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Apton v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 17, 2017

ADAM M. APTON, Plaintiff,
v.
VOLKSWAGEN GROUP OF AMERICA, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In April of 2016, pro se plaintiff Adam Apton-the lessee of a 2013 Volkswagen Passat-received a “safety recall” letter from Defendant Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. (“Volkswagen”), notifying him of an airbag defect in his vehicle. (Compl., Attach. to Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1-4, at 2.)[1] Apton unsuccessfully attempted to address the issue by communicating with the dealer, and then filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen, VW Credit Leasing, Ltd., and Lash Auto Group, LLC (collectively, “Defendants”) in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Id.) Apton's complaint alleged a variety of claims under common law and state consumer protection statutes, including breach of contract and breach of warranty (see Id. at 8-10), and among other requests for relief, Apton asked that the automobile lease be deemed “void and terminable by Plaintiff without penalty” (id. at 10). Defendants subsequently removed Apton's legal action to this Court, asserting both diversity and federal-question jurisdiction. (See Defs.' Notice of Removal (“Removal Notice”), ECF No. 1, at 3-7.)

         Before this Court at present is Apton's Motion to Remand this case to Superior Court, which also seeks “an award of costs and expenses, including attorneys' fees, in connection with the instant motion.” (Pl.'s Mot. to Remand for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction & Award Of Costs (“Pl.'s Remand Mot.”), ECF No. 10-1, at 11.) Apton argues that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the amount in controversy does not exceed $75, 000, and because his complaint does not raise a federal question. (Id. at 8-11.) Apton also maintains that the Court should require Defendants to compensate him for the time that he spent working on the removal issue (he is an attorney by profession), because “the non-removability of th[is] action is obvious.” (Id. at 11 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).) Defendants respond that this Court has both diversity and federal-question jurisdiction (see Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Remand Mot. (“Defs.' Opp'n”), ECF No. 14, at 6-11), and further argue that, because Apton is a pro se plaintiff who is representing himself in this lawsuit, an award of attorneys' fees is not appropriate (see Id. at 11-12).

         For the reasons explained below, this Court agrees with Apton that Defendants have not carried their burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction, but agrees with Defendants that Apton is not entitled to attorneys' fees or any other costs or expenses. Accordingly, Apton's Motion to Remand and Award Of Costs will be GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART, as reflected in the Order below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 21, 2013, Apton leased a 2013 Volkswagen Passat for $10, 595.74, which was spread among an initial payment and thirty-nine monthly payments. (See Pl.'s Remand Mot. at 9; see also Compl. at 6.) Approximately three years later, Volkswagen informed Apton that his Passat was subject to a safety recall stemming from an airbag defect. (See Pl.'s Remand Mot. at 6.) In response to this notice, Apton sought additional information regarding the available options to repair his vehicle, as well as available alternatives to driving it. (See id.) As a result of Defendants' purportedly unsatisfactory responses to his inquiries, on April 29, 2016, Apton filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Apton's complaint alleged that Volkswagen, VW Credit Leasing, and Lash Auto Group had breached both the automobile lease contract and the applicable warranty, and that they had also violated various provisions of New York law. (See id.; Compl. at 8-10.)[2] Apton sought (1) a declaration that Defendants are in default of the lease and that the lease is void; (2) an award of “the costs, expenses and disbursements of this action, including any attorneys' and experts' fees”; and (3) unquantified statutory, compensatory, and punitive damages. (Compl. at 10.)

         Defendants removed Apton's action to this Court on May 23, 2016, invoking both diversity jurisdiction and federal-question jurisdiction. (See Removal Notice at 2.) Defendants' removal notice maintains that complete diversity exists between the parties, and that the amount in controversy exceeds the $75, 000 threshold-an assertion that is based on the representations that Apton made in the civil cover sheet that he submitted to the Superior Court with his complaint. (See Id. at 4 (remarking that, in the civil cover sheet, Apton represented that he was seeking $100, 000 in damages).) Defendants' removal notice also asserts that, because Apton's complaint “derive[s] from the notice of recall issued by [Volkswagen], pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 49 U.S.C.A. § 30118 and 30119[, ]” Apton's claims “require resolution of an issue of federal law[.]” (Id. at 5-6.)

