Monday, April 16, 2018

Civilian street fight produces interesting ruling on subject matter jurisdiction

This is a different kind of case, where one civilian sues another civilian over an assault and battery and other state law claims, and the case goes to trial in federal court. It all started when plaintiff Wright got into a verbal and then physical confrontation with defendant Musanti as they were walking the streets of Manhattan on their way to work. Wright prevailed in this lawsuit against Musant, who appeals.

The case is Wright v. Musanti, decided on April 13. Musanti handles this appeal pro se. These two people accidently walked into each other. Eventually, Musanto kicked at Wright and then kicked, hit and scratched him. Musanti reported Wright to the police, who arrested Wright for attempted assault and harassment, escorting him out of his office in handcuffs. The criminal case against Wright was dismissed because Musanti did not show up in court. Wright then sued Musanti in state law tort and the police officer under Section 1983 for false arrest. The district court chucked the federal claim against the officer, leaving us with Wright's state law claim against Musanti, which went to trial in the SDNY through diversity jurisdiction, since Musanti relocated to Tennessee. Are you with me so far? Following a bench trial, the district court ruled in Wright's favor, deeming him credible and Musanti incredible, and crediting surveillance video which corroborated Wright's account. The court awarded Wright a dollar in nominal damages for the assault and battery, $5,000 for the false arrest and $10,000 in punitive damages.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals (Walker, Lynch and Chin) first says the district court had diversity jurisdiction over the case. When the case was first brought in the SDNY, both parties lived in New York. The general rule of diversity jurisdiction is that federal courts have authority to hear the case if the parties live in separate states when the case was first commenced. That rule would seem to undercut subject matter jurisdiction in this case, as Musanti moved away only after this case was filed. But, the Second Circuit says, that rule "was developed . . . in cases where diversity jurisdiction is the only basis for federal subject matter jurisdiction. In such cases, the rule plays a vital role: if diversity of citizenship did not exist when the action was filed, federal court jurisdiction over the case would never have attached, and for a federal court to take any action in the case would be an 'unconstitutional usurpation of state judicial power.'" But this case is different, because the federal court had jurisdiction over the case due to plaintiff's Section 1983 claim against the arresting officer (even though that claim was later dismissed). So, although diversity jurisdiction did not exist when the case was initially brought, it later became present once Musanti moved to Tennessee. This holding is significant, as "this exact situation" has never previously arisen in the Second Circuit. Here's some useful language: "diversity need not be established until diversity becomes necessary to establish federal subject matter jurisdiction."

What began as a street fight between two civilians, therefore, turns into a holding that is of interest to federal court practitioners. The Second Circuit goes onto uphold the district court's finding of liability, not a difficult task for the Court of Appeals, as the verdict turns on factual and credibility determinations that are difficult to overturn on appeal.

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