|February 24, 2014|
Previously published on February 20, 2014
28 U.S.C. § 1333 provides that federal district courts "have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of ... any civil action of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are entitled." The "saving to suitors" clause is widely interpreted to allow plaintiffs in admiralty and maritime claims to file their lawsuits in either state or federal court. Because admiralty claims are not "federal question" claims arising under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States, Congress has decided that maritime claims are not subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction. As a result, many admiralty plaintiffs choose to file suit in state court rather than in federal court.
In some circumstances, defendants may remove a matter from state court to federal court. However, prior to the 2011 amendment to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 (the "removal statute"), the ability to remove admiralty cases was limited to only those cases in which there was an independent non-maritime basis for removal, such as diversity of citizenship or federal question jurisdiction. This is because the prior version of the removal statute only allowed removal of cases over which the United States District Court had original jurisdiction and that either 1) was "founded on a claim or right under the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States ... without regard to the citizenship or residence of the parties" (i.e., federal question jurisdiction) or 2) was "any other such action ... if none of the parties ... is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought" (i.e., diversity jurisdiction). As previously noted, admiralty claims are not federal question claims because they are common law remedies which are not "founded on a claim or right under the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States." As a result, only those admiralty claims in which all parties were diverse or in which there existed an independent basis for federal question jurisdiction, such as the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act ("OCSLA"), could be removed to federal court under the prior version of the removal statute.
The removal statute was amended effective January 7, 2012. Under the amended version, the federal court was still required to have original jurisdiction over a case in order for removal to be proper. However, the requirement that the lawsuit be "founded on a claim or right under the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States ... without regard to the citizenship or residence of the parties" was deleted. The plain language of the amended version of the removal statute thus only requires that the federal court have original jurisdiction over the lawsuit for removal to be proper.
The issue of whether this amendment was a substantive change to the removal statute or was merely a clarification of existing law was raised in Ryan v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., 945 F.Supp.2d 772 (S.D. Tex. 2013). In Ryan, the plaintiff's spouse, a non-seaman offshore worker, suffered a heart attack aboard a jack-up drilling rig off the coast of Nigeria and died. The plaintiff alleged that her husband died as a result of the defendants' failure to properly and timely administer first aid and evacuate him to shore. The plaintiff asserted claims in state court in Harris County, Texas for negligence and unseaworthiness under the General Maritime Law, the Death on the High Seas Act ("DOHSA"), and the Sieracki seaman doctrine. The defendants removed the case to the Southern District of Texas on the basis that the recent amendments to the removal statute make previously unremovable admiralty claims removable since the federal court has original jurisdiction over those claims.
The plaintiff moved to remand the case to state court arguing that the legislative history of the amendment indicated that the changes to the removal statute were not meant to be substantive. The court disregarded this argument and found that even if Congress did not intend for the amendments to be substantive, the amendment nevertheless made substantial changes to the text of the removal statute and the court was required to enforce the plain and unambiguous language of the statute. The court also expressly found that an independent "federal question" basis of jurisdiction was no longer required for removal of admiralty claims in which the parties were not diverse because the amendment removed the reference to claims that arise under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States. Ultimately, the court held that plaintiff's general maritime, DOHSA, and Sieracki claims were all admiralty claims. Because the federal court had original jurisdiction over these admiralty claims, removal was proper.
This court's interpretation of the amendments to the removal statute greatly expands an admiralty defendant's strategic options upon being sued. While the Fifth Circuit has not yet ruled on this issue, all admiralty lawsuits filed in state court could arguably be removed to federal court under this Southern District of Texas decision. Depending on the particular factual circumstances of each case, removal to federal court could be beneficial since it can potentially affect a defendant's chance of success on summary judgment, potential exposure to damages, and time within which the case reaches trial.