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Ortiz v. A.C.I. Motor Freight, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

November 7, 2014

HENRY ORTIZ, Plaintiff,
v.
A.C.I. MOTOR FREIGHT, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JULIE A. ROBINSON, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Henry Ortiz's Motion to Remand (Doc. 8). The matter is fully briefed and the Court is prepared to rule. For the reasons explained in detail below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion and remands the case to the Twenty-Ninth Judicial District in Wyandotte County, Kansas.

I. Background

Plaintiff was employed by Defendant A.C.I. Motor Freight, Inc. as a pick-up and delivery driver of semi-trailer trucks. On August 11, 2014, Plaintiff commenced this action against Defendant in Wyandotte County District Court, alleging that Defendant wrongfully terminated him in violation of public policy, specifically the Kansas whistleblower law. In Count I, Plaintiff contends that Defendant terminated him for reporting an unsafe condition on his commercial vehicle in violation of public policy expressed in three federal regulations promulgated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ("FMCSA"): 49 C.F.R. § 396.7, 49 C.F.R. § 396.11(a)(1)(i); and 49 C.F.R. § 396.11(a)(3)(i). Plaintiff alleges that his December 13, 2013 vehicle inspection report identified an unsafe condition on his vehicle likely to cause an accident or breakdown of the vehicle. In reporting this unsafe condition, Plaintiff alleges he engaged in protected activity by reporting illegal conduct on the part of Defendant, namely permitting its driver to operate a vehicle with trailer brakes in an unsafe condition. Plaintiff alleges that he was terminated as a result of his complaints related to the safety of Defendant's vehicles. Count II alleges a violation of state law and public policy. Plaintiff contends that Defendant also terminated him for his complaint reporting the battery he suffered by one of Defendant's supervisors in violation of the public policy expressed in K.S.A. § 21-3412(a).

Defendant removed this case contending this Court has original jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims on two alternative grounds: 1) diversity of citizenship jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and 2) federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Plaintiff's Motion to remand followed.

II. Discussion

In its response, Defendant concedes that Plaintiff's claims do not satisfy the requirements of diversity jurisdiction, and thus removal rests upon federal question jurisdiction.[1] The applicable statute allows removal of "any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction."[2] Congress has authorized the federal district courts to exercise original jurisdiction in "all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."[3] Federal question jurisdiction exists only over those cases in which either 1) federal law creates the cause of action asserted, or 2) plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal law.[4] Whether a suit "arises under" federal law is determined by the well-pleaded complaint rule, which provides that federal jurisdiction exists "only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint."[5]

Cases arise under federal law in two ways. First, "when federal law creates the cause of action asserted, " which covers a category of cases that "accounts for the vast bulk of suits that arise under federal law."[6] In a much narrower category are state law claims that "implicate significant federal issues."[7] Claims in this category fall within a limited exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule, which is grounded in "the commonsense notion that a federal court ought to be able to hear claims recognized under state law that nonetheless turn on substantial questions of federal law, and thus justify resort to the experience, solicitude, and hope of uniformity that a federal forum offers on federal issues."[8]

The issue presented by Defendant's Motion to Remand is whether Plaintiff's state law whistleblower claim in Count I raises an issue of federal law that is substantial enough to warrant the exercise of federal question jurisdiction. There is a presumption against finding federal jurisdiction.[9] The burden of proving jurisdiction lies with the party asserting it exists.[10]

Defendant analyzes the federal jurisdiction question under the factors articulated by the Tenth Circuit in Rice v. Office of Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, [11] which requires that to fall within the so-called "substantial federal question" exception, (1) the issues implicated are governed by federal law; (2) the raised issues must present substantial questions of federal law that must be resolved; and (3) the applicable statute must give rise to an implied cause of action.[12] The Supreme Court has recently clarified, however, that federal jurisdiction over a state law claim will lie if a federal issue is: "(1) necessarily raised, (2) actually disputed, (3) substantial, and (4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance approved by Congress."[13] As discussed below, this is not one of those cases.

"Kansas follows the common-law employment-at-will doctrine, which allows employers to terminate employees for good cause, for no cause, or even for the wrong cause."[14] To prevail on a retaliatory discharge claim, an employee must demonstrate that he or she falls within one of the exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine.[15] One of these exceptions is termination for "whistleblowing."[16] To establish a retaliatory discharge claim for whistleblowing, a plaintiff has the burden of proving the following elements by clear and convincing evidence:

[A] reasonably prudent person would have concluded the employee's coworker or employer was engaged in activities in violation of rules, regulations, or the law pertaining to public health, safety, and the general welfare; the employer had knowledge of the employee's reporting of such violation prior to discharge of the employee; and the employee was discharged in retaliation for making the report.[17]

Plaintiff does not dispute that federal transportation safety regulation issues are "necessary" to his case or that the federal issue is disputed by Defendant. Thus, the Court turns its analysis to the third and fourth Gunn factors in determining ...


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