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Corporate defendants do not always enjoy being in St. Louis.  We don’t mean that as a knock on the Gateway Arch or the superb zoo or the excellent food options or even (grrrr) “baseball heaven.” We mean that St. Louis City Court is singularly inhospitable to tort defendants.  The advance sheets are full of big (in a bad way) verdicts by St. Louis City juries. Thus, it is no surprise when defendants attempt to flee the jurisdiction, either by moving for transfer of venue to a friendlier courthouse, such as the St. Louis County court, or removing the case to federal court.  (The cluster of different courthouses in St.Louis is undeniably impressive. And we haven’t yet mentioned the Old Courthouse, the location of what is probably the worst trial in American history, the Dred Scott case.). Whether a defendant can escape the City court can be outcome determinative. It certainly shapes settlement discussions. The bottom line is that any case flinging open the St. Louis City court exit doors qualifies as a Big Deal. 

Say hello to the latest such Big Deal: Hawkins v. SSM Health CARE Corp., 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115833 (E.D. Mo. July 6, 2023), a rare defense win on federal question jurisdiction in Missouri. While the Hawkins case does not involve allegations of FDCA violations, it heavily relies on a prior Eighth Circuit decision, Wullschleger, that found federal question jurisdiction where FDCA violations were alleged.  

The complaint in Hawkins was filed in St.Louis City court and stemmed from the defendant’s alleged practice of charging emergency room patients with a surprise “Visitation fee.” There were three causes of action: (1) violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, (2) negligence per se, and (3) unjust enrichment.  The defendant removed the case to federal court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. The plaintiff moved to remand the case back to state court. 

The defendant bore the burden of showing federal jurisdiction. We’re feeling very listy and numbery today, so here comes another numerical list. A state law claim may invoke federal question jurisdiction if: (1) it necessarily raises a federal issue, (2) the federal issue is actually disputed, (3) the federal issue is substantial, and (4) a federal forum may entertain the state law claim without upsetting the balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities. The defendant satisfied that test in this case. 

The Hawkins court concluded that federal question jurisdiction existed in the case due to the negligence per se claim. To invoke negligence per se, the plaintiff in Hawkins alleged violations of both federal and Missouri state statutes relating to health care transparency. But the state law claim was obviously hooey; the state statute applied only to fraud of Missouri’s  Medicaid  program, which was not at issue here. Consequently, the negligence per se claim lived or died based on the claim of a federal violation — specifically 42 CFR section 180.50, “a federal regulation that Plaintiff invoked throughout her complaint.”  The court recited five paragraphs in the complaint grousing over alleged violations of the federal regulation. 

As mentioned above, the Hawkins court relied on the Eight Circuit decision in Wullschleger, a case brought by buyers of prescription pet food. The appellate court in Wullschleger held that the plaintiffs’ “dependence on federal law [the FDCA] permeates the allegations such that the antitrust and unjust enrichment claims cannot be adjudicated without reliance on and explication of federal law.”  Hawkins also relied on the SCOTUS decision in Grable, in which it was held that a state law quiet title action raised a federal question because the issue was whether the IRS had complied with federal law when it seized certain property. 

Mind you, federal question jurisdiction can be confusing. Do you remember the first time in law school you heard of the well-pleaded complaint rule and thought it was a bit crazy?  At least with Grable and Wullschleger and, now, Hawkins, we defense hacks have some help in flushing out plaintiffs who seek to exploit alleged federal violations but also seek to savor the home cooking of state courts.  

The plaintiff in Hawkins tried to escape the force of Wullschleger and Grable by arguing that the federal law she invoked was merely an alternative basis. That argument failed because there really was no alternative as the state law issue turned out to be a nonissue. The plaintiff in Hawkins also asserted that the federal question was not “substantial” because it did not involve “nearly pure issues of law” such that its resolution would be dispositive of the case and controlling in other cases.  Huh? Whatever that means, it “ignores the fact that the Court will have to interpret and decide the negligence per se issue on its interpretation of federal law.”  The federal issue was clearly in dispute because the defendant denied that the “Visitation fee” violated the federal regulations.  Finally, there was no reason to believe that the court’s decision regarding the federal regulation would “upset the balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities” (that “balance” notion elicits another “Huh?” from us). 

The negligence per se claim in Hawkins could not survive without the federal question being resolved. Because the negligence per se claim was removable, the entire action was removable.  Toodle-oo, St. Louis City court.