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Maritime Update: Federal Courts Remand General Maritime Law Claims to State Court


Prior to 2011, general maritime claims could not be removed as federal questions, and federal courts could only assert removal jurisdiction over admiralty claims that met diversity jurisdiction requirements.  The former version of § 1441, in pertinent part, stated the following:

§ 1441. Actions removable generally

(a) Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending. For purposes of removal under this chapter, the citizenship of defendants sued under fictitious names shall be disregarded.

(b) Any civil action of which the district courts have original jurisdiction founded on a claim or right arising under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States shall be removable without regard to the citizenship or residence of the parties. Any other such action shall be removable only if none of the parties in interest properly joined and served as defendants is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought.

In December 2011, 28 USC § 1441(a) was amended to read:  “Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.”   The 2011 amendment to § 1441 removed certain language from the former version of § 1441(b) that the Fifth Circuit had historically relied on to limit the removal of maritime claims. The current version of the statute no longer makes a distinction between claims “arising under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States” and “other such action[s].” Instead, § 1441(b) now explicitly pertains only to removals based on diversity jurisdiction.

Several post-amendment decisions held that the removal of the language “any other such action” from § 1441(b) eliminated the diversity requirement for maritime claims, such that maritime claims are now freely removable as claims over which the federal courts have original jurisdiction.  Ryan v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., 2013 WL 1967315 (S.D.Tex.2013); Wells v. Abe’s Boat Rentals Inc., 2013 WL 3110322 (S.D. Tex. 2013); Bridges v. Phillips 66 Co., 2013 WL 6092803 (M.D. La. Nov. 19, 2013); Carrigan v. M/V AMC Ambassador, 2014 WL 358353 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 31, 2014).   In two recent decisions, however, federal district courts remanded general maritime law claims removed under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b) back to state court. 

In Barry v. Shell, 2014 WL 775662 (E.D. La. Feb. 25, 2014) the plaintiff filed suit in state court for personal injuries he sustained aboard a vessel. The plaintiff’s claims were solely based on general maritime law and there was no diversity among the parties.  Plaintiff requested a jury trial.  The defendant removed the case to federal court.  Judge Zainey found that when actions are removed pursuant to federal question jurisdiction and/or federal diversity jurisdiction, the maritime plaintiff retains the right to demand a jury trial in federal district court. But since the removal of Plaintiff’s claim solely on the basis of admiralty jurisdiction would deprive him of the right to pursue his nonmaritime remedy of a jury trial, the saving to suitors clause under these circumstances prohibits the removal of this action.  Judge Zainey therefore remanded the case back to state court. 

Coronel v. Victory, 2014 WL 820270 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 28, 2014) was decided just three days later.  In that case, the plaintiff asserted claims under the Jones Act for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure.  The defendant sought to remove the claims to federal court based on the amendment to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b).  The district court reviewed the history of admiralty jurisdiction and removal and concluded that the removal of purely maritime claims (unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure) not permissible.  The Court determined that state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over maritime claims where the common law can provide a remedy.  Accordingly, those claims are brought at law and not in admiralty.  Original jurisdiction of the federal court for maritime claims and brought on the admiralty side of the court traditionally have special rules and are heard by the court and not by a jury.  The Court found that to permit removal of such claims to federal court would convert a claim at law into a claim in admiralty and impermissibly deprive the plaintiff his right to a jury trial.  The district court thus remanded the plaintiff’s claims back to state court.

The interpretation of the amendments to the removal statute for claims brought under general maritime law ultimately will be resolved by the Fifth Circuit and perhaps the United States Supreme Court.  Until that time, we can anticipate additional conflicting opinions on this issue.


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