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Elliott v. Chr. Hansen Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 26, 2019

JOHN W. ELLIOTT, STARLA S. ELLIOTT, Plaintiffs,
v.
CHR. HANSEN INC., CITRUS & ALLIED ESSENCES, LTD., EVONIK INDUSTRIES, AG, GIVAUDAN f/k/a TASTEMAKER, FRIES & FRIES, MALLINCKRODT, GOLD MEDALPRODUCTS COMPANY, H.B. TAYLOR COMPANY, INTERNATIONAL BAKER'S SERVICES, INC., INTERNATIONAL FLAVORS & FRAGRANCES, INC., KERRY FLAVOR SYSTEMS US, LLC, SENSIENT FLAVORS INTERNATIONAL, INC., SYMRISE, INC., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO REMAND

          James Patrick Hanlon United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs John and Starla Elliot filed a lawsuit against Defendants in the Marion County Superior Court seeking redress for injuries and damages allegedly caused by John Elliot's occupational exposure to chemicals. International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc. removed the case to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction, dkt. 1, and Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Remand in October 2018 followed by a Second Motion to Remand in December. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiffs' Second Motion is GRANTED. Dkt. [127].

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         John Elliot, a Florida citizen, worked at the Weaver Popcorn Company production plant in Van Buren, Indiana for twenty-three years. Dkt. 1-1 at 24. He suffers from lung disease that he alleges was caused by his exposure to various chemicals used in the Weaver Plant to flavor the popcorn (“toxic flavorings”). Id. at 24. For these injuries, he and his wife sued eleven different companies for civil conspiracy, product liability, and fraudulent concealment. Id. at 25-48. Each of these companies allegedly manufactures or distributes the flavorings that are alleged to have caused Plaintiff's injuries. Id. at 25-28. Most of these companies operate outside of Indiana, but two of them- International Baker's Services, Inc. and Sensient Flavors International, Inc. (“Indiana Defendants”)-are Indiana citizens.

         International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc. removed the case to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction. Dkt. 69. Recognizing that the Indiana Defendants are Indiana citizens under the forum-defendant rule, International Flavors argues that the Indiana Defendants' citizenship should not be considered for diversity jurisdiction purposes because “there is no possibility that Plaintiffs can establish a cause of action” against them. Id. ¶ 5. According to International Flavors, the Indiana Defendants never sold or distributed any products to the Weaver Plant where Plaintiff worked, so they could not possibly have caused Plaintiff's injuries. The Indiana Defendants, therefore, have been “fraudulently joined” as defendants in this case, so their citizenship can be safely ignored. Id.

         On December 10, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a Second Motion to Remand arguing that the Indiana Defendants were not fraudulently joined and that International Flavor's removal did not properly allege the Court's jurisdiction. Dkt. 127. The Motion to Remand has been fully briefed and is now ripe for the Court's consideration.

         II. Analysis

         Federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 552 (2005). A district court cannot hear a case without a clear statutory basis for its jurisdiction. Id.The removing party bears the burden of establishing this basis. Tri-State Water Treatment, Inc. v. Bauer, 845 F.3d 350, 352 (7th Cir. 2017). Here, Plaintiffs argue that International Flavor's Notice of Removal fails to establish the Court's jurisdiction because some of the jurisdictional allegations are based on “information and belief” and the Indiana Defendants were not fraudulently joined. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. Removal Based on Information and Belief

          The Court may exercise diversity jurisdiction only if the parties are diverse and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000 exclusive of costs and fees. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). When removing a case, a “naked declaration that there is diversity of citizenship is never sufficient.” Thomas v. Guardsmark, LLC, 487 F.3d 531, 533 (7th Cir. 2007). Rather, the removing party must allege jurisdiction based on personal knowledge-not just on its information and belief-to invoke the subject-matter jurisdiction of a federal court. See America's Best Inns, Inc. v. Best Inns of Abilene, L.P., 980 F.2d 1072, 1074 (7th Cir. 1992).

         Here, Plaintiffs claim that the Court should remand the case because International Flavors alleged the parties' citizenship based on its “information and belief” rather than its personal knowledge. Dkt. 127 at 8-9. The Court disagrees and finds that International Flavors has sufficiently alleged jurisdiction based on personal knowledge.[1] International Flavors has alleged the citizenship of each party without using the phrase “information and belief.” Dkt. 69 ¶¶ 6-18. These jurisdictional allegations are supported by an affidavit based on “personal knowledge, ” dkt. 69-5, and documents from Defendants' Secretary of State Offices confirming their citizenship, dkts. 65-6-65-18. This is enough to establish the parties' citizenship, and the Court will not remand the case on this ground.

         B. Fraudulent Joinder

         For the Court to have diversity jurisdiction, the suit must involve “citizens of different States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). Under the “forum defendant rule, ” however, a civil action that is removable based on diversity jurisdiction “may not be removed if any of the parties in interest properly joined and served as defendants is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(2). Here, the Indiana Defendants are citizens of the state in which this action was brought, so removal is prohibited under the forum-defendant rule.

         While implicitly acknowledging that the forum-defendant rule applies here, International Flavors argues that the Court should not consider the Indiana Defendants' citizenship because they have been fraudulently joined. Under the fraudulent joinder doctrine, the Court can ignore parties' citizenship if “there is no possibility that a plaintiff can state a cause of action against nondiverse defendants in state court.” Gottlieb v. Westin Hotel Co., 990 F.2d 323, 327 (7th Cir. 1993). ...


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