Cert Granted in Interesting Class Action Appeal

The Supreme Court has granted cert in an important case raising the issue whether a federal court of appeals has jurisdiction under both Article III and 28 U. S. C. §1291 to review an order denying class certification after the named plaintiffs voluntarily dismiss their individual claims with prejudice. See MICROSOFT CORPORATION, Petitioner, v. SETH BAKER, ET AL., No. 15-457 (U.S., petition granted 1/15/16).

A first group of plaintiffs appealed a denial of class certification, seeking interlocutory review under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f). Rule 23(f) gives federal courts of appeals “unfettered discretion” to “permit an appeal from an order granting or denying class-action certification.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f); Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f) advisory committee’s note to 1998 amendment. They argued the class-certification denial “constitute[d] the ‘death knell’ for this litigation” because the individual claims about their game consoles were too small to justify litigating on their own to final judgment. The Ninth Circuit denied the petition, and the plaintiffs eventually resolved their individual claims by an agreement with Microsoft.

A few years later, the same lawyers as in the original consolidated litigation filed a new lawsuit—again in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington—on behalf of respondents, a handful of Xbox 360 owners who allegedly did not sue in the prior case. Respondents pressed the same claims as their predecessors and they likewise requested certification of a nationwide console class. They argued the Ninth Circuit’s intervening decision in Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC, 617 F.3d 1168 (9th Cir. 2010) now allowed certification of their proposed classes.  (A careful reading shows that case did not  did not change the law relevant to this case.) As a result, the district court struck respondents’ class allegations. It found the reasoning in the first denial of class certification (by a different judge) persuasive and that nothing in Wolin undermined the previous analysis.  Baker v. Microsoft Corp., 851 F. Supp. 2d 1274, 1280 (W.D. Wash. 2012). Invoking Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f), respondents sought immediately to appeal the district court’s order striking their class allegations. As in the previous case, respondents’ counsel asserted that “the district court’s order effectively kills this case.” The Ninth Circuit denied the petition, and remanded the case back to the district court.  

Instead of pressing their individual claims, respondents tried an end run, as they moved on remand to dismiss their claims with prejudice. Respondents explained that they wanted such an order so as to appeal the class decision, despite defendant's observation that plaintiffs would have no right to appeal the order striking class allegations after entry of their requested dismissal.  The district court granted the dismissal with prejudice.

The Ninth Circuit assumed jurisdiction over respondents’ appeal, holding that in the absence of a
settlement, a stipulation that leads to a dismissal with prejudice does not destroy the adversity in that judgment necessary to support an appeal of a class certification denial. That ruling seemed to conflict with Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463 (1978), and the rule plaintiffs may not manufacture an immediate appeal by dismissing and thereby showing that a class certification denial has in fact sounded the “death knell” of their claims.

On the merits, the Ninth Circuit thought the district court had misread Wolin, and remanded for further proceedings. 

As our readers may know, courts disagree on whether plaintiffs seeking to represent a class “may appeal from a judgment entered after a voluntary dismissal with prejudice.” TASHIMA & WAGSTAFFE, FEDERAL CIVIL PROCEDURE BEFORE TRIAL § 16:396 (2015); see also 6 CYCLOPEDIA OF FEDERAL PROCEDURE §23.46 (3d ed. 2015) (explaining that while some courts allow such appeals of de-certification orders, “other courts consider this result untenable, because it allows the putative class representative to evade the policy against piecemeal review by waiving his or her individual claims”). Five circuits have held that a court of appeals lacks jurisdiction to review a denial of class  certification where the plaintiffs have voluntarily dismissed their claims with prejudice. E.g.,  Bowe v. First of Denver Mortg. Investors, 613 F.2d 798, 801 (10th Cir. 1980). The Third, Fourth, and Seventh Circuits have since adopted the same view. Reviewing a case in which the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed all of their claims to manufacture finality, the Third Circuit held that such a “procedural sleight-of-hand” does not create appellate jurisdiction. Camesi v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 729 F.3d 239, 245-47 (3d Cir. 2013). The Fourth Circuit likewise has held that when a putative class plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the individual claims underlying a request for class certification, a court of appeals lacks jurisdiction to decide the issue whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the plaintiff's request for class certification. Rhodes v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 636 F.3d 88, 100 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 132 S. Ct. 499 (2011); see also Himler v. Comprehensive Care Corp., 993 F.2d 1537 (4th Cir. 1993) (unpublished opinion) (same). And the Seventh Circuit has held that it will not review the district court’s refusal to certify a class when the plaintiffs requested and were granted a voluntary dismissal of their claims. Chavez v. Illinois State Police, 251 F.3d 612, 629 (7th Cir. 2001). 

The Eleventh Circuit has gone even further, holding that it has no jurisdiction whenever a plaintiff appeals from a final judgment that resulted from a voluntary dismissal with prejudice.  See Druhan v. Am. Mut. Life, 166 F.3d 1324, 1325-26 (11th Cir. 1999). It does not matter whether the dismissal with prejudice was requested only as a means of establishing finality in the case such that the plaintiff could appeal an interlocutory order—an order that the plaintiff believes effectively disposed of her case. Id. at 1326. Nor does it matter whether the interlocutory order did, in fact, eliminate the plaintiff’s claim. Id. at 1327 n.7. In either case, neither 28 U.S.C. § 1291 nor Article III permits the
appeal. Id. at 1326-27. Druhan was not a class action, but courts have since confirmed that its 
categorical holding applies equally to class actions. See Woodard v. STP Corp., 170 F.3d 1043, 1044 (11th Cir. 1999); Kay v. Online Vacation Ctr. Holdings Corp., 539 F. Supp. 2d 1372, 1373-75 (S.D. Fla. 2008).

Only two circuits now hold that a named plaintiff’s voluntary dismissal with prejudice creates a sufficiently adverse—and thus appealable—final decision for the plaintiff to obtain review of a class-certification denial. Berger v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 741 F.3d 1061, 1065 (9th Cir. 2014); Gary Plastic Packaging Corp. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 903 F.2d 176, 178-79 (2d Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 1025 (1991).

 The Supreme Court now looks poised to resolve this split.

Federal Court Rejects Jurisdiction Over French Manufacturer

A federal court in Mississippi has rejected the assertion of personal jurisdiction over a French medical device company.  See Arnoult v. CL Med. Sarl, No. 14-00271 (S.D. Miss. 9/21/15).

In this product liability case. plaintiff (a Mississippi resident) alleged that the product, a mid-urethral sling for treatment of stress urinary incontinence, caused her to suffer injuries. The I-STOP was manufactured in France by defendant CLMS, a French corporation. CLMS exported the device to the United States, where it was distributed by defendant Uroplasty. Plaintiffs brought design and warning defect claims under the Mississippi Products Liability Act, as well as claims for negligence, breach of express and implied warranties, fraud, fraud by concealment,  negligent  misrepresentation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium.

Various motions were filed, including a motion to dismiss by CLMS.

The court noted that when a nonresident defendant moves to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the district court’s jurisdiction over the nonresident. A plaintiff must satisfy this burden by presenting a prima facie case for personal jurisdiction. E.g.,  Unified Brands, Inc. v. Teders, 868 F. Supp. 2d 572, 577 (S.D. Miss. 2012).  The district court is not limited to consult only the assertions in the plaintiff’s complaint; rather, the district court may consider the contents of the record at the time of the motion, including affidavits.

The Due Process Clause, said the court, permits the exercise of personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant when (1) that defendant has purposefully availed himself of the benefits and protections of the forum state by establishing minimum contacts with the forum state; and (2) the exercise of jurisdiction over that defendant does not offend traditional notions of fair play and
substantial justice. Unified Brands, 868 F. Supp. 2d at 577. Plaintiffs argued that CLMS had enough contacts with Mississippi to confer specific jurisdiction. Specific jurisdiction exists when the defendant has purposefully directed his activities at residents of the forum, and the litigation results from alleged injuries that arise out of or sufficiently relate to those activities. Clemens v. McNamee, 615 F.3d 374, 378 (5th Cir. 2010).

In this circuit, the court is to apply a three-step analysis to determine specific jurisdiction: (1) whether the defendant has minimum contacts with the forum state; (2) whether the plaintiff’s cause of action arises out of or results from the defendant’s forum related contacts; and (3) whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction is fair and reasonable. See Jackson v. Tanfoglio Guiseppe S.R.L., 615 F.3d 579, 585 (5th Cir. 2010).  The court’s inquiry thus focuses on the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.  Walden v. Fiore, 134 S. Ct. 1115, 1121 (2014). The relationship must arise out of contacts that the defendant himself creates with the forum state, and the contacts must be with the forum state itself, not the defendant’s contacts with persons who reside there.  Further, a
defendant’s relationship with a plaintiff or third party, standing alone, is an insufficient basis for jurisdiction. Due process requires that a defendant be haled into court in a forum based on his own
affiliation with the state, not based on the random, fortuitous, or attenuated contacts he makes by interacting with other persons affiliated with the state.

Plaintiffs here apparently relied on a stream-of-commerce theory of specific jurisdiction, the controversial and yet to be clarified branch of cases involving a product sold or manufactured by a foreign defendant, and plaintiffs argue that the minimum contacts requirement is met so long as the court finds that the defendant delivered the product into the stream of commerce with the expectation that it would be purchased by or used by consumers in the forum state.  Not all courts accept this approach, and some part of the Supreme Court are skeptical.  Even under this approach, the defendant’s contacts must be more than random, fortuitous, or attenuated, or of the unilateral activity of another party or third person.

Here, plaintiffs argued that it was foreseeable to CLMS that its products would end up in Mississippi because it entered into a distribution agreement with Uroplasty to market and sell those products in the United States. But plaintiffs failed to prove the terms of the actual distribution agreement between CLMS and Uroplasty – to show it provided the foreign manufacturer with adequate notice that its products were being marketed in the forum.  Furthermore, there was no evidence here of a product specifically manufactured for an industry located in the state of Mississippi. Finally, plaintiffs alleged that only four of the devices were sold to patients in Mississippi.


