sharp, 388 F.Supp.2d 115, 118 (E.D.N.Y. 2005) ("Where a case has been improperly removed and the Court has no subject matter jurisdiction, the Court must remand the case sua sponte to the state court where it originated." (citation omitted)).

         III. The Court Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         As explained more thoroughly below, the Court concludes that an admiralty case may be removed to federal court only if another basis of jurisdiction exists. Here, Defendants concede that there is no other basis for jurisdiction beyond the admiralty jurisdiction statute. For this reason, the Court remands Plaintiffs Forde and Charles's complaint to state court. Additionally, for reasons outlined in more depth below, the Court declines to exercise jurisdiction over Intervenor Figueroa's complaint.

         A. Because Admiralty Jurisdiction Was the Only Basis for Removal, The Court Lacks Jurisdiction Over ...


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