Elsea v. Jackson County, Mo., No. 10-0620-CV-W-ODS, 2010 WL 4386538 (W.D. Mo. Oct 28, 2010).

Missouri may be moving to the SEC (that’s the Southeastern Conference, Home of the Last 5 National Champs and the Home of the 2011 National Champ, for you non-football fans), but this case is staying put in a Missouri state court because a Missouri federal district court granted the plaintiff’s motion for remand for want of diversity holding that a person is a citizen where he resides and intends to stay and that citizenship does not change until both conditions are met in a new state. 

The plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit against Jackson County, Missouri and U.S. Engineering Company, alleging that the Jackson County Courthouse was built with materials containing asbestos and people who have been in the courthouse on a regular basis for any period since 1983 may have developed or may develop health problems. The plaintiff’s putative class consisted of all Missouri ‘residents’ who worked in or regularly conducted business in the Jackson County Courthouse.

 The defendants removed the case to federal court based on provisions of CAFA, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d). For support, the law firm representing the County submitted an affidavit from one of its lawyers (Jeffrey Rosen) averring that his primary residence was in Kansas but he had a “second home at the Lake of the Ozarks in Camdenton, Missouri,” where he “periodically” resided. Must be nice to have a lake house.

First, the court found that the defendants had not satisfied their burden of demonstrating that there was diversity of citizenship between some member of the class and the defendants.  As the parties argued over the definition of “resident,” the court stated that the question was what did resident mean in the context of the class definition? In that context, the court rejected the defendants’ intimation that the term has a single, fixed meaning that must be imparted to the plaintiff’s use of the term. The court noted that the current class definition was amenable to multiple constructions and for that reason it was insufficiently precise for class definition purposes. Because the plaintiff consistently equated “resident” with “citizenship,” the court decided to resolve the ambiguity in the plaintiff’s proposed definition by interpreting the definition as limiting class membership to people who were Missouri citizens when the suit was filed.

The court remarked that even if a “resident” was something less than a “citizen,” there was no basis for concluding that Rosen was a resident of Missouri. He was a citizen of Kansas who owned property in Missouri and occasionally vacationed in Missouri. A resident means something more than a mere property owner, even if the property owner occasionally sleeps on the property for short periods of time.  

The court stated that the defendants had not established that there existed any person who was a member of the class who resided in Missouri and was a citizen elsewhere. They posited there were students attending college in Missouri who had retained citizenship elsewhere by continuing to vote and pay taxes in their home state. The court agreed that common sense dictated that there was at least one such individual. The court, however, remarked that use of logic and common sense on a party’s behalf does not absolve that party of its burdens or constitute providing that party with “the benefit of the doubt.”  

The court’s conclusions are supported by the law regarding citizenship that holds that a person is a citizen where they reside and intend to stay and that citizenship does not change until both conditions are met in a new state. While the court could not find a specific number of people who resided in Missouri but were citizens elsewhere, the defendants offered no proof indicating that any such non-citizen resident of Missouri was either employed by the City, State, or County, or otherwise “regularly conducted business” in the Jackson County Courthouse. Therefore, the court concluded that the defendants had not carried their burden of demonstrating that any class member was a citizen of a state other than Missouri.

Next, the court found that even if the defendants had carried their burden of establishing the initial requirements for jurisdiction, the case must be remanded under the Home State Exception, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(4)(B), because the plaintiff had satisfied that two-thirds or more of the members of all proposed plaintiff classes in the aggregate, and the primary defendants, were citizens of Missouri. The defendants, however, argued that it could not be identified that two-thirds of class members were Missouri citizens because residence in Missouri was something less than citizenship. 

The court stated that identifying each member of the class and establishing the citizenship for each was an impossible burden. Applying the maxim “residence is prima facie proof of citizenship,” the court found that common sense and logic entitled the Court to conclude that the vast majority of Missouri residents who met the remaining requirements to be in the class were also Missouri citizens. While the court could not find a specific percentage of the class were Missouri citizens, it could find that the vast majority of them were.

Finally, the court observed that even if the citizenship requirements for Home State Exception had not been established, the requirements for the interest of Justice Exception in 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(3) had been.  The court stated that the claims did not involve matters of national or interstate importance; the suit was filed in Missouri, and Missouri law would govern the dispute; both the defendants were citizens of Missouri; the alleged harms occurred in Missouri; and the acts giving rise to the plaintiff’s claims occurred in Missouri. Regardless of the definition of “resident” that was employed, far more class members would be citizens of Missouri than any other state. Therefore, the court concluded that all of these factors justified remand.