For these reasons, the court found that plaintiffs’ allegations fell short of the mark. Plaintiffs'  argument was more attenuated, relying on inference-upon-inference without sufficient evidence to connect CLMS to the state of Mississippi.

Since plaintiffs alleged that only four of the devices were sold to patients in Mississippi, this case was very close to – if not within – the category of cases governed by the plurality opinion in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011) (a single, isolated sale is not sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction, even if it was anticipated). 

The court concluded that plaintiffs had not carried their burden.

 

CAFA Removal Appeal to Watch

Here's one to watch.  The Supreme Court agreed earlier this week to consider whether defendants seeking removal of a proposed class suit to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act must provide additional evidence supporting jurisdiction or just a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal. See Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co., LLC v. Owens,  No. 13-719 (U.S., cert. granted 4/7/14).

The case came to the Court in an unusual posture. The Tenth Circuit denied defendant's petition for panel review, and the appeals court divided 4-4 on whether to hear the case en banc. Judge Hartz wrote a dissent, see 730 F.3d 1234 (10th Cir. 2013).

A defendant seeking removal of a case to federal court must file a notice of removal containing “a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal” and attach only the state court filings served on such defendant. 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a). Consistent with that statutory pleading requirement, the First, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits require only that a notice of removal contain allegations of the jurisdictional facts supporting removal; those courts do not require the defendant to attach evidence supporting federal jurisdiction to the notice of removal. District courts in those Circuits may consider evidence supporting removal if it comes later in response to a motion to remand.

Here, the Tenth Circuit let stand an order remanding a class action to state court based upon the district court’s refusal to consider evidence establishing federal jurisdiction under CAFA because
that evidence was not attached to the original notice of removal. 

This case presents an important question of federal removal procedure and federal jurisdiction that potentially affects all litigants and district courts involved in a removal proceeding. More than 30,000 cases are removed to federal court each year.

Supreme Court Issues General Jurisdiction Opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court rued last week that defendant DaimlerChrysler Corp. could not be sued in in California over an Argentine subsidiary’s alleged tortious conduct under the theory of general jurisdiction.  See Daimler AG v. Barbara Bauman et al., No. 11-965 (U.S. 1/14/14).

Plaintiffs were twenty-two residents of Argentina who filed suit in California Federal District Court, naming as a defendant DaimlerChrysler Aktiengesellschaft (Daimler),a German public stock company that is the predecessor to the petitioner, Daimler AG.  Their complaint alleged that Mercedes-Benz Argentina (MB Argentina), an Argentinian subsidiary of Daimler, engaged in various illegal conduct respecting unions from 1976 to 1983 in Argentina. Personal jurisdiction over Daimler was predicated on the California contacts of Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC (MBUSA), yet another Daimler subsidiary, one incorporated in Delaware with its principal place of business in New Jersey.  (MBUSA distributes Daimler-manufactured vehicles to independent dealerships throughout the United States, including California.)  

Daimler moved to dismiss the action for want of personal jurisdiction. Opposing that motion, plaintiffs argued that jurisdiction over Daimler could be founded on the California contacts of MBUSA. The District Court granted Daimler’s motion to dismiss. Reversing the District Court’s judgment, the Ninth Circuit held that MBUSA, which it assumed to fall within the California courts’ all-purpose jurisdiction, was Daimler’s “agent” for jurisdictional purposes, so that Daimler, too, should generally be answerable to suit in that State. Daimler moved for cert.

The Supreme Court held that Daimler was not amenable to suit in California for injuries allegedly caused by conduct of MB Argentina that took place entirely outside the United States.

California’s long-arm statute allows the exercise of personal jurisdiction to the full extent permissible under the U. S. Constitution. Thus, the inquiry here became whether the Ninth Circuit’s holding comported with the limits imposed by federal due process. International Shoe distinguished exercises of specific, case-based jurisdiction from a category known as “general jurisdiction,” exercisable when a foreign corporation’s continuous corporate operations within a state are so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit against it even on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities. Since International Shoe, specific jurisdiction has become the centerpiece of modern jurisdiction theory. The Supreme Court’s general jurisdiction opinions, in contrast, have been few.

The Court said that even assuming, for purposes of this decision, that MBUSA qualifies as at home in California, Daimler’s affiliations with California were not sufficient to subject it to the general jurisdiction of that State’s courts. Whatever role "agency" theory might play in the context of general jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals’ analysis in this case could not be sustained. The Ninth Circuit’s agency determination rested primarily on its observation that MBUSA’s services were “important” to Daimler, as gauged by Daimler’s hypothetical readiness to perform those services itself if MBUSA did not exist. But if  mere “importance” in this sense were sufficient to justify jurisdictional attribution, observed the Court, foreign corporations would be amenable to suit on any or all claims wherever they have an in-state subsidiary or affiliate, an outcome that would sweep beyond even the sprawling view of general jurisdiction the Court has rejected in cases like Goodyear.  

Even assuming that MBUSA was at home in California and that MBUSA’s contacts were imputable to Daimler, there would still be no basis to subject Daimler to general jurisdiction in California, said the Court. The paradigm all-purpose forums for general jurisdiction are a corporation’s place of incorporation and principal place of business.  Plaintiffs’ reasoning, however, would reach well beyond these exemplar bases to approve the exercise of general jurisdiction in every State in which a corporation engages in a substantial, continuous, and systematic course of business. The Court felt that the words “continuous and systematic,” were misread by plaintiffs and the Court of Appeals; they were used in International Shoe to describe situations in which the exercise of specific jurisdiction would be appropriate. See 326 U. S., at 317. With respect to all-purpose jurisdiction, International Shoe spoke instead of  instances in which the continuous corporate operations within a state were so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities.  Id., at 318. Accordingly, the proper inquiry, the Court explained, was whether a foreign corporation’s affiliations with the State are so continuous and systematic as to render it essentially at home in the forum State.

Neither Daimler nor MBUSA was incorporated in California, nor did either entity have its principal place of business there. If Daimler’s California activities sufficed to allow adjudication of this Argentina-rooted case in California, the same global reach would presumably be available in every other State in which MBUSA’s sales were sizable. No decision of the Supreme Court ever sanctioned a view of general jurisdiction so grasping. The Ninth Circuit, therefore, had no warrant to conclude that Daimler, even with MBUSA’s contacts attributed to it, was at home in California, and hence subject to suit there on claims by foreign plaintiffs having nothing to do with anything that occurred or had its principal impact in California.

The Court referred to the "transnational context" of the dispute, essentially making the point that U.S. courts are not suppose to be widely open to cases being brought against foreign companies when the underlying facts of the case have essentially nothing to do with the U.S.  The Supreme Court now has confirmed that general jurisdiction is typically limited to a jurisdiction companies can expect to be sued in, essentially where they are at home.

 

Energy Drink Case Subject to Primary Jurisdiction

We have posted before about the important doctrine of primary jurisdiction.  Last week, a defendant obtained dismissal of a proposed class action over its energy drinks under this theory. See Fisher v. Monster Beverage Corp., No. 12-2188 (C.D. Cal. 11/12/13).

Plaintiffs sued individually and as putative class representatives for  allegedly "unfair and deceptive business and trade practices on behalf of anyone who purchased for personal consumption any of the Monster-branded energy drinks sold under the Monster Rehab® brand name and the original Monster Energy®."  Plaintiffs alleged various misrepresentations on the labels of the Original Monster and Rehab Varieties cans, including language that the drink "quenches thirst, hydrates like a sports drink, and brings you back after a hard day's night", that it would "RE-FRESH, RE-HYDRATE, REVIVE," and is "the ideal combo of the right ingredients in the right proportion to deliver the big bad buzz that only Monster can."  Plaintiffs alleged these statements were  misrepresentations because the cans do not hydrate like a sports drink, and allegedly cause dehydration; because "it is not the ideal combo of the right ingredients in the right proportion" and because the statement omits the potential health risks associated with such drinks.  Plaintiffs also alleged claims related to Monster's advertising "strategy."  Plaintiffs alleged that Monster specifically "targets" youth despite the caffeine levels in Monster Drinks.

The court tackled a number of challenges, including standing, preemption (some claims were preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act), and the absence of particularity in many of the fraud allegations.  But our focus here is on primary jurisdiction.  The primary jurisdiction doctrine allows courts to stay proceedings or to dismiss a complaint without prejudice pending the resolution of an issue within the special competence of an administrative agency; it is most often invoked if a claim involves an issue of first impression or a particularly complicated issue Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.  The courts traditionally weigh four factors in deciding whether to apply the primary jurisdiction doctrine: (1) the need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory authority that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration.  The court determines that an otherwise cognizable claim implicates technical and policy questions that should be addressed in the first instance by the agency with regulatory authority over the relevant industry rather than by the judicial branch.

Defendants argued that the FDA has jurisdiction over issues involving food safety and labeling, and the FDA has specialized expertise in the "technical and policy" questions involved here; the FDA has commenced a science-based evaluation of the safety of caffeine-containing food products, including energy drinks. They also argued that the FDA has primary jurisdiction because the agency has special competence over the matters involving the alleged inadequate warnings and failure to warn issues in this case.  The court agreed that the matters at issue here have been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of the FDA pursuant to statute and regulations that require the FDA's expertise. The FDA has regulatory authority over food labeling. The FDCA establishes a uniform federal scheme of food regulation to ensure that food is labeled in a manner that does not mislead consumers. Second, plaintiffs' claims ultimately involve "technical and policy claims" about the effects of caffeine and whether Monster should be allowed to advertise and label their products in a way that appeals to a younger demographic. Plaintiffs cited to studies examining the effects of "energy drinks" in general, demonstrating that issues raised in the complaint may affect an entire industry. 

