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Tompkins v. Stifel

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 14, 2019

CHARLES H. TOMPKINS III, Plaintiff,
v.
LIDA STIFEL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Background

         As 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).

         Tompkins 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 others. Id.

         As 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.

         Stifel 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. § 1332.

         II. Standard of Review

         A 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).

         Under 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).

         III. Analysis

         Ms. 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).

         At 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.

         The 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 ...


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