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Thompson v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

May 14, 2015

JOHN THOMPSON and LEIGH ANN THOMPSON, Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Defendant.

ORDER

MARC T. TREADWELL, District Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiffs John and Leigh Ann Thompson's consolidated motion for class certification and summary judgment. (Doc. 19). The Plaintiffs have moved to certify a class of all State Farm homeowners insurance policyholders in the state of Georgia and seek a declaratory judgment regarding the scope of their insurance coverage. The Court DENIES the relief requested by the Plaintiffs in their motions because the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over their claim.

I. BACKGROUND

This case presents one of the latest efforts of policyholders to reap the benefit of court rulings that, absent an appropriate exclusion, casualty insurance policies provide coverage for diminution of value. See, e.g., State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Mabry, 274 Ga. 498, 556 S.E.2d 114 (2001). The Plaintiffs own a townhouse in Smyrna, Georgia, that is insured by State Farm under a homeowners policy. (Docs. 19-2 at ¶¶ 1-2; 24-3 at 12:5-16, 31:19-21). The Plaintiffs' townhouse suffered water damage when a pipe burst. (Doc. 24-5 at 58:8-11). State Farm paid for repairs to the damaged areas of the townhouse. (Docs. 24-5 at 69:12-18, 71:18-20; 25 at 11). Plaintiff John Thompson then called State Farm and asked if it would pay for "diminished value" to their townhouse. (Docs. 19-2 at ¶ 8; 24-3 at 90:15-91:24). According to the Plaintiffs, State Farm stated that it does not "provide such coverage." (Doc. 19-2 at ¶ 9). The next day the Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit. (Doc. 1).

It would be logical to assume that the pending motions arise from the Plaintiffs' loss and the losses of other State Farm policyholders. That is what State Farm assumed. When the Plaintiffs moved to certify a class under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2), State Farm argued they were attempting to "mask the fact that their real claim against State Farm is one for individualized breach-of-contract damages, which cannot be certified for class treatment under any subsection of Rule 23." (Doc. 25 at 9-10). State Farm's lengthy brief attacks in great detail and on many fronts the Plaintiffs' efforts to bring a claim "for money damages masquerading as equitable relief, " including the argument that the Plaintiffs "are attempting an end-run around Dukes [1] in the present motions." (Doc. 25 at 10).

But, as the Plaintiffs point out in their reply brief, the pending motions have nothing to do with the damage to their townhouse. Nor are they seeking declaratory relief for policyholders who have suffered losses. Rather, the Plaintiffs ask the Court to certify a class of "[a]ll persons currently insured under homeowners insurance policies issued by State Farm in the state of Georgia." (Doc. 19-1 at 14). For this class of current policyholders, the Plaintiffs seek declarations that "State Farm's homeowners policy provides coverage for diminished value" and that "State Farm is required under its homeowners policy to assess for diminished value even if an insured does not make a specific request for diminished value."[2] (Doc. 19-1 at 10). They leave for another day their claims arising from the damage to their townhouse and their efforts to certify a class of policyholders who have suffered similar losses.

It is true, as the Plaintiffs acknowledged at oral argument, that they are trying to circumvent Dukes . The Plaintiffs recognize that claims for money damages, such as in any breach-of-contract class, are problematic after Dukes . To avoid that, the Plaintiffs want to certify a (b)(2) class that "does not seek monetary relief at all." (Doc. 29 at 13). At oral argument, the Court asked the Plaintiffs what happens to this class, assuming it is certified and summary judgment is granted. "It's the end of the case for the class, the equitable relief current policyholder class, " the Plaintiffs responded. (Doc. 32 at 12:18-19). There is no need for a claims process or anything further. Rather, "it's just this declaration hanging out there that henceforth we now know that State Farm's policy covers diminished value." (Doc. 32 at 12:21-23).

While the Plaintiffs might have sidestepped Dukes by seeking only declaratory relief for a class that has suffered no loss, they have encountered another problem: whether this is a justiciable case or controversy. What the Plaintiffs seek is an opinion regarding State Farm's obligations in the event they ever have a claim for diminished value. But federal courts "do not sit to decide hypothetical issues or to give advisory opinions about issues as to which there are not adverse parties before us." Princeton Univ. v. Schmid, 455 U.S. 100, 102 (1982). Thus, the Court must decide if this is "a real and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree of conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts." Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 240-41 (1937).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Case or Controversy

"[I]t is well-settled that prior to the certification of a class, and technically speaking before undertaking any formal typicality or commonality review, the district court must determine that at least one named class representative has Article III standing to raise each class subclaim." Prado-Steiman ex. rel . Prado v. Bush, 221 F.3d 1266, 1279 (11th Cir. 2000); see also Griffin v. Dugger, 823 F.2d 1476, 1482 (11th Cir. 1987) ("[A]ny analysis of class certification must begin with the issue of standing."). "A named plaintiff in a class action who cannot establish the requisite case or controversy between himself and the defendants simply cannot seek relief for anyone-not for himself, and not for any other member of the class." Griffin, 823 F.2d at 1482. Moreover, "each claim must be analyzed separately, and a claim cannot be asserted on behalf of a class unless at least one named plaintiff has suffered the injury that gives rise to that claim." Id. at 1483.

The Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, [3] which, "echoing the case or controversy' requirement of Article III of the Constitution, provides that a declaratory judgment may only be issued in the case of an actual controversy.'" Emory v. Peeler, 756 F.2d 1547, 1551-52 (11th Cir. 1985); see also MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 549 U.S. 118, 126-27 (2007) ("[T]he phrase case of actual controversy' in the Act refers to the type of Cases' and Controversies' that are justiciable under Article III."). "Whether such a controversy exists is determined on a case-by-case basis." Atlanta Gas Light v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 68 F.3d 409, 414 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).

The Supreme Court has recognized that its decisions "do not draw the brightest of lines between those declaratory-judgment actions that satisfy the case-or-controversy requirement and those that do not." MedImmune, Inc., 549 U.S. at 127. "Basically, the question in each case is whether the facts alleged, under all the circumstances, show that there is a substantial controversy, between parties having adverse legal interests, of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant the issuance of a declaratory judgment." Id. (quoting Md. Cas. Co. v. P. Coal & Oil Co., 312 U.S. 270, 273 (1941)). The controversy "may not be conjectural, hypothetical, or contingent; it must be real and immediate, and create a definite, rather than speculative threat of future injury." Emory, 756 F.2d at 1552. "The remote possibility that a future injury may happen is not sufficient to satisfy the actual controversy' requirement for declaratory judgments." Id.

The Plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing that the declaratory relief they seek satisfies the case-or-controversy requirement. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). Because they have also moved for summary judgment on their request for declaratory relief, they must do ...


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