Third, the FDA has taken an interest in investigating and resolving whether energy drinks, including Monster, contain proper levels of caffeine. The FDA's interest in regulating the safety of caffeine weighed in favor of exercising the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  Thus, the Court found that plaintiffs' claims were covered under the Primary  Jurisdiction Doctrine.  

 

 

Class Action Rejected Per Primary Jurisdiction Defense

A California federal court recently rejected a putative class action alleging meal replacement bars sold in General Nutrition Centers Inc. stores somehow defrauded customers into thinking they were healthy because they were labeled with the term “zero impact.”  See Gabe Watkins v. Vital Pharmaceuticals, et al., No. 2:12-cv-09374 (C.D. Cal. 2013).  Readers may be interested in the discussion of primary jurisdiction.

On September 25, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Class Action Complaint in the Superior Court of California
for Los Angeles County. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants falsely labeled the Bars in violation of the Unfair Competition Law ("UCL"), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200, et seq., and the Consumers Legal Remedies Act ("CLRA"), Cal. Civ. Code § 1750, et seq.  Defendants removed the action to federal court, asserting federal subject matter jurisdiction in reliance on the Class Action Fairness Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(2).

Plaintiff asserted that while Vital and GNC marketed and advertised the Bars as 'ZERO IMPACT,' the Bars have an impact on consumers' carbohydrate, sugar and overall caloric intake, and to claim otherwise was "false and misleading."  However, the back of the wrapper features nutritional facts, an ingredient list, and a marketing statement, which notes that the low Dextrose Equivalent sugars contained in the Bars have less impact on blood sugar and glycemic index than most whole grain carbohydrates.  Plaintiff responded that the location and type size of the nutritional information and marketing statement allegedly made it too difficult to see and read.

Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the court should defer the question of whether the "ZERO IMPACT" label is misleading, to the Food and Drug Administration under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction.  Primary jurisdiction is a doctrine specifically applicable to claims properly cognizable in court that contain some issue within the special competence of an administrative agency.  Reiter v. Cooper, 507 U.S. 258, 268 (1993). While it is not to intended to secure expert advice for the courts from regulatory agencies every time a court is presented with an issue conceivably within the agency's ambit, it is a doctrine used by the courts to allocate initial decision-making responsibility between agencies and courts where such jurisdictional overlaps and potential for conflicts exist.  Syntek Semiconductor Co., Ltd. v. Microchip Tech. Inc., 307 F.3d 775, 780 (9th Cir. 2002). Typically, there are four factors present in cases where the doctrine properly is invoked: (1) the need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory scheme that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration. See United States v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 828 F.2d 1356, 1362 (9th Cir. 1987). The doctrine is often most applicable where a claim requires resolution of an issue of first impression or of a particularly complicated issue that Congress has committed to a regulatory agency.

Here, the court concluded that the relevant factors weighed in favor of dismissing plaintiff's claims in deference to the FDA's primary jurisdiction.

Defendants contended that the FDA has primary jurisdiction over how a manufacturer may name
and label its food products and that the resolution of plaintiff's UCL and CLRA claims would clearly invade the FDA's primary jurisdiction. Indeed, Congress has granted the FDA regulatory authority over false and misleading food labeling as part of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The primary jurisdiction doctrine was applicable in this case because the FDA has yet to consider the nutritional import of the claim "ZERO IMPACT" or in what context the claim might possibly mislead consumers about a product's nutritional content.

Plaintiff's claims centered on the argument that the nature of the marketing claim "ZERO IMPACT," combined with its location on the wrapper and larger type size, somehow created the impression that the Bars have no dietary impact at all.  But could not direct the court to any FDA rule, regulation, or guidance document discussing how the claim "ZERO IMPACT" or even the word "impact" can or should be used to describe a food product's nutritional content. Nor is there any evidence of the FDA bringing an enforcement action against anyone regarding the "ZERO IMPACT" claim or the nutrient content on its label.  Without any guidance about the context in which the FDA would find the claim "ZERO IMPACT" to be permissible, any determination on whether the term is misleading risked undermining, through private litigation, the FDA's considered judgments.

The FDA has issued some regulations with regard to the word "zero," but these are designed to
make sure that foods with claims like "zero calorie," "zero sodium," and "zero fat" contain the type
and amount of nutrients that a reasonable consumer would expect. See 21 C.F.R. §§ 101.60-101.62. Without more, however, there is no reasoned way for a court to determine whether the FDA regulations associated with labeling items as "zero calorie" and "zero fat" could encompass a claim like "ZERO IMPACT."   Calories, sugar, and fat are specific nutritional elements, but "impact" may refer to the effect those elements have on the human body.

In the absence of any FDA rules or regulations (or even informal policy statements) regarding the
use of the word 'impact' on food labels, the court declined to make any independent determination on whether defendant's use was false or misleading.  The court  concluded it lacked the FDA's expertise in guarding against deception in the context of food labeling.  See Pom Wonderful, 679 F.3d at 1178, and so it deferred this issue to the FDA to consider administrative action regarding the use of the "ZERO IMPACT" claim.

 

Denial of Class Certification Does Not Deprive Federal Court of CAFA Jurisdiction

Quick CAFA point for our readers.

Another federal court has ruled that the denial of a motion for class certification does not divest a federal district court of jurisdiction when the case has been properly removed under CAFA.  See Edwards v. Zenimax Media Inc., No. 1:12-cv-00411-WYD-KLM (D. Colo. 9/27/13).

Plaintiff brought a proposed class action alleging an animation defect in a video game.  I am not the video game maven that my kids are, but the allegation was that because of the defect a player must restart from square one with an entirely new character rather than being able to continue with open-ended game play. He brought claims under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, as well as common law claims such as breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. The district court denied the motion for class certification and declined to allow plaintiff a second bite of that apple.  

In assessing further motion practice, the issue arose whether the federal court retained jurisdiction when the basis for the case being in federal court (the class claims) had arguably disappeared. This issue has not been decided by the Tenth Circuit, but the court noted that the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have held that a federal district court retains jurisdiction over a case removed pursuant to CAFA after class certification denial. See Metz v. Unizan Bank, 649 F.3d 492, 500-501 (6th Cir. 2011); Buetow v. A.L.S., Enters., Inc., 650 F.3d 1178, 1182 n. 2 (8th Cir. 2011); United Steel Workers Int’l Union v. Shell Oil Co., 602 F.3d 1087, 1092 (9th Cir. 2010); Charter Corp. v. Learjet, Inc., 592 F.3d 805, 806 (7th Cir. 2010); Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1268 n. 12 (11th Cir. 2009).


The court predicted the Tenth Circuit would follow other appeals courts that have considered this issue.


 

Second Circuit Explains Home State Exception in CAFA

The Second Circuit recently weighed in on CAFA, and its  home state exception. See Gold v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., No. 12-2344-cv (2d Cir., 9/18/13).

Not our usual mass tort context, and more up the alley of our colleague Bill Martucci, but plaintiff filed a complaint alleging wage and hour violations against his former employer, New York Life, individually and on behalf of a putative class of agents. The case was litigated for a number of years, and in 2012, New York Life moved to dismiss the complaint based on CAFA’s home state exception. Concluding that the exception applied, the district court dismissed the complaint. Gold appealed, contending that New York Life had waived the home state exception by failing to raise it within a reasonable time. The Second Circuit held that CAFA’s home state exception is not jurisdictional and must be –and in this case was– raised within a reasonable time.

CAFA confers original federal jurisdiction over class actions involving (1) an aggregate amount in controversy of at least $5,000,000; and (2) minimal diversity, i.e., where at least one plaintiff and one defendant are citizens of different states. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(2). CAFA includes several exceptions, including the home state exception which provides that: “[a] district court shall decline to exercise jurisdiction . . . over a class action in which . . . two-thirds or more of the members of all proposed plaintiff classes in the aggregate, and the primary defendants, are citizens of the State in which the action was originally filed.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(4)(B).

While plaintiff argued this exception was jurisdictional, the court found that the “‘decline to exercise’” language “‘inherently recognizes [that] the district court has subject matter jurisdiction’” but must actively decline to exercise it if the exception’s requirements are met. Reviewing this issue de novo, the Second Circuit agreed with the district court’s conclusion, and aligned itself with the Seventh and Eighth Circuits, in concluding that Congress’s use of the term “decline to exercise” means that the exception is not jurisdictional.

But, said the court, motions to dismiss under CAFA’s home state exception must also be made within a reasonable time.  Here, nearly three years after the complaint was filed, New York Life moved to dismiss based on the home state exception. Under most circumstances, the court said it would have some doubts that a delay of this length would be deemed reasonable. But, the application of the exception was, to a certain extent, complicated by the discovery schedule imposed by the district court here. Gold had apparently requested that individual discovery proceed first, followed by class discovery. The trial court agreed, and as a result, class discovery did not start until 2011. New York Life claimed that it learned only through class discovery that more than two-thirds of the class–New York Life agents employed in New York–were New York citizens, and then moved to dismiss based on the home state exception.

The district court held that because of the agreed upon bifurcated discovery plan, New York Life had not had the opportunity to discover the citizenship of class members until it undertook class discovery in 2011 and that, under these circumstances, New York Life’s delay was excused.  While noting that nearly three years may not always be a reasonable time for an employer to determine where its own sales force lives, the district court was in a better position than the court of appeals was to evaluate when New York Life’s motion could have been made, based on its greater familiarity with the course of the litigation, especially scheduling and discovery matters.  Thus, the court of appeals was not prepared to say that the district court abused its discretion. It did note that there are numerous instances where the home state exception was raised much more promptly than it was in this case, and without full blown class discovery.

