No Diversity Jurisdiction Over “Stateless” Persons

Freidrich v. Davis, 767 F.3d 374 (3d Cir. 2014).  Plaintiff and defendant were both passengers on a plane from Philadelphia to Germany.  Plaintiff alleged that, during the flight, defendant, while waiting in line to use the restroom, fell on her and broke her arm.  She sued defendant, based on diversity jurisdiction, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  Plaintiff alleged that she was a citizen of Ohio and that defendant was a citizen of Pennsylvania.  Defendant moved to dismiss, contending that although he was and is a United States citizen, he was no longer a citizen of Pennsylvania but instead was domiciled in Germany.  After discovery on the domicile issue, and a hearing, the District Court ruled that defendant was domiciled in Germany and that, as a result, he was “stateless” and therefore could not be sued under diversity jurisdiction.  Accordingly, the case was dismissed.  Plaintiff appealed, but the Third Circuit affirmed in an opinion by Judge Sloviter.  Since jurisdiction is an issue of law, the Third Circuit’s standard of review of that issue was plenary, while its review of the District Court’s findings of fact was for clear error only.

Judge Sloviter observed that “[c]itizenship is synonymous with domicile, and the domicile of an individual is his true, fixed and permanent home and place of habitation.  It is the place to which, whenever he is absent, he has the intention of returning.”  Since defendant had been domiciled in Pennsylvania, he had to overcome the presumption that his domicile had not changed.  Judge Sloviter found no clear error in the District Court’s conclusion that defendant had carried that burden.  The District Court had found German domicile based on defendant’s “actions and his declarations of intent.”  He testified that he lives in Germany and intends to remain there, and for eleven years he filed tax returns in both the United States and Germany that in each case listed his address in Germany.  Moreover, his “home, business, and family are all located in Germany.”  Though there was some evidence that might have pointed to Pennsylvania domicile, the District Court did not err in finding that Germany was defendant’s domicile.

Judge Sloviter noted that both the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit, and other Circuits, had previously held that “[a]n American citizen domiciled abroad, while being a citizen of the United States is, of course, not domiciled in a particular state and therefore such a person is ‘stateless’ for purposes of diversity jurisdiction.”  A stateless person, those cases stated, cannot be sued in any district based on diversity, since such persons are neither “citizens of a state” nor “citizens or subjects of a foreign state,” as required for diversity jurisdiction.  Judge Sloviter found this result “troubling because it closes the doors of federal court to a citizen of a State who wishes to sue another citizen based on diversity.”  This might be, she said, an “unintended consequence flowing from Congress’ now possibly outdated assumption that U.S. citizens generally reside in the United States.”  But the panel was bound by prior Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedent, so the dismissal of the case was affirmed.