The Labors of Hercules: Federal District Court in Washington Rejects Free Removability of General Maritime Law Claims Under 28 U.S.C. 1441 and Ryan v. Hercules Offshore, Inc.

As reported in two prior posts (The Removal of the Ancient Mariner – The Developing Jurisprudence Allowing Removal of General Maritime Law Claims under the Recent Amendments to 28 U.S.C. §1441(b) and The Removal of the Ancient Mariner – Reprising a Sea-Change in Admiralty Law) district courts within the Fifth Circuit have virtually unanimously adopted the reasoning of Judge Gray Miller’s decision in Ryan v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., 2013 WL 1967315 (S.D. Tex. May 13, 2013), which overturned the half-century-old, formerly hornbook rule that general maritime law (GML) claims are non-removable and allowed removal of such claims under the recent amendments to 28 U.S.C. §1441.  As the rule of Hercules continues to gain a broader foothold on the Gulf of Mexico, however, a sister court in the Pacific Northwest has rejected the sea change.

In Coronel v. AK Victory, — F. Supp. 2d —, 2014 WL 820270 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 28, 2014) the court held that a fishing vessel crewmember’s GML claims of unseaworthiness and for maintenance and cure, as well as his related Jones Act claims, were non-removable, notwithstanding the removing defendant vessel owner’s arguments under Hercules and the new provisions of §1441.  The Coronel court’s opinion provides a ranging survey of the historical differences – both procedural and substantive – between the admiralty and law sides of the federal courts, and ultimately concludes that the subtle but fundamental jurisdictional distinction between the two precludes removal even under what the court admitted was a “compelling” argument under Hercules and §1441.

To begin with, as a general matter, the Coronel court noted the formerly well-established rule derived from Romero and enshrined most clearly in the Fifth Circuit’s decision in In re Dutile, 935 F.2d 61, 63 (5th Cir.1991), that GML claims were not removable based on federal question jurisdiction, notwithstanding that Article III of the Constitution and the Judiciary Act grant federal court’s original jurisdiction over admiralty claims, and in light of Article III’s “Saving to Suitors” Clause.  In this regard, the court suggested that the “more than 200 years of precedent interpreting” the grant of admiralty jurisdiction must inform the removability question notwithstanding the changes to §1441.  Moreover, the court acknowledged the fact that the legislative history of the amendments to §1441 indicated that the changes were not intended to change the non-removability of GML claims:

The portions of the legislative history that the court has reviewed do not express any intention to rework the removability of maritime claims. See, e.g., H.R.Rep. No. 112–10, at 11 (20110[.] Rather, it seems that Congress, to the extent it considered admiralty jurisdiction at all, assumed that admiralty cases were already not removable absent some other basis of federal jurisdiction and that nothing in the 2011 Amendments would change that. See H.R.Rep. No. 112–10 (indicating that the bill tracked a proposal by the American Law Institute, which in turn had expressly excluded claims removable solely due to admiralty jurisdiction based on the understanding that such an exclusion was settled law); see also Federal Judicial Code Revision Project, Part III at 334–35 (2004) (American Law Institute proposal).

2014 WL 820270 at *3 n.1.

Moving beyond these general concerns that, whatever their force, do not address the plain language of §1441, the Coronelcourt nonetheless relied on its historical analysis to ultimately decide the issue on the specific basis that a claim brought within the admiralty jurisdiction – of which the federal courts have original jurisdiction – is fundamentally different from a maritime claim brought at law – of which the federal courts do not have original jurisdiction under the admiralty grant in Article III.  Specifically, under the Coronel court’s analysis, Romero and its progeny essentially held that (i) only in rem claims fall inextricably within the discrete admiralty jurisdiction granted by Article III; (ii) GML claims brought at law could fall within the federal court’s original admiralty jurisdiction if the plaintiff chooses to file the claims in federal court as admiralty claims; but (iii) federal courts do not have original subject matter jurisdiction over GML claims if a plaintiff exercises his right under the “Saving to Suitors” Clause to bring them at law in state court.   In other words, as the Coronel court summarized, while GML claims can fall within the federal court’s original admiralty jurisdiction, they are not exclusively within the admiralty grant of Article III because they can be brought at law under the “Saving to Suitors” Clause:

[T]hroughout the history of federal admiralty jurisdiction—from the Judiciary Act of 1789 through Romero and up to the present—courts have given no indication that maritime claims are cognizable on the law side of federal courts absent subject matter jurisdiction independent of 28 U.S.C. § 1333.

Turning to Plaintiff’s claims, Section 1441(a) only permits removal of civil actions of which the district courts have “original jurisdiction.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). By definition, a party cannot bring a claim in admiralty in state court. As such, Plaintiff’s claims for unseaworthiness, maintenance, cure, and lost wages filed in Washington state court are necessarily brought at law, not in admiralty.

But this court would not have had original jurisdiction over these claims at law had they initially been filed in federal court. As discussed above, 28 U.S.C. § 1333 alone does not provide federal subject matter jurisdiction over maritime claims on the law side of the court. The mere fact that these claims implicate general maritime law does not establish federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 [and there is no diversity] . . . Because Plaintiff could not have brought his maritime claims on the law side of the court in the first place, removal is not now appropriate.

2014 WL 820270 at *10 (citations omitted). In short, because a plaintiff’s state court GML claims are by the very nature of their state court provenance non-admiralty claims at law, they are not removable based on original jurisdiction in the federal court because the federal court has no original jurisdiction over GML claims brought at law.  Thus, because the plaintiff’s GML claims were brought at law in state court, they were non-removable, and likewise (in turn) his related Jones Act claims (which are non-removable on their own by statute) were also non-removable.

To be sure, the Coronel court’s esoteric (perhaps tortured) analysis is much less concise and precise than Judge Miller’s incisive analysis in Hercules.  Nonetheless, the analysis finds a Constitutional basis for avoiding what the Hercules court found to be a clear and unambiguous statutory result.  That said, it is unclear whether and to what extent Coronel may find a foothold in courts within the Fifth Circuit.  See, e.g.Taylor v. Bisso Towboat Co., Inc., 2009 WL 2707452 (E.D. La. Aug. 25, 2009) (“This Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 1331 which provides original jurisdiction over admiralty or maritime claims . . .”).  Nonetheless, as Judge Miller’s new rule continues to labor its way through district courts, en route to a virtually certain review by the Fifth Circuit and possibly the Supreme Court, Coronel provides a new and intriguing counterpoint to the sea change brought about by Hercules.