Voluntary Dismissal Not A Route To Appellate Review of Class Issue

Getting an appeals court to focus on class decisions- certification, refusal to certify, and decertification - can be crucial to litigants on both sides of proposed class actions. The Third Circuit recently addressed one tactic in this field, finding that putative class members cannot appeal a district court’s class decertification order after having voluntarily dropped their individual claims in the same court.  The court thus dismissed two appeals brought by employees making wage and hour claims against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and West Penn Allegheny Health System. See Karen Camesi et al. v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center et al., No. 12-1446, and Andrew Kuznyetsov et al. v. West Penn Allegheny Health System Inc. et al., No. 12-1903 (3rd Cir. Sept. 4, 2013).

The complaints similarly alleged that proposed class members were not compensated for work performed during meal breaks in violation of the FLSA.  The district court eventually decertifed the collective action. The named plaintiffs did not ask the District Court to certify its interlocutory order for appeal, but, instead, moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a) for “voluntary dismissal of their claims with prejudice in order to secure a final judgment for purposes of appeal.” The district court granted the unopposed motion on January 30, 2012, stating that “Plaintiffs’ remaining claim are hereby dismissed with prejudice in order to allow Plaintiffs to seek appellate review.”

The court of appeals began by considering whether appellants’ voluntary dismissal of their claims with prejudice under Rule 41(a) left them with a final order appealable under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. This question of first impression required the panel to consider the scope of two strands of Third Circuit authority: Sullivan v. Pacific Indemnity Co., 566 F.2d 444 (3d Cir. 1977), in which the court held that a plaintiff may not obtain appellate review after incurring a dismissal for failure to prosecute for the purpose of seeking to appeal an interlocutory class-certification order, and Fassett v. Delta Kappa Epsilon, 807 F.2d 1150 (3d Cir. 1986), in which the court ostensibly permitted plaintiffs to voluntarily dismiss a portion of their case in order to appeal an order of the district court terminating the remainder of their case. In considering the significance of these cases, the court seemed impacted most by the fact that appellants here sought review of only the orders decertifying their collective actions, and did not complain of the “final” orders that dismissed their cases.

Generally, a dismissal with prejudice constitutes an appealable final order under § 1291. See, e.g., In re Merck & Co. Sec., Derivative & ERISA Litig., 493 F.3d 393, 399 (3d Cir. 2007). Furthermore, “[u]nder the ‘merger rule,’ prior interlocutory orders [such as class-certification decisions] merge with the final judgment in a case, and the interlocutory orders (to the extent that they affect the final judgment) may be reviewed on appeal from the final order.” In re Westinghouse Sec. Litig., 90 F.3d 696, 706 (3d Cir. 1996).

But here defendants argued that appellants’ voluntary dismissals of their claims constituted impermissible attempts to manufacture finality, and the Third Circuit agreed.  In Sullivan, the court had noted that a class certification decision, per se, is not an appealable final order under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, but rather is an interlocutory order. Dismissal for failure to prosecute, as an attempt to avoid the court's firm position against interlocutory appeals of class certification determinations, was an impermissible strategy there, because if a litigant could refuse to proceed whenever a trial judge ruled against him, simply wait for the court to enter a dismissal for failure to prosecute, and then obtain review of the judge’s interlocutory decision, the policy against piecemeal litigation and review would be severely weakened. Allowing such a practice would risk inundating appellate dockets with requests for review of interlocutory orders and undermine the ability of trial judges to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.

Appellants here had attempted to short-circuit the procedure for appealing an interlocutory district court order that is separate from, and unrelated to, the merits of their case. Appellants could have obtained appellate review of the decertification order by proceeding to final judgment on the merits of their individual claims. Or, appellants could have asked the District Courts to certify their interlocutory orders for appeal. But appellants instead sought to convert an interlocutory order into a final appealable order by obtaining dismissal under Rule 41. If the courts were to allow such a "procedural sleight-of-hand" to bring about finality here, said the court of appeals, there was nothing to prevent litigants from employing such a tactic to obtain review of discovery orders, evidentiary rulings, or any of the myriad decisions a district court makes before it reaches the merits of an action. This would greatly undermine the policy against piecemeal litigation embodied by § 1291, concluded the panel.

Both appeals dismissed for failure of jurisdiction.

Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine Leads to Dismissal of Food Claim

As our loyal readers know, the plaintiffs bar is poised to bring proposed class action litigation against food and beverage sellers over virtually any ingredient, marketing, label, or advertising it can shoehorn into an alleged unlawful trade practice.  It is gratifying when a court recognizes that proper forum for many such complaints is the Food and Drug Administration, not in court.  A recent example arises from the proposed class action over an ingredient in yogurt.  See Taradejna v. General Mills Inc., No. 12-993 (D. Minn.,12/10/12).

Plaintiff Martin Taradejna brought this putative class action alleging violations under the Minnesota Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act, the Minnesota Unlawful Trade Practices Act, and the Minnesota Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, related to the alleged mislabeling of Greek yogurt. Plaintiff alleged that Greek yogurt is typically strained to remove the whey, resulting in a creamier product, richer in protein and lower in lactose.  Taradejna alleged that rather than straining, Defendants chose to use Milk Protein Concentrate (“MPC”) when they entered the Greek yogurt market in 2010. A blend of dry dairy products, MPC is sold in a powdered form that typically retains all protein components of milk.  Defendants’ use of MPC in the manufacture of its Greek yogurt results in a product with the thickness and protein content typical of Greek yogurt.  And the labeling of Defendant’s Greek yogurt discloses MPC as an ingredient. Taradejna contended, however, that this Greek yogurt failed to comply with legal and regulatory rules governing the labeling of food because it contained significant amounts of  MPC, and thus was not true Greek   yogurt.  Consequently, Taradejna alleged that Defendants’ actions in marketing this product violated the various Minnesota consumer protection statutes.

The FDA regulates food product ingredients and labeling and creates definitions and “standards of identity” for certain foods. Standards of identity define the particular food, and describe its ingredients, and approved processes of manufacture; as far back as 1981, the FDA promulgated such standards of identity for yogurt, 21 C.F.R. § 131.200, low-fat yogurt, 21 C.F.R. § 131.203, and nonfat yogurt, 21 C.F.R. § 131.206.  Plaintiff alleged use of MPC as an ingredient is not permitted in yogurt. Defendants pointed to a publicly available response to questions raised with the FDA at a 2004 milk seminar, stating that milk protein concentrate can be used as an ingredient in yogurt to increase the nonfat solids content.  And in 2009, the FDA proposed additional regulations to permit the optional use of any safe and suitable milk-derived ingredient as an optional dairy ingredient in the manufacture of yogurt to increase the nonfat solids content of the food above the minimum required 8.25 percent.

Plaintiff sought to represent a national class that had allegedly paid too much for this Greek yogurt made another way.  Defendant moved to dismiss on several grounds, but the district court focused on primary jurisdiction, a common-law doctrine that is utilized to coordinate judicial and administrative decision making. See Access Telecomms. v. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co., 137 F.3d 605, 608 (8th Cir. 1998). The doctrine applies where a claim may be cognizable in the courts, but where enforcement of the claim requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body. See Alpharma, Inc. v. Pennfield Oil Co., 411 F.3d 934, 938 (8th Cir. 2005).  Agency expertise is the most common reason that courts apply the doctrine of primary jurisdiction. In addition, courts apply the doctrine to promote uniformity and consistency within the particular field of regulation.

The underlying issue here was whether MPC is a proper or permitted ingredient in the yogurt. The court concluded that resolution of this question falls squarely within the competence and expertise of the FDA, pursuant to the authority granted to the Agency by Congress. Issues of food labeling are sufficiently complex that they are best left to FDA for consideration prior to judicial review.  See Lever Bros. Co. v. Mauer, 712 F. Supp. 645, 651 (S.D. Ohio 1989); Heller v. Coca-Cola Co., 230 A.D.2d 768, 769-70 (N.Y. App. Div. 1996).)  The current standard of identity for yogurt, the  Agency’s public statements about the standard, and the 2009 Proposed Rule all may impact the question, and the FDA is in the best position to resolve any ambiguity about the standard of identity for yogurt – a matter requiring scientific and nutritional expertise.

Moreover, said the court, given that the FDA has issued its 2009 Proposed Rule on the standard of identity for yogurt, it would be imprudent for a court, at this juncture, to substitute its judgment for that of the Agency’s while revision of the standard is pending. Moreover, the FDA’s ultimate decision on the permitted ingredients in yogurt would ensure national uniformity in labeling, utilizing the Agency’s special expertise in this regard.

So, bottom line, the court used primary jurisdiction to put these issues where they belong—with the FDA.

 

State Supreme Court Approves Exercise of Jursidiction - Again

Regular readers of MassTortDefense know that one issue we try to keep an eye on is the exercise of personal jurisdiction over foreign product sellers in the U.S. courts, particularly following the Supreme Court decisions in Nicastro and Goodyear.  Readers may recall from our earlier posts that Nicastro resulted in a plurality opinion which tracked Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), concurring in the notion that the foreign product manufacturer lacked sufficient minimum contacts to allow a New Jersey court to exercise jurisdiction over it, but concluding that because this case did not present the new and special issues arising from recent changes in commerce and communication, it was unnecessary to get into full analysis of the steam of commerce issue as it might be applied to 21st century marketing. Rather, the outcome of the case could be determined by the Court’s existing precedents, which have held that a single isolated sale, even if accompanied by the kind of sales effort indicated in the record in the case, is not sufficient.

Last Fall, we posted on an Oregon case involving an allegedly defective wheel chair, in which the state court had exercised jurisdiction over the foreign manufacturer. The case arose from a fire allegedly caused by a battery charger manufactured by CTE, a Taiwanese company; the battery charger was incorporated into a motorized wheelchair. Plaintiffs allege that the fire began in the chair, because of a defect in the charger. CTE sought dismissal on the grounds the state court lacked personal jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion, and the Oregon Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for a writ of mandamus on the issue. But the Supreme Court granted review, vacated the Oregon opinion denying the manufacturer's challenge to jurisdiction, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.

