Overzealous Pleading Doesn’t Advance Your Cause

Travel agent John Mathews may have a meritorious claim against a Virginia hotel for breaching a contract to provide food for a large group of tourists. It’s hard to tell, though, when he clutters his complaint with counts for defamation, invasion of privacy, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fails to include a count for breach of contract. This latest complaint represents Mr. Mathews’ fourth attempt to present his case to a federal court in Pennsylvania. Had he opted to file a simple breach-of-contract action in Virginia’s general district court instead, he might have secured a judgment by now.

The allegations go as follows. Mr. Mathews booked a “Winter Get Away Tour” with the Westin hotel at Washington Dulles in 2012. He alleges he planned the event with the hotel sales manager and estimated there would be 150 guests with the tour. He claims he emphasized that this was only an estimate and he would furnish a final number later.

When 174 people signed up for the getaway (or rather, the “get away”), the hotel was not able to feed everyone, as the head chef apparently wasn’t notified of the final number. On both Saturday and Sunday nights, some guests went without meals and an unlimited, all-you-can-eat buffet was converted to a limited, one-serving one. Mathews had advertised the tour to include two buffet dinners and two buffet breakfasts and claims he had to reimburse many guests due to the missed or reduced meals.

Mathews doesn’t allege breach of contract, but alleges the hotel “Sale Manager” defamed him by calling him a “dishonorable person,” which “almost incited a riot.” He alleges the defendants’ actions forced him to reimburse $3,000 to certain guests and caused him to suffer an additional $4,000 loss because some guests refused to pay apple-bites.jpgtheir balances owed. For the alleged defamation, he claims at least $450,000. As mentioned above, he also alleges a number of other torts.

If Mr. Mathews contends the hotel breached an agreement to provide sufficient food for 174 people, he should have included a breach of contract claim. Different policy considerations distinguish the law of torts from the law of contracts, and there are rules against trying to recover pain-and-suffering type damages when all you’ve suffered are disappointed economic expectations. If the case is really about false statements made by an agent of the hotel and not a contractual breach, more will be required than a vague statement about being “dishonorable.”

I mentioned this is the plaintiff’s fourth attempt to survive dismissal. Mathews originally filed a separate case against the hotel, alleging constitutional violations, defamation, and emotional distress. The court dismissed the constitutional claim because the defendant wasn’t a state actor as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The complaint hadn’t properly pled the elements required to assert diversity jurisdiction so the court gave Mathews a chance to amend his complaint to include the necessary allegations.

Mathews filed an amended complaint, adding Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. as a defendant. But the complaint failed to plead the defendants’ citizenship so the court dismissed it with leave to file a second amended complaint if Mathews could cure the jurisdictional defect. The court explained that, under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(1), corporations are citizens “of every State and foreign state by which it has been incorporated and of the State or foreign state where it has its principle place of business.”

Mathews tried again, filing a second amended complaint against Westin and Starwood with substantially the same allegations as before. He identified himself as a Pennsylvania citizen, Westin as a “US citizen incorporated in Virginia,” and Starwood as a “US citizen hotel incorporated in the state of Maryland.”

But the second amended complaint failed to state either defendant’s principal place of business. Once again, the court dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Pointing out that Mathews had been instructed how to cure the problem but hadn’t done so, the court concluded that further attempts to amend would be futile. The case was dismissed without prejudice to plaintiff refiling his claims in state court.

But Mr. Mathews didn’t re-file in state court. Instead, he brought this new case in federal court. If the court doesn’t dismiss it on res judicata grounds, it will likely dismiss it for failure to state a valid claim.

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