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Bankhead v. Castle Parking Solutions, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

July 27, 2018

Donald C. Bankhead, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Castle Parking Solutions, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL L. BROWN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs ask this Court to recuse itself from consideration of this matter and to stay all proceedings pending a ruling on recusal. (Dkt. 42). For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Bankhead and Thompson sued Defendants claiming they systematically disabled and “booted” cars in the City of Atlanta despite that signs they posted at booting locations did not comply with relevant city ordinances. See Dkt. 19. More specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Beacon Management Services, LLC (a property management company) directed Defendant Castle Parking Solutions LLC to boot or immobilize vehicles on properties Defendant Beacon managed. Id. at ¶¶ 12-14. Since Defendant Beacon removed this case, Plaintiffs have filed a series of motions aimed at defeating diversity jurisdiction to send this case back to the state court from which it came. See, e.g., Dkts. 20, 33. Plaintiffs, for example, alleged in the initial complaint that the defendants “have collected millions of dollars in fees” from the booting of vehicles in violation of Atlanta ordinances. Dkt. 1-1 at 3. Defendant Beacon cited this allegation in support of removal. Dkt. 1 at ¶ 30.

         The very next day, Plaintiffs moved to amend their complaint to drop this allegation, claiming that they did not intend to include this allegation, did so “inadvertent[ly]”, and have “no evidence” about the total fees Defendants collected. Dkt. 2 at ¶ 4. Plaintiffs also moved for jurisdictional discovery, arguing that “the amount in controversy may only be in the hundreds of thousands.” Dkt. 3 at ¶ 8. The judge assigned to the case at that time denied the motion for discovery. He allowed Plaintiffs to amend the complaint but ruled that federal jurisdiction had been determined at the time of removal, so Plaintiffs could not defeat diversity jurisdiction through the proposed amendment. (Dkt. 18).

         On the day they received that order, Plaintiffs moved to dismiss Defendant Beacon (the diverse defendant), claiming that they recently learned that Defendant Beacon did not, in fact, direct Defendant Castle to boot vehicles on properties Beacon managed.[1] (Dkt. 20). In their motion, Plaintiffs suggested that the homeowners association at the property where their cars had been booted might be the correct party to sue along with Defendant Castle. Id. Defendant Beacon opposed that motion, arguing that Plaintiffs were merely forum shopping - that is, trying to defeat jurisdiction so they could return to state court. (Dkt. 22). As part of this, Defendant Beacon showed that Plaintiffs were aware by at least October 2017 that the homeowners association - not Defendant Beacon - directed Defendant Castle in booting cars. Id. at 7, 18-19. Alternatively, Defendant Beacon argued that - if the Court were to grant Plaintiffs' motion to dismiss - the Court should award Defendant Beacon its attorneys' fees and costs in responding to Plaintiffs' motions aimed at defeating jurisdiction. Id. at 9-10.

         At about that time, the case was transferred to the undersigned. The Court held a hearing on Plaintiffs' motion to dismiss and found that Plaintiffs had not shown their motion to dismiss was based on newly discovered information but rather sought to subvert the prior judge's ruling that Defendant Beacon had properly removed the case. Dkt. 34 at 42:9-45:6. The Court asked Defendant Beacon whether it would prefer to stay in federal court or to have the matter dismissed and obtain appropriate attorneys' fees. Id. at 46:1-10. Defense counsel asked for time to consult with their client. Id. at 46:1-3. But, immediately after the hearing, Plaintiffs withdrew their motion to avoid paying attorneys' fees. (Dkt. 30).

