United States District Court, District of Columbia
CHARLES H. TOMPKINS III, Plaintiff,
LIDA STIFEL, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge
Charles Tompkins paid a law firm to represent him and nine of
his cousins, including defendant Lida Stifel, in protracted
and ultimately unsuccessful litigation over a contested
family trust. But court orders don't end all family
disputes. After the trust case was dismissed in February
2018, Tompkins filed this one, accusing Stifel of reneging on
her share of the litigation expenses and demanding
contribution for the unpaid amounts. Stifel now moves to
dismiss Tompkins's complaint on the ground that the
amount in controversy in the case falls below the $75, 000
threshold for federal diversity jurisdiction. For the reasons
explained below, the Court will deny the motion.
required on a motion to dismiss, the Court draws this factual
background from the complaint, “assum[ing] the truth of
all well-pleaded factual allegations.” Sissel v.
U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 760 F.3d 1,
4 (D.C. Cir. 2014).
and Stifel, along with eight of their cousins, were
co-plaintiffs in a lengthy legal battle against a family
trust in the District of Columbia Superior Court. Compl.
¶¶ 5, 9, 21. The cousins retained the law firm
Katten Munchin Rosenmann LLP (“Katten”) at the
start of the litigation in 2011. Id. ¶¶
4-5. They agreed to be jointly and severally liable for the
firm's fees and to timely pay all bills, which were
typically delivered every month. Id. ¶¶
13-14; see also Compl., Ex 1. at 2 (Katten
representation agreement). As an accommodation to the law
firm, the cousins agreed that Tompkins would pay Katten's
bills directly and that they would reimburse him
proportionately at a later, unspecified time. Compl. ¶
15. Separately, Tompkins and Stifel at some point discussed
his paying her share of the trust-litigation expenses.
Compl., Ex. 3 at 35-36 (demand letter). Tompkins claims that
this side agreement, which is alluded to in an attachment to
the complaint but not in the complaint itself, was expressly
conditioned on Stifel not disclosing it to the other cousins.
Id. But Stifel did reveal the private arrangement,
Tompkins alleges, hindering his efforts to collect from the
trust litigation was winding down, Tompkins began the process
of settling up with his cousins. Id. As part of that
process, in December 2017, Tompkins's counsel sent a
demand letter notifying Stifel that “the time has come
to pay your share of the outstanding legal fees [Tompkins]
has advanced on your behalf.” Id. at 35;
Compl. ¶¶ 18-19. She refused. Compl.
¶ 20; Compl., Ex. 4 at 37 (Stifel e-mail response). A
few months later in February 2018, the Superior Court
dismissed the cousins' claims against the trust. Compl.
¶ 21. Tompkins then brought this diversity action
against Stifel. He asserts a single count of contribution and
requests that Stifel be ordered to pay her share of
Katten's legal bills. Altogether, Tompkins seeks $294,
996 in litigation expenses and around $55, 000 in interest.
Id. at 6.
has moved to dismiss Tompkins's contribution claim for
lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). She argues that Katten's
billing records (which she attaches to her motion) show that
the majority of Tompkins's payments to the firm fall
outside the three-year District of Columbia statute of
limitations for contribution actions. With these fees being
unrecoverable, Stifel argues, the Court must dismiss the
complaint because the remaining amount in controversy is less
than the $75, 000 jurisdictional threshold under 28 U.S.C.
Standard of Review
defendant may move to dismiss a complaint for lack of subject
matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(1). When analyzing a motion to dismiss under that rule,
the Court “assume[s] the truth of all material factual
allegations in the complaint, and ‘construe[s] the
complaint liberally, granting plaintiff the benefit of all
inferences that can be derived from the facts
alleged.'” Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC,
642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Thomas v.
Principi, 394 F.3d 970, 972 (D.C. Cir. 2005)). The Court
may consider materials outside the pleadings to assure itself
of jurisdiction. Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA,
402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005).
Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing
jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. See
Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992);
Shekoyan v. Sibley Int'l Corp., 217 F.Supp.2d
59, 63 (D.D.C. 2002). The Court has diversity jurisdiction
over disputes between citizens of different states where the
amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. 28 U.S.C. §
1332. The Court determines whether a complaint states a
sufficient amount in controversy at the time it is filed;
subsequent events typically do not deprive the Court of
jurisdiction. Cuneo Law Grp., P.C. v. Joseph, 920
F.Supp.2d 145, 150 (D.D.C. 2013) (citing St. Paul Mercury
Indem. Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 289-90 (1938)).
In addition, the Court may dismiss a case for lack of
jurisdiction based on an insufficient amount in controversy
only if it “appear[s] to a legal certainty that the
claim is really for less than the jurisdictional
amount.” Bronner v. Duggan, 249 F.Supp.3d 27,
37 (D.D.C. 2017) (quoting St. Paul Mercury Indem.
Co., 303 U.S. at 289). In short, “the Supreme
Court's yardstick demands that courts be very confident
that a party cannot recover the jurisdictional amount before
dismissing the case for want of jurisdiction.”
Rosenboro v. Kim, 994 F.2d 13, 17 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
Stifel's motion presents one pure question of law and one
disputed question of fact. The legal question is whether a
court may consider an affirmative defense-here, the running
of a statute of limitations-in assessing whether a plaintiff
has satisfied the amount in controversy threshold for
diversity jurisdiction at the outset of a case. Although
neither party mentions it, the Circuits are divided on this
question. Most have answered in the negative, reasoning that
affirmative defenses should be ignored because they can be
waived. See, e.g., Perez v. Alta-Dena Certified
Dairy, LLC, 647 Fed.Appx. 682, 684 (9th Cir. 2016)
(“[E]ven if the applicable statute of limitations
ultimately precludes recovery for violations before May 2009
. . . that potential defense does not reduce the amount in
controversy for purposes of establishing federal
jurisdiction.”); McGee v. Sentinel Offender
Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1241 (11th Cir. 2013)
(“When determining the amount in controversy, we do not
consider whether some damages claimed by the plaintiff might
be precluded by a statute of limitations.”); see
also Scherer v. Equitable Life Assurance Soc'y of
U.S., 347 F.3d 394, 397-98 (2d Cir. 2003); Kovacs v.
Chesley, 406 F.3d 393, 396 (6th Cir. 2005);
Johns-Manville Sales Corp. v. Mitchell Enters.,
Inc., 417 F.2d 129, 131 (5th Cir. 1969).
least one Court of Appeals and a handful of district courts
have concluded otherwise. See Lamb v. Amalgamated Labor
Life Ins. Co., 602 F.2d 155, 159 (8th Cir. 1979)
(dismissing case for lack of diversity jurisdiction because
tort claims were barred by the statute of limitations);
Richardson v. Servicemaster Glob. Holdings Inc., No.
C 09-4044 SI, 2009 WL 4981149, at *2 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 15,
2009) (dismissing wage and hour case because only 3.5 months
of plaintiff's employment fell within statute of
limitations and thus amount in controversy fell below the
jurisdictional requirement); Johnson v. Beneficial Loan
Soc., 34 F.Supp. 392, 395 (D. Del. 1940) (finding that
plaintiffs' complaint did not meet the jurisdictional
amount because unpaid profits claims were outside the statute
of limitations). A fellow court in this district has, in
dicta, endorsed the minority view. See Gharib v.
Wolf, 518 F.Supp.2d 50, 55 nn.2-3 (D.D.C. 2007). But the
D.C. Circuit has not spoken, so there is no controlling
authority for this Court to follow.
contested factual question raised by Stifel's motion is
when did her alleged contribution obligations arise. She
contends they arose each time Tompkins paid Katten's
monthly bills. MTD at 3-4. And because he made most of those
payments more than three years before he filed this suit,
only $1, 519.95 of her allegedly unpaid fees fall within the
statute of ...