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Lath v. Cynthia Schadler Camp

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

October 16, 2018

Sanjeev Lath
Cynthia Schadler Camp & Michael Camp



         In one of several actions he has pending in federal court, [1]pro se plaintiff Sanjeev Lath alleges that Cynthia and Michael Camp committed common-law invasion of privacy and violated New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated § 570-A:11 by videotaping him without his permission on two occasions. As both claims arise under state law, this court only has subject-matter jurisdiction to the extent permitted by 28 U.S.C. § 1332. That statute bestows federal district courts with diversity jurisdiction over actions between citizens of different states when the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). The court has challenged whether the amount in controversy in this case exceeds the jurisdictional threshold.

         Both parties briefed this issue, and the court heard oral argument. Concluding that Lath has not demonstrated that his claims meet this jurisdictional amount, the court dismissed this case after the hearing for want of subject-matter jurisdiction. This order sets forth the bases for that dismissal in greater detail. See, e.g., United States v. Joubert, 980 F.Supp.2d 53, 55 n.1 (D.N.H. 2014), aff'd, 778 F.3d 247 (1st Cir. 2015) (citing In re Mosley, 494 F.3d 1320, 1328 (11th Cir. 2007)) (noting a district court's authority to later reduce its prior oral findings and rulings to writing).

         I. Applicable legal standard

         As noted, a federal district court only has diversity jurisdiction over an action when two statutory prerequisites are met: the plaintiff and the defendants must be citizens of different states and the amount in controversy must exceed $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). The party seeking to invoke diversity jurisdiction has the burden of demonstrating that both requirements are met. Spielman v. Genzyme Corp., 251 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). Although Lath alleges that the events underlying his claims all occurred at an apartment complex in New Hampshire, he contends (and the Camps do not dispute) that he resides in New Hampshire and they in Maine. Thus, the court limits its inquiry to whether the amount in controversy meets the jurisdictional minimum.

         When a plaintiff's complaint includes an ad damnum clause, that sum controls "if the claim is apparently made in good faith." Abdel-Aleem v. OPK Biotech LLC, 665 F.3d 38, 41 (1st Cir. 2012) (brackets and citations omitted). "Good faith is measured objectively; the question is whether to anyone familiar with the applicable law this claim could objectively have been viewed as worth more than the jurisdictional minimum." Id. (brackets, ellipsis, internal quotation marks, and citations omitted). "It must appear to a legal certainty that a claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount to justify dismissal." Id.

         While federal courts "have a responsibility to police the borders of federal jurisdiction," this determination "should be done quickly, without extensive fact-finding inquiry." Spielman, 251 F.3d at 4 (citations omitted). "A plaintiff's general allegation of damages that meet the amount requirement suffices unless questioned by the opposing party or the court." Abdel-Aleem, 665 F.3d at 41-42 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Once challenged, however, "the party seeking to invoke jurisdiction has the burden of alleging with sufficient particularity facts indicating that it is not a legal certainty that the claim involves less than the jurisdictional amount." Id. at 42 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         II. Background

         A. Procedural history

         Lath originally brought this action in state court, alleging state-law claims against the City of Manchester.[2] With the City's assent, Lath amended his complaint to include a federal claim against the City under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[3] The City then removed the case to this court under 28 U.S.C § 1446.[4]

         Following removal, Lath filed an amended complaint in which he for the first time named the Camps as defendants.[5] Judge Johnstone reviewed that complaint and recommended that it be dismissed without prejudice because Lath filed it without first seeking leave from the court as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2).[6] The court approved that recommendation and dismissed the amended complaint without prejudice.[7] Lath then moved for leave to amend his complaint to add numerous defendants, including the Camps.[8]

         The court referred that motion to Judge Johnstone, who recommended that it be denied as to all defendants other than the City and the Camps.[9] As to the City, Judge Johnstone recommended that Lath be allowed to proceed on a § 1983 claim for a Fourth Amendment violation and state-law claims for trespass and failure to preserve a 911 recording.[10] She further recommended that Lath be allowed to amend his complaint to allege claims against the Camps for common-law invasion of privacy and violations of New Hampshire Revised Statutes § 570-A:11, the New Hampshire wiretapping statute.[11] The court approved those recommendations in full, [12] thereby making Lath's First Amended Complaint the operative pleading in this case.[13]

