JOHNSON v. AMERICAN TOWERS LLC, No. 13-1872

Decided: March 25, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that it had federal jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s state-law claims and that the plaintiff failed to allege sufficient facts to set forth a claim for relief.

The plaintiff, Robert Johnson (“Johnson”), is a prison guard in Bishopville, SC. He was shot multiple times in his home after a prisoner at the prison Johnson works ordered the attack by using a contraband cell phone. The plaintiff sued several cellular phone service providers and owners of cell phone towers, alleging that the defendants were liable for Johnson’s injuries because they knew their services were facilitating the use of illegal cell phones by prison inmates and yet failed to take action.

First, the Court addressed the district courts finding that it had federal jurisdiction over Johnson’s state-law claims. The Court found that although the plaintiff’s state claims were not completely preempted by the Federal Communications Act, the district court nevertheless properly exercised jurisdiction on the basis of diversity of citizenship of the parties. Despite the lack of complete diversity, the Court held that the trial court had properly retained subject matter jurisdiction, per the fraudulent joinder doctrine. The fraudulent joinder doctrine applied because the Court found there was “no possibility” that the plaintiff would be able to establish a cause of action against the two non-diverse defendants in state court.

Finally, the Court determined that the trial court correctly held that the plaintiff’s claims failed to state a claim as a matter of law. According to the Court, the plaintiff’s claims were merely speculative in nature and failed to allege sufficient facts to set forth a plausible claim for relief. The Court noted that the complaint, in its current state, resembled a “prohibited fishing expedition.” However, the Court reiterated that the complaint was dismissed without prejudice. Therefore, the Johnsons were free to amend their complaint if they acquired additional information supportive of their non-preempted claims. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s order.

Full Opinion

Meredith Weisler

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