We mused: "On remand, it will be interesting to see what the state court does, given what many observers see as their recent resistant approach on directions from the high Court on remands."

We now have an answer, as the state court again held that the sale of the battery chargers in Oregon via an Ohio wheelchair manufacturer was sufficient to establish minimum contacts with Oregon, subjecting the foreign company to personal jurisdiction there.  See Willemsen v. Invacare Corp., No. SC S059201 (Ore., 7/19/12).


Plaintiffs relied on the specific jurisdiction branch of personal jurisdiction, which depends on an
affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy, principally, activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum State and is therefore subject to the State's regulation. In contrast to general, all-purpose jurisdiction, specific jurisdiction is confined to adjudication of  issues  deriving from, or connected with, the very controversy that establishes jurisdiction.

In this case, plaintiffs argued that the sale of Invacare wheelchairs and CTE battery chargers in Oregon provided sufficient minimum contacts with this state for Oregon courts to assert specific jurisdiction over CTE for injuries that its battery chargers allegedly caused there. One difficult issue in this case arose from the fact that CTE sold its battery chargers to Invacare in Ohio, not Oregon, and with the expectation that Invacare would sell its wheelchairs together with CTE's battery chargers nationwide, not just Oregon. Defendant contended that, because Invacare (and not CTE) is the one that targeted Oregon, CTE had not purposefully availed itself of the privilege of doing business in Oregon and, as a result, the Oregon courts may not assert jurisdiction over it. The argument was that the the mere fact that it may have expected that its battery chargers might end up in Oregon is not sufficient to give Oregon courts specific jurisdiction over it.

Defendant relied heavily on the Nicastro plurality's view that the mere fact that it was foreseeable that a defendant's products might be distributed in one or all of the 50 states was not enough; rather, the plurality would have required evidence that the out-of-state defendant had "targeted" the forum state in some way. But the Oregon court focused on Justice Breyer's concurring opinion in Nicastro, which it read to mean only that nationwide distribution of a foreign manufacturer's products is not sufficient to establish jurisdiction over the manufacturer when that effort results in only a single sale in the forum state. In this case, the record showed that, over a two-year period, Invacare sold 1,102 motorized wheelchairs with CTE battery chargers in Oregon. In the court's view, the sale of over 1,100 CTE battery chargers within Oregon over a two-year period showed a regular flow or regular course of sales in Oregon.

Defendant argued that these sales figures in Oregon were a miniscule fraction -- both in sheer numbers, as well as the proportion of end product sales in the forum -- of what a Supreme Court
majority would have found to be insufficient in Asahi. But the court concluded that the decision in Asahi "provides little assistance to CTE."

It would not be a surprise if this case found its way back to the US Supreme Court again.
 

Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of FEMA Trailer Claims

The Fifth Circuit recently upheld the dismissal of putative class actions filed by Mississippi and Alabama residents against the federal government alleging trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina-impacted citizens contained hazardous levels of formaldehyde. See In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Mississippi Plaintiffs), No. 10-30921, and In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alabama Plaintiffs), No. 10-30945 (5th Cir. 2012).

Plaintiffs-Appellants brought this Federal Tort Claims Act action against the United States for injuries allegedly related to their exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde contained in the component materials of the Emergency Housing Units (“EHUs”) provided to them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Readers will recall we have posted about various aspects of this litigation before. In October 2007, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation created MDL No. 07-1873 (In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation), and assigned the complex litigation to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The key facts: After the hurricanes, FEMA activated its Individual and Household Assistance Program and, from September 2005 through May 1, 2009, the agency supplied disaster victims with EHUs, at no cost, to use as temporary shelter. The EHUs were taken from FEMA’s preexisting inventory, which had been purchased from public retailers as well as directly from manufacturers. The EHUs were small, portable, and usually placed at the disaster victims’ home sites. The trailers were installed by government contractors who placed the units on blocks or piers, anchored them to the ground using straps or bolts, and connected them to public sewer and water lines.

In March 2006, when FEMA began receiving formaldehyde-related complaints, it encouraged shelter occupants to ventilate their EHUs by opening the doors and windows. In June 2006, FEMA prepared an informational brochure informing EHU occupants of the potential risks of formaldehyde exposure, encouraging them to ventilate their units, and urging them to seek medical help if they developed health problems related to formaldehyde. In September 2006, FEMA began working with the Environmental Protection Agency to test the EHUs for formaldehyde, and also developed various new mitigation techniques.  In July 2007, FEMA distributed another informational brochure to EHU occupants, set up a hotline and a dedicated call center to field formaldehyde complaints from occupants, and continued to assist occupants in locating alternative housing. FEMA subsequently entered into an agreement with the CDC to conduct additional testing, the findings of which were compiled in a third informational brochure and distributed to EHU occupants in early 2008.

The federal government filed various motions to dismiss the claims against it, or in the alternative for summary judgment, based on the FTCA’s discretionary function exception.The district court denied the motions and held that the FTCA’s discretionary function exception might not apply to some or all of appellants’ claims, the determination of which would be driven by the facts of each individual case.  The district court then denied class certification and scheduled a series of bellwether trials in the MDL, but none of the FTCA claims brought by the bellwether plaintiffs against the Government advanced to the trial stage.

The Government then moved under Federal Rule 12(b)(1) to dismiss Appellants’ FTCA claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction on the grounds that no analogous private liability existed under the Mississippi and Alabama emergency statutes.  The district court granted the Government’s motion and dismissed appellants’ FTCA claims. Plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

 A plaintiff may only sue the United States if a federal statute explicitly provides for a waiver of sovereign immunity. The United States must consent to be sued, and that consent is a prerequisite to federal jurisdiction. Delta Commercial Fisheries Ass’n v. Gulf of Mex. Fishery Mgmt. Council, 364 F.3d 269, 273 (5th Cir. 2004). Waivers of sovereign immunity are narrowly construed in favor of the United States. In re Supreme Beef Processors, Inc., 468 F.3d 248, 253 (5th Cir. 2006). The FTCA is recognized as providing a waiver of sovereign immunity and provides the sole basis of recovery for tort claims against the United States. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346 and § 2671, et seq.; In re Supreme Beef Processors, 468 F.3d at 252 n.4. But the Act provides that the United States shall be liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances. See
28 U.S.C. § 2674.

The "same manner" analysis is a mix of federal and state law. The FTCA requires the  Government's liability to be measured in accordance with the law of the state where the alleged act or omission occurred, so here the Appellants’ FTCA claims were limited by the relevant provisions set forth in Mississippi and Alabama tort law. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1); Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 11-14 (1962); Cleveland ex rel. Cleveland v. United States, 457 F.3d 397, 403 (5th Cir. 2006). Whether a private person in “like circumstances” would be subject to liability is also a question of sovereign immunity and, thus, is ultimately a question of federal law. See United States v. Olson, 546 U.S. 43, 44 (2005). Because the federal government could never be exactly like a private actor, a court’s job in applying the standard is to find the most reasonable analogy. LaBarge v. Cnty. of Mariposa, 798 F.2d 364, 366-69 (9th Cir. 1986). Inherent differences between the government and a private person cannot be allowed to disrupt this analysis. The Fifth Circuit has consistently held that the government is entitled to raise any and all defenses that would potentially be available to a private citizen or entity under state law. Camacho v. Tex. Workforce Comm'n, 445 F.3d 407, 410 (5th Cir. 2006). Therefore, if a private person under “like circumstances” would be shielded from liability pursuant to a state statute, lower courts must decline to exercise subject matter jurisdiction in a case like this.

Because, here, the Mississippi and Alabama emergency statutes abrogate the tort liability of a private person who, (1) voluntarily, (2) without compensation, (3) allows his property or premises to be used as shelter during or in recovery from a natural disaster, the Government’s voluntary, cost-free provision of the EHUs to disaster victims, in connection with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, was
also immunized conduct under the statute.  Despite plaintiffs' arguments, the Government’s provision of the government-owned EHUs, as implemented by FEMA, was voluntary because it was under no contractual or legal obligation, under any federal legislation, to provide the EHUs to disaster victims in response to the disasters. The Government did not receive compensation from the disaster victims in exchange for letting them use the EHUs. (The collection of taxes by the Government was not comparable to the traditional quid pro quo compensation contemplated by the statute.) In addition, the Government’s actions relating to the EHUs fell within the time frame contemplated by the statute as “during or in recovery from” a major disaster, since FEMA’s temporary emergency housing program ran from the hurricanes up to May, 2009.

Because Mississippi and Alabama emergency laws would protect those private individuals who shelter natural disaster victims from tort liability, the federal government's voluntary provision of the trailers was likewise immunized, the court concluded.

As an alternative, the appellants asked the Fifth Circuit to certify questions to the state supreme courts of Alabama and Mississippi regarding the meaning of the state emergency statutes, but the appeals court agreed with the district court that these questions did not warrant certification. Dismissals affirmed.

Another Federal Court Weighs In On Meaning of Nicastro

We have tried to keep an eye out for lower court cases interpreting the Supreme Court decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, as the lower courts parse through plurality, concurring and dissenting views on the exercise of personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants -- with mixed results.   Now comes another decision weighing in on what standard should be applied to the proposed  exercise of personal jurisdiction over nonresident defendants. Smith v. Teledyne Continental Motors Inc., No. 9:10-cv-02152 (D.S.C., 1/3/12).
 

In 2010, a vacationer was jogging on the beach at Hilton Head, South Carolina, when he was struck and killed -- by an airplane.  The plane, operated by Smith, was a single-engine aircraft
Smith had made from a kit. As he was flying the plane up the Atlantic coast about ten miles offshore, the propeller fell off the plane and into the sea. Smith attempted to make the Hilton Head airport, but came up short, crash landing on the beach and fatally striking the 38-year-old stockbroker who left behind his wife and two small children, according to the opinion.

