Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

No Federal Jurisdiction under Grable to Hear Legal Malpractice Claim Despite Centrality of Title VII Issues

From Walker v. Dwoskin, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10720 (W.D. Va. Feb. 12, 2009):

Plaintiff filed a complaint against the Defendant on January 5, 2009 in the Circuit Court for Albemarle County, alleging that the Defendant breached his contract with the Plaintiff by failing to serve the defendant in the Title VII suits in a timely manner, and by failing to "represent the plaintiff with zeal and professionalism."

The Defendant then timely filed the notice of removal to this Court, alleging federal question jurisdiction. The Defendant construed Plaintiff's claim as one for attorney malpractice, and argued that because the resolution of a malpractice claim would involve adjudication of Plaintiff's underlying Title VII claim, the case involves such substantial federal questions as to give rise to subject matter jurisdiction in this Court. ***


Even where a cause of action is not directly created by federal law, subject matter jurisdiction may still exist where "a state-law claim necessarily raise[s] a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which a federal forum may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state responsibilities." Grable & Sons Metal Products, Inc. v. Darue Engineering & Manufacturing, 545 U.S. 308, 314 (2005). ***


Defendant's arguments for subject matter jurisdiction fail for two reasons. First, Plaintiff's one and only claim for relief is clearly styled in the complaint as one for breach of contract.... Adjudication of Plaintiff's claim does not necessarily require adjudication of the underlying Title VII claim. Therefore, there is no federal question involved at all on which the Court might base jurisdiction.

Second, even if Plaintiff's claim does require adjudication of the merits of Plaintiff's Title VII claim, this is not sufficient to give rise to subject matter jurisdiction. Many federal courts have held that similar breach of contract or attorney malpractice claims properly belong in state court, even where the underlying case involved claims arising under federal law. See, e.g., Custer v. Sweeney, 89 F.3d 1156, 1168-169 (4th Cir. 1996)(holding that there was no subject matter jurisdiction over legal malpractice claim involving an underlying suit pursuant to ERISA); Higbee v. Malleris, 470 F.Supp.2d 845, 851 (N.D. I11. 2007) ("There is, simply put, a plethora of putative attorney and/or professional malpractice cases concerning underlying federal litigation, in which the cases have been remanded to state court for adjudication or dismissed for lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction.") (collecting cases).

The Defendant points to two cases in support of removal: Immunocept, LLC v. Fulbright & Jaworski, LLP, 504 F.3d 1281 (Fed. Cir. 2007) and LaBelle v. McGonagle, 2008 WL 3842998 (D. Mass. 2008). Both of those cases involved legal malpractice claims in which the underlying litigation involved federal patent law claims. Federal district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over federal patent cases. 28 U.S.C. § 1338(a). Because of the strong policy considerations weighing in favor of uniform interpretation of the federal patent laws, courts are more willing to hold that state law claims necessarily involving the resolution of federal patent law issues give rise to federal question jurisdiction.... Conversely, federal district courts have concurrent jurisdiction with state courts over Title VII claims. Yellow Freight Sys. Inc. v. Donnelly, 494 U.S. 820, 821 (1990). There is no reason to believe that state courts are not equally as competent to decide questions of Title VII law as federal courts, and the United States Supreme Court may reconcile any certiorariworthy federal questions that might arise. See Higbee, 470 F.Supp.2d at 853 n.2. The policy considerations involved in this case weigh against finding subject matter jurisdiction.

Share this article:


Recent Posts