I have not discussed Federal court diversity jurisdiction in a long time. Yet, the issue is important for attorneys handling significant injury claims.
A SHORT DEFINITION OF FEDERAL COURT DIVERSITY JURISDICTION
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Generally, Federal courts have jurisdiction of claims under the U.S. Constitution, treaties and Federal statutes. Federal law provides Federal courts with a type of jurisdiction called diversity jurisdiction. In short summary, Federal Courts have diversity jurisdiction of state law claims where:
(1) the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000; and,
(2) the parties are completely diverse in their citizenship.
Diversity jurisdiction protects defendants of one state from being sued in a “supposedly hostile” local court in another state. Does the idea of local hostility or bias remain valid in our era of travel and commerce? It’s debatable. Whether or not foundational support for diversity jurisdiction remains, the practice remains an important part of our system.
I’ve previously discussed the diverse citizenship requirement as applied to corporate defendants. This is a significant and complex issue as many corporations have operations and offices in multiple states. Today, I’m discussing a specific issue related to the “amount in controversy” requirement. That issue, the misuse of Requests for Admissions by defense attorneys to create an amount in controversy claim.
DIVERSITY JURISDICTION AND CLAIMS INVOLVING SUBSTANTIAL INJURIES OR DAMAGES
Some local lawyers only practice in state court. They avoid Federal Court. I feel differently. I believe lawyers specializing in injury and damage claims should understand both Federal and Alabama courts. While the majority of our firm’s cases are in Alabama courts, we do have a significant number of claims in Federal court. And, I’ve had trials in both courts.
Because we handle cases in both forums, local lawyers have retained us to help with their Federal court cases. Typically, the local lawyer will sue a foreign defendant in an Alabama court. Then, the defendant will remove the case to Federal court. Afterwards, the local lawyer will hire us to help.
All our current bad drug and dangerous medical device cases are filed in Federal Court. Why? Because these claims usually involve a foreign manufacturer and no local defendant. They also typically involve a substantial injury or death.
THE MISUSE OF A REQUEST FOR ADMISSIONS TO CREATE DIVERSITY JURISDICTION
What is a Request for Admissions? One lawyer refers to Requests for Admissions (RFA) on his blog as follows:
Requests for Admissions are sort of the red-headed stepchild of the discovery process.
. . .
But RFAs can provide a good avenue in which to firmly establish undisputed facts at trial.
Lawyers use “discovery” to develop their claims. Typically, discovery involves Interrogatories which ask questions that must be answered under oath and Requests for Production which ask the other party to produce documents or items for inspection. Many lawyers neglect Requests for Admissions. Yet, a good RFA can be a very valuable tool to establish facts before trial. An RFA can narrow the actual factual disputes for trial.
Yet, defense attorneys sometimes misuse RFAs in an effort to establish diversity jurisdiction so they can remove a case from a local court to Federal court. How do defense lawyers misuse the RFA process for this purpose? Here are a couple specific requests from our recent cases:
- Admit that you waive any amount of damages entered in this lawsuit in excess of $75,000.00.
- Admit that you will not accept any award of damages over $75,000.00 in this lawsuit.
While the amount in controversy can be unclear in some cases. In other cases, it can clearly be less than $75,000.00. Although the controversy may clearly and reasonably involve less than $75,000.00 at this point, nobody would turn down more money should future events change matters. Current facts (which can easily be admitted or denied) and unforeseen future events, are very different. Nobody wants to limit their future actions. That’s why a RFA asking a lawyer to take some future action is improper. When we receive these improper RFAs, we typically respond similar to the following:
Objection. This does not request the admission of an existing fact. This cannot be determined until discovery has been completed, the trial of the matter is heard and a jury award is rendered. Moreover, the intended purpose of Ala.R.Civ.P. 36 is not discovery but to facilitate proof of material undisputed facts. Irons v. LeSueur, 487 So.2d 1352 (Ala.1986); Evans v. Insurance Company of North America, 349 So.2d 1099 (Ala.1977). This supposed “request” attempts to create an obligation of affirmative future conduct by the Plaintiff in the proceedings in this case.
If Federal courts are to remain courts of limited jurisdiction, strategic defense lawyers should not be able to expand jurisdiction arbitrarily. Likewise, strategic defense lawyers should not be able to limit an opponent from unforeseen future acts beneficial to their clients. My guess – most defense lawyers know these requests are improper and hope to catch a plaintiff’s attorney unfamiliar with the law. We have received and objected to these requests multiple times. Only one defense lawyer has challenged our objections. And, that challenge did not end well for the defense attorney. If you are going to represent clients in cases of substantial injuries or damages, you need to understand both Federal and state courts as well as the jurisdictional issues between them.