         The Camps and the City both timely moved to dismiss.[14] The court dismissed Lath's § 1983 claim against the City, concluding that Lath had not alleged a municipal policy or custom as required by Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978).[15] The court declined supplemental jurisdiction over Lath's attendant state-law claims against the City.[16] In deference to Lath's pro se status, however, the court refrained from dismissing Lath's claims against the Camps, concluding that Lath had minimally alleged common-law invasion of privacy and violations of the wiretapping statute and that, when taken at face value, his complaint contained facts establishing diversity jurisdiction over those claims under § 1332(a).[17] The court nevertheless noted its skepticism that Lath could recover more than $75, 000 against the Camps, and accordingly directed Lath to show cause that this jurisdictional minimum was met.[18]

         Lath filed several documents in response to the show-cause order. He initially addressed this issue in his motion to reconsider the order to dismiss the City.[19] Though the court denied that motion, it indicated that it would consider Lath's amount-in-controversy arguments when resolving whether it had subject-matter jurisdiction over his claims.[20] Lath also filed a response to the show-cause order, [21] an affidavit in further support of diversity jurisdiction, [22] and a reply memorandum.[23]The Camps filed a single response to the show-cause order.[24]

         The court scheduled a hearing for August 30, 2018. Two weeks before that hearing, Lath moved to appear by telephone, indicating that he lived in Nashua without available transportation to Concord.[25] The court granted that motion in part and, as a convenience to Lath, held the hearing at the Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua.[26] Both Lath and the Camps' counsel presented arguments at the hearing.

         B. Allegations against the Camps

         Lath's allegations against the Camps can be summarized succinctly. Lath contends that on November 22, 2015, as he entered his residence with his friend Barbara Belware, he got into an altercation with the Camps after Cynthia Camp falsely reported to the Manchester Police Department that Lath had kicked a door.[27] Lath contends that during that altercation, Michael Camp recorded Lath and Belware on his cell phone.[28] Lath alleges that the Camps again recorded him on their cell phones on November 30, 2015, as Lath was returning from work and entering his unit.[29] Lath alleges that he was on the phone with his psychiatrist at the time and that the Camps continued to record him after he asked them to stop.[30] He alleges that Cynthia Camp later admitted to making the recordings during a hearing in state court.[31]

         Lath alleges, without elaboration, that the Camps used the contents of the recordings to belittle him, spread rumors about him, and otherwise assassinate his character.[32] He further contends, again in summary fashion, that he suffered "shame, anguish, despair, mental shock, humiliation, feelings of being violated, emotional distress, hurt feelings, [and disturbance of] peace of mind . . . in an amount in excess of the jurisdiction limits of this Court."[33] He seeks to recover equitable, incidental, compensatory, enhanced compensatory, and punitive damages from the Camps.[34] He specifically requests $2 million in damages for each cause of action.[35]

         III. Analysis

         When, as here, the court challenges whether the amount in controversy is met, "the party seeking to invoke jurisdiction has the burden of alleging with sufficient particularity facts indicating that it is not a legal certainty that the claim involves less than the jurisdictional amount." Abdel-Aleem, 665 F.3d at 41-42. There are three general circumstances that clearly meet the legal certainty standard:

1) when the terms of a contract limit the plaintiff's possible recovery to less than the required jurisdictional amount; 2) when a specific rule of substantive law or measure of damages limits the amount of money recoverable by the plaintiff to less than the necessary number of dollars to satisfy the requirement; and 3) when independent facts show that the amount of damages claimed has been inflated by the plaintiff merely to secure federal court jurisdiction.

14AA Charles A. Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure ยง 3713 (4th ed. 2018) (and cases cited therein). As Lath uses this framing device in his briefing, the court will do the same. And because the first two circumstances plainly ...

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