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District Court Finds Defendant Has Colorable Federal Officer Statutory Defense, Denies Plaintiffs’ Motion to Remand

Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

This is an asbestos-related lawsuit claiming that Shelton Boutte contracted lung cancer from alleged exposure to asbestos during his career as a rigger at the Avondale Shipyard from 1973 to 1975. Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit against defendant, Huntington Ingalls, as successor in interest and party responsible for the Avondale Shipyard. Plaintiffs originally filed this lawsuit in Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans. Defendant removed the case to district court, and in response, the plaintiffs moved to remand the case back to state court.

Generally, a defendant may only remove a case to federal court if the plaintiff could have originally filed the case there. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). The burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction in federal court rests on the party seeking to invoke it. St. Paul Reinsurance Co. v. Greenberg, 134 F.3d 1250, 1253 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing Gaitor v. Peninsular & Occidental S.S. Co., 287 F.2d 252, 253-54 (5th Cir.1961)).

Federal district courts have original jurisdiction over cases “arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The presence or absence of federal question jurisdiction is governed by the “well-pleaded complaint rule,” which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff’s properly pleaded complaint. Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987) (citing Gully v. First National Bank, 299 U.S. 109, 112-13 (1936)). The rule makes the plaintiff the master of the claim; he or she may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state law. Id. However, to succeed at the removal stage, defendants need only articulate a colorable defense, which is not “wholly insubstantial and frivolous.” Zeringue v. Crane Co., 846 F.3d 785 (5th Cir. 2017). Unlike the general removal statute, which must be strictly construed in favor of remand, the federal officer removal statute’s language must be liberally interpreted. Watson v.Philip Morris Companies, Inc., 551 U.S. 142, 147, 127 S.Ct. 2301, 168 L.Ed.2d 42 (2007).

Removing parties claiming a colorable defense that embraces a federal officer statute under section 1442 must show: (1) it has asserted a colorable federal defense, (2) it is a “person” within the meaning of the statute, (3) that has acted pursuant to a federal officer’s directions, and (4) the charged conduct is connected or associated with an act pursuant to a federal officer’s directions. Latiolais v. Huntington Ingalls Inc., 951 F.3d 286, 291 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc). 

Here, the defendant was required to use asbestos in federal vessels built under contracts executed between Avondale and the government. Because the contracts established mandatory terms, conditions, and specifications imposed upon the defendant by the government — and the defendant complied with the government instructions on how to use asbestos — the court found the defendant asserted a colorable federal officer statutory defense by asserting the colorable defense of government contractor immunity. Accordingly, this court had proper subject matter jurisdiction and the plaintiffs’ motion to remand was denied.

Read the full decision here.