The widow sued the pilot, the manufacturer of the airplane’s engine, the manufacturer of the airframe, a company which had serviced the plane prior to the crash; and the manufacturer of the propeller. Smith, the pilot, also sued the manufacturers. The cases were then consolidated, and eventually Teledyne, the engine maker, and a citizen of Delaware and Alabama, challenged personal jurisdiction in South Carolina.

The district court held that jurisdiction was proper.  This case did not involve the general jurisdiction that arises from pervasive contacts with a forum, but specific jurisdiction based on Teledynes' alleged contacts and purposeful availment of the forum.  And when one looks at the facts described, the conclusion may not come as a great surprise: Over the past ten years,
Teledyne sold at least 400 engines directly to South Carolina purchasers at a cost of about $40,000 apiece for a total revenue of approximately $1,600,000. Further, its engines were installed in approximately one-third of general aviation aircraft based in South Carolina. It maintained a continuous relationship with the owners of these engines through its warranty programs. Further, it advertised in South Carolina through aviation magazines. It maintained a distributor there until 2004. It directly sold parts for its engines in the forum state through interactive websites. Significantly, Teledyne maintained ongoing relationships with at least eleven “fixed base operators” --  stores/service centers located at South Carolina airports.  Teledyne had a contract with each FBO which required them to display Teledyne’s logos and actively promote the sale of its products. Teledyne maintained a continuing interactive Internet relationship with these FBOs, through which it provides them with technical support in repairing Teledyne products. Teledyne warranty work must be performed by these FBOs. Teledyne both buys and sells products over the Internet and through retailers to South Carolina residents. It admitted it had derived over $1 million in revenue from its sales to South Carolina residents over the past 10 years.  

This certainly was NOT the most narrow list of contacts we have seen litigated.  What was more intriguing about the opinion was the test the court adopted. The court concluded that the recent decision of the Supreme Court in J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S. Ct. 2780 (2011), and existing Fourth Circuit precedents were dispositive of the issue at bar.  The court observed that the decision was "somewhat difficult to interpret because no single opinion was adopted by a majority of the Justices. Rather, there are three opinions which must be synthesized."  But rather than, as some courts have done, looked for the grounds upon which the concurring justices agreed with the plurality, this court saw as the “common denominator of the Court’s
reasoning,” a "position approved by at least five Justices who support the judgment” -- the “stream-of-commerce plus” rubric previously enunciated in an opinion by Justice O’Connor in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102, 112 (1987). This view has come to be known as the “stream-of-commerce plus” test. Although it did not win the support of a majority of the Court in Asahi, or since, in the view of this court, it has now done so. 

In his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer rejected the notion that a non-resident defendant could be subjected to suit in a state based solely on foreseeability, agreeing with the plurality that personal jurisdiction required purposeful availment of a particular forum. He further explained that the standard of purposeful availment, the correct legal standard, may still require further explication in the context of modern global commerce, but that the facts of that case did not present an adequate vehicle for crafting any new rules. Although the concurrence and the plurality differed as to what might constitute “purposeful availment” in the context of national or global marketing, they both firmly embraced the continuing significance of individual state sovereignty and, on that basis, noted that specific jurisdiction must arise from a defendant’s deliberate connection with the forum state.  

Here, the court saw more overlap with the dissent. When the concurring Justices expressed the view that the case could be resolved by existing precedents, this meant Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Asahi, according to this district court.   

The court read the Fourth Circuit precedents as having already adopted this view and, therefore, the long-arm cases in the Fourth Circuit were not affected by Nicastro.

In applying this test, the court felt that plaintiffs had enumerated many significant contacts by which Teledyne targeted or purposefully directed commercial activities at South Carolina, as noted above.  Regarding whether the exercise of jurisdiction based on those minimum contacts would offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice, the court decided that the additional burden on the defendant was relatively slight as compared to the cost of litigating the matter in its home state because Teledyne had a national presence and organization. The interests of the forum state were extremely strong, in that South Carolina, located on a major coastal air corridor, had a compelling interest in protecting its citizens and visitors and their property from damage from falling airplanes.  

Motion denied, case to proceed in South Carolina.

Appeals Court Rejects Personal Jurisdiction Over Foreign Manufacturer

As we have noted for reader, lower courts continue to work to interpret and apply the Supreme Court's decision in J. McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro.  Earlier this week, a California appeals court found that the lower court should not have exercised personal jurisdiction over a Canadian unit of Dow Chemical Co. See Dow Chemical Canada ULC v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. B222609 Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist.) (unpubl.).

The court noted that this case presented a question left open in Asahi Metal Industry Co., Ltd. v.
Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), but now resolved by J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro, 131 S.Ct. 2780 (2011):  whether merely placing products into the stream of commerce in a foreign country (or another state), aware that some may or will be swept into the forum state, is enough to subject a defendant to personal jurisdiction—or whether due process requires that the defendant have engaged in additional conduct, directed at the forum, before it can be
found to have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within
the forum state.  The court concluded that  defendant Dow Chemical Canada ULC was not subject to jurisdiction because it did not  purposefully avail itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state.

Plaintiffs were allegedly injured in an accident involving a 1996 Sea-Doo watercraft. This product liability action was subsequently brought against Dow Chemical Canada ULC (Dow), among others, based on an alleged defect in the fuel tank.  Dow appeared specially and moved to
quash service of the summons on the ground that it lacked the requisite minimum contacts with California to justify the state’s assertion of personal jurisdiction. Its principal place of business was Calgary, Alberta, Canada; it had never advertised any products in California. The gas tanks and gas filler tank necks that were the subject of this litigation were sold exclusively in Canada pursuant to purchase order agreements entered into in Canada. Plaintiff contended, however, that the court had specific jurisdiction because Dow allegedly knew that its gas tanks were being installed in products that would be sold in the United States, including California.

The trial court rejected Dow’s motion; the court of appeals denied Dow’s petition for writ of
mandate; the California Supreme Court denied Dow’s timely petition for discretionary
review. But the United States Supreme Court granted Dow’s petition for certiorari on June
28, 2011, ordered that the judgment be vacated and remanded the matter for further consideration in light of J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.

On remand, the court said it was facing the question whether merely depositing goods in the stream of commerce, with knowledge that some will end up in a finished product manufactured
by another and sold in the forum state, is enough to satisfy the minimum contacts standard for personal jurisdiction.  The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the power of a state court to exert personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant.  The  constitutional touchstone of the determination whether an exercise of personal jurisdiction comports with due process remains whether the defendant purposefully established “minimum contacts” in the forum state.

In Asahi, the United States Supreme Court split on the impact of placing a product into the stream of commerce, with a fractured set of opinions, expressing separate standards for deciding the issue, none of which received the support of a majority of the Court.  Under Justice O’Connor’s view, placement of a product into a stream of commerce with awareness that it may be carried into a forum state would not, by itself, be adequate for the exercise of jurisdiction over a defendant. A defendant’s awareness that the stream of commerce may or will sweep the product into the forum state does not convert the mere act of placing the product into the stream into an act purposefully directed toward the forum state.  But Justice Brennan expressed the position that a chain of distribution carrying a product into the forum could be adequate to permit the exercise of jurisdiction over foreign defendants, because the stream of commerce refers not to unpredictable currents or eddies, but to the regular and anticipated flow of products from manufacture to distribution to retail sale.

According to the California court on remand here, in J. McIntyre Machinery v. Nicastro, the Supreme Court resolved the question in Asahi left unresolved by the competing opinions. The stream of commerce, like other metaphors, has its deficiencies as well as its utility. It refers to the movement of goods from manufacturers through distributors to consumers, yet beyond that descriptive purpose its meaning is far from exact. The principal inquiry in cases of this sort, said the plurality, is whether the defendant’s activities manifest an intention to submit to the power of a
sovereign. In other words, the defendant must purposefully avail itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections
of its laws. The concurrence in Nicastro noted no evidence of a “regular course” of sales into the state, so there was no "something more," such as special state-related design, advertising, advice, marketing, or anything else.

Here, at no time did Dow engage in any activities in California that revealed an intent to invoke or benefit from the protection of its laws. Nor was there any evidence that the design of Dow’s product was in any way California-specific. It was not sufficient for jurisdiction in this case that the
defendant might have predicted or known that its products would reach California.  Defendant never undertook to ship its components to California; it supplied its gas tanks and filler necks exclusively in Canada. It matters not whether it knew or could have predicted that another party would sell the finished Sea-Doos incorporating the gas tanks in California. Dow did not advertise or market products in California; it never sold products in, or directly to customers in, California; it never maintained an office or other facility of any kind in California; it had never been qualified to do business in California; and  it had no agent for service of process in California.

Due process requires that Dow would have engaged in more than that, in additional conduct directed at the forum, before it could be found to have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within California. 
 

 

Court Permits Plaintiffs to Evade CAFA Mass Action Reach

Readers know that one of the effects of the Class Action Fairness Act has been to encourage plaintiff counsel to get creative in ways to defeat federal jurisdiction and keep mass torts and class actions in state courts.  Last week, a federal court remanded several cases brought by individuals who claimed that they developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma as a result of exposure to PCBs, despite the “mass action” provisions of CAFA.  Nunn v. Monsanto Co., No, 4:11-CV-1657(CEJ) (E.D. Mo. 11/7/11).

Under CAFA, federal courts have jurisdiction over class actions in which the amount in controversy exceeds $5,000,000 in the aggregate; there is minimal diversity among the parties; and there are at least 100 members in the class. 28 U.S.C. §1332(d). CAFA also provides federal jurisdiction over a “mass action,” which is defined as “any civil action . . . in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly on the ground that the plaintiffs’ claims involve common questions of law or fact . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i).

