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Wilkerson v. Brakebill

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

January 30, 2017

JAMES J. WILKERSON, JR., et al., Plaintiffs,
JACK F. BRAKEBILL, et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on plaintiffs' Motion To Lift the Stay for the Purpose of Granting Voluntary Dismissal of the Only Federal Claim and for Remand of this Matter to Knox County Circuit Court Forthwith [Doc. 115]. Defendant Brian Young, doing business as IT Expertise, responded in opposition [Doc. 119], and plaintiffs replied [Doc. 124]. No other defendants have filed responses in opposition to plaintiffs' motion to lift the stay. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part as moot plaintiffs' motion.[1]

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs commenced four related actions in the Circuit Court for Knox County, Tennessee (the “Circuit Court”), on February 4, 2014 [Doc. 119 p. 1; Doc. 1-2 p. 4]. They asserted claims for unlawful interceptions of electronic communications, unlawful disclosures of electronic communications, and use of electronic communications, all pursuant to Tennessee state law [Doc. 1-1]. The Circuit Court consolidated the four cases for discovery and pretrial motion practice [Doc. 115-1].

         On August 31, 2015, plaintiffs amended their complaint in one of the four cases to add a federal claim under the Stored Communications Act [Doc. 115 ¶ 2]. Defendants timely removed that case to this Court on September 28, 2015 [Doc. 1 ¶ 1], and the three other cases were removed “by operation of law by virtue of the consolidation” [Id. ¶ 3]. Defendants recommended in their notice of removal, however, that the other cases be severed and remanded [Id.].[2] Prior to their removal, the cases were pending before the Circuit Court for approximately one-and-a-half years, and extensive discovery appears to have been conducted by the parties while before the Circuit Court [Doc. 1-2].

         Defendant IT Expertise filed a motion for summary judgment with this Court on September 29, 2015 [Doc. 6]. The Court stayed proceedings on March 11, 2016 [Doc. 90], and the stay was continued on several occasions. Thus, the only discovery conducted in this matter, while before this Court, was between September 28, 2015, and March 11, 2016-a period of slightly over five months. While proceedings were still stayed, plaintiffs filed the instant motion to lift the stay [Doc. 115]. Once the stay was lifted on December 6, 2016, defendant IT Expertise refiled its motion for summary judgment [Doc. 116], and it also responded in opposition to plaintiffs' motion to lift the stay, addressing plaintiffs' substantive arguments with regard to dismissal of the federal claim and remand of the remaining claims [Doc. 119].

         The Court will first evaluate plaintiffs' motion to voluntarily dismiss their sole federal claim, and it will then address plaintiffs' motion to remand.

         II. Voluntary Dismissal of Federal Claim

         In their motion, plaintiffs assert that they desire to voluntarily dismiss-without prejudice-their only federal claim, under the Stored Communications Act, in order to “facilitate the resolution of these actions, and to maximize efficiency and judicial economy” [Doc. 115 ¶ 5]. They claim that this request is properly considered under Rule 21 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as they do not request dismissal of the entire action [Id. ¶ 6].

         IT Expertise, in opposition to plaintiffs' request for voluntary dismissal, argues that Rule 41-rather than Rule 21-applies to plaintiffs' desire to dismiss any portion of their complaint [Doc. 119 p. 3]. IT Expertise asserts that dismissal is inappropriate under Rule 41, as it would suffer “plain legal prejudice” as a result of a dismissal without prejudice [Id. at 4].

         Rule 21 provides that “[p]arties may be dropped or added by order of the court on motion of any party or of its own initiative at any stage of the action and on such terms as are just.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 21. In contrast, Rule 41 provides for dismissal of an entire action. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 41 (addressing “dismissal of actions”).

         The Sixth Circuit “has noted that its precedent is unclear as to the appropriate procedure for dismissing less than all of an action, but has expressly declined to define the scope of Rule 41.” White v. Parker, No. 1:11-cv-294, 2016 WL 6237962, at *1 (E.D. Tenn. Mar. 18, 2016) (citing Letherer v. Alger Grp., LLC, 328 F.3d 262, 266 (6th Cir. 2003) (“The Sixth Circuit's interpretation of Rule 41 is unclear. . . . We need not decide the scope of Rule 41 in this instance.”)). This Court, as well as other district courts within the Sixth Circuit, however, have recognized that Rule 21 is the more appropriate rule to use when dismissing a single claim. See CNX Gas Co. v. Miller Energy Res., Inc., No. 3:11-CV-362-TAV-CCS, 2014 WL 11638566, at *2 (E.D. Tenn. Jan. 8, 2014) (noting that “district courts in this circuit have consistently applied Sixth Circuit precedent as limiting notices of dismissal to those that eliminate all claims against all defendants” (internal citations omitted)); Sheet Metal Workers' Nat. Pension Fund Bd. of Trs. v. Courtad, Inc., No. 5:12-cv-2738, 2013 WL 3893556, at *4 (N.D. Ohio July 26, 2013) (“In this circuit, voluntary dismissals under Rule 41(a)(1) are limited to those that dismiss the entire controversy. A plaintiff seeking to dismiss only one defendant from an action must move the Court to do so under Rule 21.” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)); EQT Gathering, LLC v. A Tract of Prop. Situated in Knott Cty., No. 12-58-ART, 2012 WL 3644968, at *3 (E.D. Ky. Aug. 24, 2012) (finding that Rule 21 should be used when dismissing less than all of an action, while clarifying that proceeding under either rule makes little functional difference, so long as the court considers potential prejudicial effect to the non-moving parties).

         Thus, the Court finds it appropriate to apply Rule 21 in this matter, where plaintiffs move to voluntarily dismiss one of several claims. It also finds that, so long as the Court evaluates prejudice to defendants, application of Rule 41, versus Rule 21, would make little functional difference in this instance. Indeed, if the Court chose to apply Rule 41 in this case, the result would be the same.

         Pursuant to Rule 21, “courts consider whether allowing withdrawal would be unduly prejudicial to the nonmoving party.” Arnold v. Heyns, No. 13-14137, 2015 WL 1131767, at *4 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 11, 2015). An important difference between dismissal under Rule 41 and Rule 21 is that Rule 41 necessarily involves dismissal of the entire action, rather than merely certain claims. Crozin v. Crown Appraisal Grp., Inc., Nos. 2:10-cv-581, 2:10-cv-764, 2012 WL 139219, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 18, 2012). “This is a significant distinction, as the prejudice inquiry under Rule 41(a)(2) is designed to protect defendants who have put considerable time and effort into defending a case, only to have the plaintiff pull the rug out from under them by voluntarily dismissing the action.” Id. ...

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