Can a Plaintiff Add More Defendants to Keep a Case out of Federal Court and in Georgia State Court?

Posted in slip and fall on June 14, 2022

Can a Plaintiff Add More Defendants to Keep a Case out of Federal Court and in Georgia State Court?

Our Atlanta personal injury law firm handles all sorts of serious injury cases. We mostly focus on what we like to call “wheels cases” eg car, truck and motorcycle cases. However, we also handle product liability cases, legal malpractice, and premises liability cases. Below is a discussion on federal court versus state court and a premises liability case that bopped around between the federal court and state court systems.

What is “Federal Removal”?

A defendant in a court case can file a Notice of Removal to switch from state court to federal court. The defendant will do this because they believe they have a better chance of success in federal court versus state court. To remove a case, the dispute must be “between citizens of different states” where there is “complete diversity” between each plaintiff and each defendant, and the amount in controversy is at least $75,000.

In a recent Georgia slip and fall case, the defendant Circle K Stores removed the action from Muscogee County, Georgia State Court based upon diversity of citizenship jurisdiction. But the plaintiff then moved to add claims against additional defendants—if they were added, it would destroy complete diversity, and the case would have to go back to state court.

Plaintiff Slips and Falls at a Convenience Store

The plaintiff was a citizen of Georgia. She claimed she was injured in November 2019 when she slipped and fell on a wet ramp outside a Columbus, Georgia Circle K Store. In May 2021, she brought negligence and premises liability claims in the Muscogee County State Court against Circle K and SW, who the plaintiff thought was the manager of the store where she was injured.

Circle K was a citizen of states other than Georgia for diversity of citizenship purposes, but SW was a Georgia citizen. So, when the complaint was filed, complete diversity of citizenship didn’t exist among the parties on the face of the complaint.

While the action was pending in state court, store manager SW moved to dismiss the claims against her, arguing that she wasn’t affiliated with the store where the plaintiff was injured and that managers, who aren’t owners or occupiers of the property where the accident happened, can’t be liable for a premises liability claim under Georgia Statute § 51-3-1.

The plaintiff eventually acknowledged that SW wasn’t the manager of the store where she was injured. But she then moved to amend her complaint in state court to join three additional employees of Circle K as defendants.

Before the state court could rule on her motion, Circle K removed the action to the federal district court. So, then the defendants in this action were Circle K, a Texas corporation with its principal place of business in Arizona, and SW, a Georgia citizen. Circle K argued that SW’s citizenship should be disregarded in determining whether complete diversity existed because no viable claim existed against her. Therefore, she has been fraudulently joined. The plaintiff responded that the Georgia court should rule on her motion to join the non-diverse defendants and, if that motion is granted, then her action must be remanded regardless of whether the claim against SW is dismissed and/or disregarded.

The Court Says First Store Manager Not a Proper Defendant

U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land found that SW was clearly not a proper defendant. She wasn’t the manager of the Circle K where the plaintiff fell, and the plaintiff provided no other basis for holding her liable. As such, SW wasn’t considered in evaluating if there was complete diversity of citizenship. However, Judge Land wasn’t convinced that the plaintiff didn’t have a viable claim against the other non-diverse defendants. So, the plaintiff’s motion to join them as defendants was granted.

Judge Land said that the proper analysis here involved the application of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15. The fraudulent joinder principles generally apply when an action arrives in federal court with a claim already attached that the removing party contends isn’t viable and has been fraudulently joined. But when, as here, a party seeks to amend her complaint to add a claim against a non-diverse defendant, then the judge knew of no reason why the traditional Rule 15 analysis wouldn’t apply.

Under Rule 15, leave to amend should be freely given when justice requires, he noted. The judge found that the claims the plaintiff sought to add were viable, and amendment should be permitted.

Because the plaintiff’s motion to add claims against the non-diverse defendants was granted, and those claims were deemed to be included in the plaintiff’s pending complaint, complete diversity was destroyed. The judge ordered the case to be remanded to the State Court of Muscogee County, Georgia. Williams v. Circle K Stores, Inc., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99187 (M.D. Ga. June 2, 2022).

Speak with an Atlanta Premises Liability Attorney

A slip and fall injury is a type of premises liability case. In you or a loved one has been injured on someone else’s property, contact an experienced Atlanta personal injury lawyer whom Atlanta residents trust. We offer FREE consultations to all prospective clients. Contact an Atlanta personal injury attorney at Tobin Injury Law 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or using our online contact form.