United States: Re-Examining The Ethics Of Removal

Last Updated: September 12 2018
Article by James Beck

In the early days of the Blog, in 2009, when Bexis and Mark Herrmann were operating in relative obscurity, we posed the question whether it was ethical to remove to federal court a case that may well be non-removable and hope that opposing counsel is "asleep at the switch":

"Heck, I'll remove it anyway. Opposing counsel may be asleep at the switch and not file a motion to remand within 30 days. If plaintiff doesn't timely move to remand, the objection to removal is waived, and my case can be tried to judgment in federal court."

Is that ethical?

We received one response, which we discussed, that an:

attorneys' first obligation should be to the integrity of the legal system, and not to their clients' interests. Even so, I'm not sure I'd say 'no' to either question, given that a yes answer means that incompetent attorneys who don't realize they are violating the rules would have an advantage over competent attorneys.

With that the issue dropped off the radar.

That question returned to our minds when we researched our recent post on removal before service. We came up with case after case holding that the so-called "forum defendant" rule was waivable, not jurisdictional, and thus that failure to move for remand in a case that featured complete diversity of the parties – but a defendant located in the forum state – was waiver so that the case stayed in federal court. That means if a defendant is savvy enough to remove before service in accordance with the express terms of 28 U.S.C. §1441(b)(2), and opposing counsel is, as we said before, "asleep at the switch," the removal succeeds regardless of a court's substantive views on removal before service.

For example, in one of our removal before service cases, Selective Insurance Co. v. Target Corp., 2013 WL 12205696 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 13, 2013), the court held:

Plaintiff asserts §1441(b) (2) − the "forum defendant rule" − as a basis for remand, arguing that because defendant . . . is an Illinois citizen, removal was improper. This rule is statutory, not jurisdictional, and thus may be waived or forfeited.

Id. at 1 (citing Hurley v. Motor Coach Industries, Inc., 222 F.3d 377, 379 (7th Cir. 2000)). The cited Hurley decision held just that:

We must decide, therefore, whether the forum defendant rule is jurisdictional, in the sense we have been using the term, or if it is of a lesser status. That question has been bouncing around the federal courts of appeals for more than 75 years, yet oddly enough it remains unresolved in this circuit. The overwhelming weight of authority, however, is on the "nonjurisdictional" side of the debate.

Id. at 379. Hurley cited the following "overwhelming" precedent supporting the waivability of the forum defendant rule. Snapper, Inc. v. Redan, 171 F.3d 1249, 1258 (11th Cir. 1999); Korea Exchange Bank v. Trackwise Sales Corp., 66 F.3d 46, 50 (3d Cir. 1995); In re Shell Oil Co., 932 F.2d 1518, 1522 (5th Cir. 1991); Farm Construction Services, Inc. v. Fudge, 831 F.2d 18, 21-22 (1st Cir. 1987); Woodward v. D. H. Overmyer Co., 428 F.2d 880, 882 (2d Cir. 1970); Handley-Mack Co. v. Godchaux Sugar Co., 2 F.2d 435, 437 (6th Cir. 1924), with only Hurt v. Dow Chemical Co., 963 F.2d 1142, 1145-46 (8th Cir. 1992), going the other way.

Another pre-service removal case reached the same conclusion. The court in Almutairi v. Johns Hopkins Health System Corp., 2016 WL 97835 (D. Md. Jan. 8, 2016), stated:

I am unaware of any specific guidance from the Supreme Court or the Fourth Circuit concerning whether a motion to remand based on the "forum defendant rule" constitutes a procedural or a jurisdictional challenge to removal. See Councell v. Homer Laughlin China Co., 823 F. Supp. 2d 370, 378 (N.D.W. Va. 2011) (recognizing that the Fourth Circuit "has yet to rule on this question..."). However, "[o]f the ten circuits that have spoken on the issue, nine have found that removal by a forum defendant is a procedural defect, and thus waivable." Id.

Almutairi, 2016 WL 97835, at *5. In addition to the cases previously cited by Hurley, Almutiari added: Lively v. Wild Oats Markets, Inc., 456 F.3d 933, 939-40 (9th Cir. 2006), Handelsman v. Bedford Village Assocs. Ltd. Partnership, 213 F.3d 48, 50 n.2 (2d Cir. 2000), Blackburn v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 179 F.3d 81, 90 n.3 (3d Cir. 1999), and Pacheco de Perez v. AT & T Co., 139 F.3d 1368, 1372 n.4 (11th Cir. 1998).

So at least in the context of removal before service, we now unhesitatingly answer our question from 2009 in the affirmative. By all means remove before service, even in the face of adverse precedent in some district courts. At best, the plaintiff will miss the issue entirely and will waive any reliance on the forum defendant rule (which is waivable everywhere but in the Eighth Circuit). At worst, (1) the case is randomly assigned to a federal who has already ruled adversely, and (2) the plaintiff seeks remand in a timely fashion. In that situation, as our recent removal-before-service posts demonstrate, the defense side has both the upper hand in the argument, and significant appellate support. See, e.g., Encompass Insurance Co. v. Stone Mansion Restaurant, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, 2018 WL 3999885, at *4-5 (3d Cir. Aug. 22, 2018); Novak v. Bank of N.Y. Mellon Trust Co., 783 F.3d 910, 912, 914 (1st Cir. 2015); La Russo v. St. George's University School, 747 F.3d 90, 97 (2d Cir. 2014). A combination of persuasive argument and recent arguments might get a fair-minded judge to change his/her mind. Even the worst possible result – remand accompanied by an order to pay counsel fees – isn't all bad, since the sanctions order would be immediately appealable.

But we want to make one thing perfectly clear. Pre-service removal involves only statutory language relating to diverse "forum defendants." There is nothing in the statute, or in the case law, that allows the presence of a non-diverse defendant to be avoided by pre-service removal. Pre-service removal does not make non-diverse cases diverse. Any counsel who screws up this fundamental distinction deserves whatever sanctions a court hands out.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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