         Things remained quiet for about three weeks. On April 10, 2018, Plaintiffs filed their Motion to Add Party and Remove Defendant Beacon based largely on the same facts Plaintiffs cited in their earlier motion to dismiss - that is, a claim that they had recently learned that the homeowners association rather than Defendant Beacon was responsible for directing Defendant Castle. See Dkt. 33. As explained above, Plaintiffs had been aware of this fact since at least October 2017. But now Plaintiffs alleged that they had - “[b]y chance” - recently spoken with an attorney for the homeowners association who had admitted that the association directed Defendant Castle. Id. at ¶ 8. So Plaintiffs moved to dismiss Defendant Beacon from the case, to add the homeowners association, and to amend their complaint to allege claims against the association. Id. Plaintiffs neither included an affidavit to explain the newly discovered evidence nor attached a copy of the proposed amended complaint as required by the Local Rules. Id. They included an amended complaint and an affidavit (from Plaintiffs' counsel rather than the attorney for the homeowners association) with a reply brief. (Dkt. 36-3). That amended complaint shows that Plaintiffs are looking for a wholesale redrafting of their complaint, changing the scope of the putative class from a citywide class against Defendants Beacon and Castle for booting at properties all over Atlanta to a class against Defendant Castle and one homeowners association for booting at only one property. See id. Above all, Plaintiffs - having withdrawn their prior motion to dismiss - sought another avenue for defeating diversity jurisdiction by dismissing Defendant Beacon from this case.

         While that motion was pending, Plaintiffs' counsel brought an unrelated lawsuit in Union City, Georgia. Neither the Plaintiffs nor Defendants in this case are parties to the Union City matter. Plaintiffs in that case allege that the various companies in Union City booted vehicles at locations in Union City in violation of that city's ordinances. One of the defendants in the Union City case removed the case from state court to this Court. That case is now known as Polson v. Kenny McElwaney, et al., No. 1:18-cv-2674 (N.D.Ga.).

         The removing defendant checked a box on this Court's Civil Cover Sheet claiming Polson is related to the matter before this Court because they involve the “same issue of fact or arises out of the same event or transaction.” (Dkt. 42-1). Polson thus was first assigned to this Court.

         Plaintiffs' counsel called this Court's chambers to challenge the automatic assignment of Polson to it. Dkt. 48-1 at ¶ 6. While the Court believes that counsel asserted that the cases were mistakenly marked as related, Plaintiffs' counsel does not recall making that assessment. Id. at ¶ 11. He admits, however, that he called to ask how to “dispute” the removing defendant's “designation that the Polson case was sufficiently factually related” to this case so as to cause Polson's assignment to this court. Id. at ¶ 9. He wanted to know how to dispute the automatic assignment of Polson based on the defendant's designation that it “involved the same issue of fact or arises out of the same event or transaction” as this case. Id.[2] He recalled stating that the two cases “involve[] different defendants, parking lots, and municipal ordinances.” Id. at ¶ 10. He also stated that the Court should refuse to accept the Polson case because the removing defendant was represented by Alston & Bird, the firm at which the undersigned worked before joining the District Court and the firm at which his wife continues to work. Id. at ¶ 13.

         Before receiving that call, this Court was unaware that Polson had been assigned to it. The Court immediately confirmed that Alston & Bird represented one of the defendants and, therefore, recused itself from the matter. Polson, Dkt. 18. The very next day, Plaintiffs moved to disqualify the Court from this case, arguing that the cases are so closely related - involving “nearly identical claims arising out of the same course of conduct” - that recusal is required. (Dkt. 42). That was, to say the least, a completely different position than Plaintiffs had taken just days before when challenging the assignment of Polson to this Court on relatedness grounds.

         The Court held a telephonic hearing on the motion for recusal. (Dkt. 46). The next day, the Court held another telephonic hearing the next day to discuss the Court's concern about Plaintiff's counsel's repeated telephone calls to the Clerk's office about the assignment of Polson. (Dkt. 47). During the second hearing, the Court denied Plaintiff's motion for recusal. Dkt. 54 at 3:17-22. On June 18, 2018, Plaintiff filed a “Supplemental Brief in Support of Motion for Recusal or, in the Alternative, Motion for Reconsideration.” (Dkt. 48). Although the Court denied Plaintiff's motion for recusal before the filing of Plaintiffs' “supplemental brief, ” the Court has considered the additional authority sited therein. The Court files this Opinion to supplement its earlier explanation for the denial of Plaintiffs' motion to recuse.

         II. ...


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