The district court stated that for it to have jurisdiction under the mass action provisions, defendants must demonstrate that there really are 100 plaintiffs. Defendants made a clever and powerful argument, pointing out that in addition to the cases and these plaintiffs subject to the remand motion,  plaintiffs’ counsel filed two separate, largely identical, cases in the state court (St. Louis City Circuit Court), one with 95 plaintiffs and one with 96 plaintiffs. This clearly evidenced plaintiffs’ counsel purposeful efforts to “splinter” a single mass tort case for the purpose of evading federal jurisdiction. That kind of rigging was rejected in cases like Freeman v. Blue Ridge Paper Prods., Inc., 551 F.3d 405 (6th Cir. 2008), and Westerfeld v. Independent Processing, LLC, 621 F.3d 819 (8th Cir. 2010), argued defendants.

The court felt obligated to disregard such manipulations, however.  Defendants’ contention that plaintiffs had deliberately divided their cases in order to avoid the mass action threshold was somehow "irrelevant."  Reference to the other identical cases was, the court thought, akin to defendant "consolidating" the cases; by excluding cases in which the claims were consolidated on
a defendant’s motion, Congress appears to have contemplated that some cases which could have been brought as a mass action would, because of the way in which the plaintiffs chose to structure their claims, remain outside of CAFA’s grant of jurisdiction. Citing Anderson v. Bayer Corp., 610 F.3d 390, 393 (7th Cir. 2010); see also Tanoh v. Dow Chem. Co., 561 F.3d 945 (9th Cir. 2009). 
 

So, another example of the numerical loophole to removal of mass actions, evading the Congressional intent. Plaintiffs' attorneys continue to resort to dividing their clients into groups of 99 or fewer plaintiffs to try to avoid federal court.


 

Lower Courts Grapple With Meaning of Nicastro (Part II)

Last post we talked about a federal district court attempting to apply the Supreme Court's decision in J.McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro.  This time, a state court.

In Soria v. Chrysler Canada Inc., No. 2-10-1236 (App. Ct. Ill., 10/24/11), the court modified an earlier opinion to account for Nicastro. But it still concluded that a Canadian automobile assembler was properly subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois, regardless of the new decision.

This suit arose out of a vehicle collision in which plaintiff alleged that she was a passenger in a 1998 Plymouth Voyager minivan assembled by Chrysler Canada in Windsor, Canada. Plaintiff alleged she suffered a severe eye injury after the door to a passenger airbag module fractured during airbag deployment, sending out plastic fragments. Plaintiff alleged that Chrysler
Canada was negligent in its manufacture, assembly, design, testing, inspection, and sale of the airbag module doors.

Regarding jurisdictional contacts, plaintiff alleged that Chrysler Canada knew that thousands of minivans and vehicles it manufactured were sold in the United States, including thousands in Illinois; about 85% of its production was exported to the United States in some years; it allegedly delivered its minivans and vehicles into the stream of commerce with the expectation that a certain percentage would be sold in Illinois; it did business in Illinois within the meaning of the Illinois long-arm statute; and it (along with Chrysler United States) designed, developed, assembled, manufactured, distributed, and transferred into the stream of commerce the Plymouth Voyager in which plaintiff was a passenger during the collision.

In contrast, Chrysler Canada argued that it was incorporated in Canada, had its principal place of
business in Canada, and never transacted business, entered into contracts, owned real estate,
maintained a corporate presence, telephone number, tax identification number, employees or agents in Illinois. Further, it contended that it did not ship, deliver, distribute, or sell the minivan in
Illinois. Finally, Chrysler asserted that its website was not directed to or interactive with Illinois
residents. 

The trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss.

The appellate court noted the defendant's argument that mere awareness that vehicles it assembled might be distributed by Chrysler United States to Illinois did not show sufficient minimum contacts. Plaintiff responded that Chrysler Canada had sufficient minimum contacts and was subject to specific personal jurisdiction in Illinois because it knew that the vehicles it assembled for Chrysler United States entered Illinois through the stream of commerce and because it intentionally served the United States market, including Illinois, by indirectly shipping its vehicles to the forum.

Chrysler urged that beyond its mere awareness that some of the vehicles it assembled “may”
be swept into Illinois through the stream of commerce, there were no purposeful contacts (and,
therefore, no sufficient minimum contacts) by Chrysler Canada directed at Illinois. Specifically,
Chrysler Canada contended that it did not engage in commercial activities or other purposeful
contacts in Illinois. Further, it did not receive vehicle orders from United States customers or
dealerships; did not sell (or have control over the distribution of) vehicles to United States
customers or dealerships; and did not ship vehicles to United States customers or dealerships.
 

The court reviewed the Supreme Court jurisprudence on personal jurisdiction, and in particular, the debate over the so-called "stream-of-commerce" theory of jurisdiction, which has commanded the approval of as many as 4 Justices at various times.  The court concluded that under either a broad or narrow version of the stream-of-commerce theory, the trial court correctly found that sufficient minimum contacts exist to exercise personal jurisdiction over Chrysler Canada.

Chrysler Canada was not only aware that its products are distributed in Illinois (thus, the court thought, satisfying the narrow stream-of-commerce theory), but it had also purposefully directed its activities toward Illinois.  While it is essential in each case that there be some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws, when a commercial actor’s efforts are purposefully directed toward residents of a state, the absence of physical contacts does not alone defeat personal jurisdiction there, concluded the court.

The court found persuasive that the United States market, including Illinois, was Chrysler Canada’s primary market. Deposition testimony reflected that Chrysler Canada is aware that 82%
of its production (albeit not all of which consists of Plymouth Voyager minivans) was distributed,
through an established distribution channel, within the United States. During the relevant period,
Chrysler Canada indirectly shipped products into the American market, including Illinois, through
Chrysler United States, its parent corporation. The court agreed with plaintiff’s assertion that Chrysler Canada continuously and intentionally served or targeted this market and was set up to manufacture vehicles for (and derived significant revenue from) the United States market, including Chrysler dealerships throughout Illinois.

Much of that analysis skipped over the very thorny issue of the distinction between efforts to target the US market, in general, but including the forum state, and those that target a specific state, the forum state.  Perhaps the court was influenced by the fact that Chrysler Canada conceded that, during 2008 and 2009, Chrysler United States ordered 28,000 vehicles of various makes and models, including minivans, for its independently-owned dealerships in Illinois. Also, unlike some product sellers, Chrysler Canada was specifically aware of the final destination of every product (i.e., vehicle) that it assembled. Thus, according to the court, Chrysler Canada had an expectation that its products would be purchased by Illinois consumers and, given the continuous nature of its assembly relationship with Chrysler United States, its contacts with Illinois were not random, fortuitous, or attenuated.

 

Lower Courts Grapple With Nicastro Meaning

We have posted before about the thorny and important issue of U.S. courts exercising personal jurisdiction over foreign product sellers.  Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided two important personal jurisdiction cases, J.McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343, and Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76, the first high court opinions on this issue in two decades.  But because the former was a plurality decision, lower courts have continued to struggle.

In the past few weeks, two courts have confronted what type of conduct may subject a foreign product maker to personal jurisdiction.  The first today, and the second in a later post.

In Windsor v. Spinner Industry Co., No. 1:10-cv-00114 (D.Md., 10/20/11), plaintiffs alleged that the front wheel of their bicycle dislodged, causing him and his toddler son, Tyler, to be thrown to the ground. Defendant  Joy is a Taiwanese corporation that designs and manufactures bicycle components, including a mechanism called a “quick release skewer,” which is used to hold wheels in place. Plaintiffs alleged that their bicycle contained one of Joy’s quick release skewers and that a defect in the skewer contributed to the cause of their accident.

The parties agreed that Joy sells its products to distributors, manufacturers, and trading companies who then market them in every state in the U.S., but that Joy has no direct contacts with the forum state of Maryland. Plaintiffs contended that the nationwide marketing of Joy’s products by intermediaries created sufficient minimum contacts between Joy and Maryland to subject Joy to specific jurisdiction there. Joy moved to dismiss.

The district court noted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment sets the outer boundaries of state judicial authority. See Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 131 S.Ct. 2846, 2853 (2011). Consistent with due process, jurisdiction over non-resident defendants exists only to the extent that the defendants have certain minimum contacts with the state such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

Readers know that such contacts, if they exist, can give rise to one of two species of personal jurisdiction: general or specific. General jurisdiction exists where a non-resident maintains “continuous and systematic” contacts with the forum state. Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 416 (1984). Under these conditions, courts of the forum state may exercise jurisdiction over the defendant in any suit properly before them, even if the subject matter is completely unrelated to the defendant’s activities in the forum. Specific jurisdiction arises where a non-resident lacks continuous and systematic contacts with the forum, but has nonetheless purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state. Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958). Under these latter circumstances, courts of the forum state may exercise jurisdiction over the defendant only with respect to claims that arise out of the defendant’s activities in the forum.

The issue presented in this case was the extent to which a state may exercise specific jurisdiction over a non-resident manufacturer whose only connection to the forum is that its products were sold there by third-party distributors. Although the idea that jurisdiction automatically travels with the chattels has long been rejected, some courts have at times endorsed a so-called “stream of commerce” doctrine, approving the assertion of personal jurisdiction over a corporation that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum state.

The Supreme Court in  McIntyre addressed, but split, on how to handle these issues. The deciding votes were cast by Justices Breyer and Alito, who concurred in the judgment reversing the New Jersey Supreme Court. In his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer rejected the notion that a non-resident defendant could be subjected to suit in a state based solely on foreseeability, agreeing with the plurality that personal jurisdiction required purposeful availment of a particular forum. He further explained that the standard of purposeful availment,  the correct legal standard, may still require further explication in the context of modern global commerce, but that the facts of that case did not present an adequate vehicle for crafting any new rules. Although the concurrence and the plurality differed as to what might constitute “purposeful availment” in the context of national or global marketing, they both firmly embraced the continuing significance of individual state sovereignty and, on that basis, noted that specific jurisdiction must arise from a defendant’s deliberate connection with the forum state.

