Although it is uncommon for premises liability cases to find their way to federal court, the specifics of a case occasionally make resolution in the federal setting possible. When such federal adjudication is accessible, litigants will often strategically use the availability of the federal forum – and, more importantly, the differences in its rules – to their advantage. A recent case from the Southern District of Florida, Fink v. Burlington Coat Factory of Florida, LLC, provides an example of this strategic use of forum selection.
Fink arose from a slip and fall accident at the Burlington Coat Factory in Sawgrass Mills Mall. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff suffered a variety of severe injuries, and she decided to bring a premises liability suit against Burlington Coat Factory and several other defendants. In her complaint, the plaintiff made somewhat conclusory allegations of negligence. Specifically, the plaintiff stated that the defendants negligently maintained the floor in a bumpy and unsmooth condition, which was characterized by unsafe protrusions. However, the plaintiff did not state any particular condition or characteristic that existed and directly caused her fall. The plaintiff originally brought her suit in state court in Broward County, but the defendants, recognizing that the action could have been brought in federal court, had the case removed to the Southern District of Florida pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). After removing the case to federal court, the defendants brought a motion to dismiss, arguing, in part, that the plaintiff’s pleadings were insufficient to maintain her cause of action based on the federal pleading standards delineated in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).
For many standard causes of action, both state and federal procedural rules provide form documents outlining the essential facts and allegations one can plead to bring a case. In the instant case, the plaintiff’s complaint was substantially similar to the form pleadings for “fall-down negligence” claims provided by the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. See Fla. R. Civ. P. Form 1.951. Although the action had been brought in state court, where such pleading would have been sufficient, the defendants nonetheless argued that Florida form pleading was insufficient under federal pleading standards. One can see the irony of this argument, considering it was the defendants who brought the case to federal court. However, despite the defendants’ calculated use of the federal removal statute, the court determined that, irrespective of the heightened pleading standard in federal court, the plaintiff’s factual allegations were sufficient to overcome the motion to dismiss.
First, the court noted that the form pleading for negligence provided by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is even terser than its state counterpart. Compare Id. with Fed. R. Civ. P. Form 11. However, the court noted the tension that presently exists between the terse allegations contained in Form 11 or other federal form pleading documents and the heightened pleading standard delineated in Twombly, which states that a complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The Supreme Court had previously held that use of the form documents was sufficient, but this case law predates the pleading standard outlined in Twombly. The Eleventh Circuit has not provided guidance on how to resolve the conflict between the form pleadings and Twombly, but the court turned to other Circuit decisions that largely suggest that “the standard announced in Twombly and Iqbal does not undermine the viability of the federal forms as long as there are sufficient facts alleged in the complaint to make the claim plausible.” Garcia-Catalan v. United States, 734 F.3d 100, 104 (1st Cir. 2013). With respect to this case, the court determined that, although the complaint only provided a recitation of conclusory negligence allegations, these pleadings were nonetheless sufficient when compared to the minimum allegations set forth in Form 11. Moreover, the pleadings adequately delineated a claim that was plausible and provided sufficient notice of the negligence claim and the grounds upon which it rested. Accordingly, granting a motion to dismiss was unwarranted.
While the plaintiff in this case managed to evade dismissal of her claim, this case nonetheless demonstrates the procedural games that can arise even in ostensibly straightforward litigation. Given the variety of strategic moves that can be made, one should always get the assistance of counsel experienced in both state and federal litigation prior to undertaking legal action. If you have recently been seriously injured and are in need of legal advice, the South Florida injury attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have significant experience representing plaintiffs in premises liability and other negligence actions in both state and federal courts and are ready to hear your questions. Feel free to contact us if you’d like a free case evaluation.