Law School Case Brief
Hays v. Bryan Cave LLP - 446 F.3d 712 (7th Cir. 2006)
If federal law creates the claim on which a plaintiff is suing, the fact that he has omitted from his complaint any reference to federal law will not defeat removal. The plaintiff cannot abrogate the defendant's right of removal by "artful pleading." For example, if a suit is filed in state court charging a fiduciary with a breach of his fiduciary duty, and the defendant is an Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) fiduciary, the case is removable to federal court even if the complaint does not mention ERISA. Because ERISA displaces all state law within its scope, such a case necessarily arises under federal law, namely under ERISA, and so is removable despite the complaint's reticence.
Plaintiff Hays brought suit in an Illinois court, charging the defendants, a law firm and its lawyers who had represented him in a federal criminal case. Plaintiff was convicted, and did not appeal, and the denial of his motion for postconviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was affirmed by the appellate. Plaintiff brought a legal malpractice against defendants under Illinois common law. Defendants removed the case to federal district court on the ground that it really arose under federal law because, as the district court ruled in refusing to remand the case, the resolution of a malpractice claim growing out of the defense of a federal criminal case would "require a substantial evaluation of applicable federal law," specifically a determination of the meaning and scope of the federal criminal statutes under which Hays had been convicted. Having accepted jurisdiction of the case, the district judge dismissed it on the merits, precipitating this appeal, in which Hays contends that the district court never obtained jurisdiction because the suit was not removable.
Was plaintiff Hays correct maintaining that he could sue his lawyers for malpractice in the state court?
There is nothing in federal law prevented a disappointed litigant in a federal case from suing his lawyer under state malpractice law. The court noted that a case filed in state court under state law could not be removed to federal court on the basis that there were defenses based on federal law. The elements of legal malpractice in Illinois were independent of the federal criminal statutes under which the suit that defendants were alleged to have muffed was brought. Issues concerning the meaning of that law were likely to arise in such a malpractice action, but there was nothing unusual about a court having to decide issues that arose under the law of other jurisdictions. The court held that mentioning a federal issue in a complaint did not determine the source of the claim itself. The court vacated the district court's judgment with directions to remand the case to the state court in which it was filed.
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