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Media Alerts - Johnson v. American Towers LLC, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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April 9, 2015
  Johnson v. American Towers LLC, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: No Glimmer of Hope for Assaulted Corrections Officer in Choice of Law Pleading

Area(s) of Law: Civil Procedure; Conflict of Laws

Issues Presented: Whether the district court properly exercised federal jurisdiction over Johnson's state-law claims; and if so, whether the district court properly dismissed those claims on the merits.

Brief Summary: In March 2010, a group of inmates ordered an in-home attack on corrections officer Captain Robert Johnson, in retaliation for Capt. Johnson confiscating contraband cell phones and other contraband goods. Johnson was shot six times in the chest and stomach. After eight surgeries and months of rehabilitation, in February 2013, Capt. Johnson and his wife brought suit for the attack. The Johnsons elected not to sue the typical defendant, i.e., the shooter; and instead sued several cell phone service providers for facilitating the illegal use of cellphones by the inmates and failing to take steps to curb that use.
The defendants timely removed the case to federal court asserting both a federal question and complete diversity. The Johnsons' motion to remand the case back to state court was denied. In June of 2013, the district court consolidated and granted the defendants' 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss for three reasons: (1) the Johnsons' claims were barred by express and conflict preemption; (2) South Carolina law did not impose a duty on defendants to prevent inmates from illegally using their cell phone services; and (3) the Johnsons' claims were implausible and so did not meet pleading standards. The Johnsons appealed.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling. The court reviews questions of subject matter jurisdiction de novo. The district court improperly found the existence of federal question jurisdiction under the express preemption doctrine because the Communications Act did not completely preempt the Johnsons' claims. The district court did however properly exercise diversity jurisdiction because the only non-diverse parties were fraudently joined (based on the fraudulent joinder doctrine) and the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000. As the defendants succeeded in proving the plaintiffs would not be able to show a "glimmer of hope" of establishing a cause of action against the in-state defendant, the denial of the Johnsons' motion was proper.

After the Fourth Circuit determined the district court properly exercised jurisdiction, the court then turned to examine whether the Johnsons failed to state a claim as a matter of law. The court reviewed the district court's grant of the defendant's motion to dismiss de novo and affirmed the district court on three separate grounds. First, the court found the Johnsons' common law tort claim would obstruct or burden the wireless providers' ability to provide coverage, which is directly in conflict with the Communications Act's federal scheme to ensure wireless telecommunications services and develop the infrastructure necessary to support them. Furthermore, the state-law obligation to block calls from contraband cellphones inside prisons would also be preempted by the Communications Act since the FCC repeatedly interprets their regulations to prohibit any form of "jamming" wireless signals, even by prison officials. Meaning, it would be impossible for the defendants to simultaneously comply with the federal regulations that prohibit blocking wireless signals and the putative state-law duty to block certain phone calls emanating to and from prisons; this is the very definition of conflict preemption according to the court. Finally, the court concurred with the district court in viewing the Johnsons' speculative claims as a fishing expedition to determine whether the factual basis for their argument existed. Rather than provide further factual development to support the claim that an inmate ordered a co-conspirator to kill Capt. Johnson on a contraband cell phone, such as identifying the wireless service provider that carried the alleged call or identifying when the alleged call occurred, the Johnsons' complaint merely contained a bare assertion. This sort of pleading fails to set forth a plausible claim for relief. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Shedd, and Floyd, and Senior Judge Davis

Argument Date: 10/29/14

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/25/15

Docket Number: No. 13-1872

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Alexandra A. Stulpin, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: John E. Parker, PETERS, MURDAUGH, PARKER, ELTZROTH & DETRICK, PA, Hampton, South Carolina, for Appellants. Scott H. Angstreich, KELLOGG, HUBER, HANSEN, TODD, EVANS & FIGEL, P.L.L.C., Washington, D.C.; Jeremy Cook Hodges, NELSON MULLINS RILEY & SCARBOROUGH LLP, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: William F. Barnes, III, PETERS, MURDAUGH, PARKER, ELTZROTH & DETRICK, PA, Hampton, South Carolina, for Appellants. John M.S. Hoefer, WILLOUGHBY & HOEFER, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina; Andrew E. Goldsmith, KELLOGG, HUBER, HANSEN, TODD, EVANS & FIGEL, P.L.L.C., Washington, D.C., for Appellees Cellco Partnership, Sprint Cellular Company of South Carolina, Alltel Communications, LLC, Verizon Wireless, Verizon Wireless Service LLC, and Verizon Wireless of the East LP. Robert W. Foster, Jr., NELSON MULLINS RILEY & SCARBOROUGH LLP, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee Farmers Telephone Cooperative, Inc. Daniel R. Settana, Jr., Janet Brooks Holmes, MCKAY, CAUTHEN, SETTANA & STUBLEY, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees AT&T Inc., AT&T Mobility LLC, and AT&T Mobility Services, LLC. Eric G. Fosmire, THE FOSMIRE LAW FIRM, LLC, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees T-Mobile USA Tower LLC and T-Mobile USA, Incorporated. Elbert S. Dorn, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Burl F. Williams, NEXSEN PRUET, LLC, Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellee American Towers, LLC. David S. Cox, Matthew E. Tillman, WOMBLE CARLYLE SANDRIDGE & RICE, LLP, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee Sprint Communications Company L.P. Daniel B. White, GALLIVAN, WHITE & BOYD, P.A., Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellee TracFone Wireless, Inc.

Author of Opinion: Judge Floyd

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/09/2015 03:09 PM     4th Circuit  

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