         On June 15, 2016, Apton filed the instant motion to remand this matter to Superior Court. (See Pl.'s Remand Mot.) Apton's motion concedes that the parties are diverse, but contends that the damages amount reflected on the civil cover sheet was entered in error (see Id. at 9 (explaining that the $100, 000 figure listed on the civil cover sheet was “clearly an oversight”)), and in fact, “the total amount in controversy in this case . . . does not exceed $25, 000” (id.). To support this contention, Apton provides a sworn affidavit, indicating that, by the time of the removal, he had incurred only approximately $13, 000 in damages, consisting of the amount paid on the lease up until that point and various costs and expenses. (See Decl. of Adam Apton (“Apton Decl.”), ECF No. 10-2, at 2.) Apton also rejects Defendants' contention that a federal question is present in this case; his motion maintains that “Plaintiff's Complaint does not even mention the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, let alone plausibly assert that Defendants violated it.” (Pl.'s Remand Mot. at 11 (emphasis added).) Apton's motion also requests an award of the litigation costs-including attorneys' fees-that have been incurred with respect to the instant remand motion, on the grounds that “Defendants had no legitimate basis for removing this case to federal court.” (Id. at 12.)

         Defendants' opposition to the remand motion argues that Apton should not be permitted to “attempt[] a post-removal retreat from the $100, 000 amount in controversy figure that he chose to represent[] to Defendants and the Court” in the civil cover sheet (Defs.' Opp'n at 6), and that, in any event, “it is reasonable to conclude” that the $100, 000 figure represents the true amount in controversy “given the complexities of this litigation” and the complaint's request for “compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees” (id. at 9). Defendants also reject Apton's efforts to “style[] his claims as arising under state law, ” insisting, instead, that “this case turns on the resolution of a substantial federal issue involving the actions of a federal agency.” (Id. at 9, 10.) Finally, in response to Apton's request for an award of costs, expenses, and attorneys' fees, Defendants argue that “Plaintiff provides no support for the proposition that a pro se Plaintiff who is also a practicing attorney is entitled to an award of such fees.” (Id. at 11; see also Id. at 12 (“Plaintiff, a pro se attorney litigant, cannot ‘incur' fees payable to himself[.]”).)

         Apton's motion to remand is now ripe and ready for this Court's review.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Congress has prescribed specific procedures for the removal and remand of civil actions. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1446 (establishing procedures for removal), 1447 (establishing procedures for remand after removal). The statutory provisions that govern removal to the federal court and remand to the state court when the defendant contends that the federal court has diversity and/or federal-question jurisdiction define the parameters of the appropriate legal analysis here.

         A. Removal On Diversity And Federal Question Grounds

         “A defendant may properly remove a civil action from a state court when the federal district court has original subject matter jurisdiction.” District of Columbia v. Grp. Hospitalization & Med. Servs., Inc., 576 F.Supp.2d 51, 53 (D.D.C. 2008); see 28 U.S.C. § 1441 (providing for removal of civil actions from state courts to federal courts). A defendant in a state court action may remove the case pursuant to section 1441 of Title 28 of the United States Code on the basis of, inter alia, the federal court's diversity jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) (providing for original subject matter jurisdiction over cases between citizens of different states, where the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000), or because the case raises a cognizable question of federal law, see Id. § 1331 (providing for original subject matter jurisdiction over “civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States”), or both.

         Congress has specifically prescribed procedural requirements for removing an action from state court to federal court: under 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a), the defendant “shall file in the district court of the United States for the district and division within which such action is pending a notice of removal . . . containing a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal[.]” Id. § 1446(a). Furthermore, in a case in which the defendant seeks removal on the grounds that the federal court has diversity jurisdiction, the statute provides that “the notice of removal”-rather than the initial complaint- “may assert the amount in controversy[, ]” but only if two criteria are met: (1) the initial complaint seeks either “nonmonetary relief” or “a money judgment, but the State practice either does not permit demand for a specific sum or permits recovery of damages in excess of the amount demanded[, ]” and (2) “the district court finds, by the preponderance of the evidence, that the amount in controversy exceeds [$75, 000].” Id. § 1446(c)(2)(A)-(B). Put another way, the defendant may assert that the amount in controversy exceeds the $75, 000 threshold in its removal notice-notwithstanding any sum that the plaintiff has demanded in good faith in the initial complaint (which ordinarily governs the amount-in-controversy issue, see Id. § 1446(c)(2))-where the monetary value of the relief sought in the complaint is indeterminate on its face or the amount of the claimed money judgment is actually uncertain by operation of state law, see Id. § 1446(c)(2)(A)(i)-(ii), and if the district court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy in the case exceeds $75, 000, see Id. ยง 1446(c)(2)(B). With respect to the second part of this standard, the district court typically determines the ...


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