With that understanding, the facts alleged, even if proven, would be insufficient to demonstrate jurisdiction over Joy, said the court. First, although plaintiffs made much of the Internet marketing of Joy’s products, the web presence of Joy or its distributors in Maryland was immaterial because plaintiffs did not purchase their bicycle on the Internet. Further, plaintiffs offered no details about the particular chain of distribution that brought the allegedly defective skewer to the end seller.  At best, plaintiffs’ theory of jurisdiction amounted to no more than the “knew or should have known” standard that the Supreme Court explicitly rejected in McIntyre.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that jurisdiction was proper because certain of the manufacturers and distributors to whom Joy sold its products not only market their products in Maryland, but maintain established channels of distribution there.  The argument was that where a foreign manufacturer sells its products to large national retail chains that have an established and ongoing presence in every state in the U.S., such a relationship evinces more than the mere foreseeability, but an actual intent to serve the forum market, and hence purposeful availment. But the court found this line of reasoning indistinguishable from the clearly rejected position  that jurisdiction lies in a forum when a defendant places its product in the stream of commerce with the expectation that it will be sold there. 

State Supreme Court Directed to Reconsider Jurisdiction Over Foreign Defendant

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month instructed Oregon's supreme court to reconsider the state court's exercise of jurisdiction over a Taiwanese manufacturer.  See China Terminal & Electric Corp. v. Willemsen, No. 10-1262 (U.S.; order issued 10/3/11).

In the short order, the Court granted review, vacated the Oregon opinion denying the manufacturer's challenge to jurisdiction, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v. Nicastro.

Readers may recall from our earlier posts that Nicastro resulted in a plurality opinion which tracked Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987), and two other concurring in the notion that the foreign product manufacturer lacked sufficient minimum contacts to allow a New Jersey court to exercise jurisdiction over it, but concluding that because this case did not present the new and special issues arising from recent changes in commerce and communication, it was unnecessary to get into full analysis of the steam of commerce issue as it might be applied to 21st century marketing. Rather, the outcome of the case could be determined by the Court’s existing precedents, which have held that a single isolated sale, even if accompanied by the kind of sales effort indicated in the record in the case, is not sufficient.

The Oregon case arise from a fire allegedly caused by a battery charger manufactured by CTE, a Taiwanese company;  the battery charger was incorporated into a motorized wheelchair. Plaintiffs allege that the fire began in the chair, bacuase of a defect in the charger. CTE sought dismissal on the grounds the state court lacked personal jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion, and the Oregon Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for a writ of mandamus on the issue.

On remand, it will be interesting to see what the state court does, given what many observers see as their recent resistant approach on directions from the high Court on remands.

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Personal Jurisdiction Cases

Continuing our Supreme Court theme.  We have posted before about two cases involving personal jurisdiction over foreign corporations in state courts, now pending in SCOTUS.  McIntyre Machinery Ltd. v. Nicastro, U.S., No. 09-1343 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10); Goodyear Luxembourg Tires SA v. Brown, U.S., No. 10-76 (certiorari petition granted 9/28/10). The former involves the assertion by New Jersey courts of jurisdiction over a European manufacturer of a machine that allegedly injured a state resident; the latter involves the assertion by North Carolina courts of general jurisdiction over the European affiliates of the manufacturer of tires allegedly responsibly for a vehicle accident in Europe injuring state residents on vacation there.

NICASTRO ORAL ARGUMENT
Several members of the Supreme Court were active in questioning the advocates in the Nicastro oral argument.  The defendant kept its argument focused on the “purposeful availment” branch of the prior case law on personal jurisdiction, the rule that a foreign company needs to intentionally take advantage of doing business in a state, and arguing that it matters whether the manufacturer directed the distributor to go to a certain state or controlled the relationship with customers in that state.

Several of the justices asked hypothetical questions about a variety of fact patterns beyond those presented by the case.  As difficult as the individual case may be per se, the Court recognizes that whatever rules it lays down here will have a potentially dramatic impact on foreign and domestic corporations, including small business, and the economy. Accordingly, a number of  questions were asked to help explore how the rules might impact other factual scenarios as well. Justice Kagan asked defense counsel to explain the difference between targeting the “United States” with your product and targeting one or more individual states, and whether targeting the country meant that you were automatically targeting each state within the country. (Traditionally, of course, the case law had focused on contacts with the individual state in which the defendant was being sued.) Justice Scalia asked whether the same issue arises for a domestic corporation; that is, a U.S. manufacturer could thus be sued in every state if it simply targeted the country as a whole.

Justice Ginsburg expressed concern about the whether plaintiff would be left with no forum (other than England) if New Jersey was not available, which led to a lengthy debate about Ohio, the home of the U.S. distributor, and the importance of the distributor contract. Justice Scalia returned to the notion of targeting the country, as opposed to a state, and wondered if the federal courts could be given jurisdiction over such cases by Congress, to which Justice Kennedy wondered aloud whether it would be “odd” to have federal courts but no state courts having jurisdiction over a state law-based product claim. This even led to a brief mention of the pending foreign manufacturer legislation in Congress, which we have posted on.

Justice Sotomayor asked about the facts in the record that the English company traveled to trade shows in the U.S., “approved” the marketing efforts of the distributor, or “suggested” certain advertising, and whether that would be enough to make it reasonable to be hauled into court where the product then has been sold. (Justice Kagan later asked plaintiff’s counsel about this, seemingly trying to get at whether the manufacturer knew and expected that people from all 50 states might attend the trade shows).  Chief Justice Roberts asked plaintiff’s counsel about what a manufacturer has to do to not be targeting a specific state, getting plaintiff to concede that both intent and conduct on the part of the manufacturer is needed to purposefully avail oneself. Justice Breyer and Justice Scalia seemed to observe that “availment” doesn’t mean much at all if the conduct of the English manufacturer here was sufficient.
 

Justice Breyer expressed the policy concern about subjecting every small business, even in developing countries, to the products liability law of each of the 50 states simply because they agreed to sell to an independent company that was going to sell in the U.S. generally. Justice Kagan and Justice Ginsburg prompted plaintiff’s counsel to say that a U.S. company doing the same thing in Europe as the English company did in this case would be subject to suit in the foreign country (implying that it was fair for the U.S. courts to do to foreign companies what foreign courts allegedly do to U.S. companies abroad). Chief Justice Roberts asked a hypothetical designed to address the issue of a plaintiff who lives in state A and commutes into state B to use the product at work, and whether he can also sue in his home state A, stating that “the stream of commerce doesn’t wash over the United States evenly.”

C.J. Roberts and Justice Kagan then asked about component parts makers. Plaintiff answered that there should be a different test for a component part maker and acknowledged that mere knowledge that the part would go into a machine to be sold in the U.S. was insufficient for the exercise of jurisdiction.

Justice Alito brought up the difficult issue of Internet websites, and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kennedy all later chimed in on this topic. Plaintiff drew a distinction (as some lower courts have) between a passive website, and an active site at which a plaintiff may have conducted the transaction for the product from his home computer. Plaintiff argued that the actual conduct of the sale was purposeful availment sufficient to be hauled into court there.


BROWN ORAL ARGUMENT
The Court then heard argument in the Brown case. Here, the argument generated far fewer questions.  While Justice Ginsburg seemed to ask the defendant difficult question in the New Jersey case, here she found “troubling” the North Carolina court’s apparent and questionable blending of the concepts of general and specific jurisdiction. Indeed, the argument focused on general jurisdiction as opposed to specific jurisdiction.

Much of the early part of the argument also involved a discussion of the relationship between the foreign subsidiary defendants and the parent U.S. corporation, which here had consented to jurisdiction. There were numerous questions about the subsidiaries and parent as a joint enterprise, the parent as agent of the subsidiaries, and whether the actions of the parent could be attributed to the subsidiaries for purposes of establishing jurisdiction over the subsidiaries. Justice Sotomayor asked whether plaintiff’s argument really was nothing more than a reverse of the typical principal-agent theory.

The federal government appeared in the case as amicus curiae and argued on behalf of defendants, against the finding of jurisdiction. It argued that even if the contacts of the parent could be attributed to the subsidiaries, those contacts still did not rise to the level necessary for the finding of general jurisdiction; and that the consent to jurisdiction of the parent would not extend to every corporation in the corporate family. Justice Scalia, in particular, seemed to be expressing some doubt that the level of coordination between the defendants demonstrated a unitary enterprise. The last part of the argument concerned policy issues, such as whether the finding of jurisdiction would cause companies to move all operations out of the U.S. for fear that even the actions of a separate entity in the corporate family would keep them in the U.S. courts.

Both cases were submitted for consideration, with decisions expected late in the spring of 2011.

Federal Court Rejects Nicastro Analysis of Personal Jurisdicition

We don't often post on orders denying a motion for reconsideration, but it's worth noting that a federal trial court recently reaffirmed its earlier rulings of lack of personal jurisdiction in a products case.  Leja v. Schmidt Manufacturing Inc., No. 01-5042, (D.N.J. 10/19/10).  The court, in so doing, questioned the reasoning of the New Jersey Supreme Court opinion on personal jurisdiction that was recently accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Nicastro v. McIntyre Machinery America Ltd., 987 A.2d 575 (N.J. 2010).

In the underlying industrial accident, plaintiff alleged he suffered severe injuries when he attempted to open a bulk sandblasting unit manufactured by Schmidt while it was still pressurized. The machine was custom-built by Schmidt Co. for the Sylvan Equipment Corporation, which acts as a machinery distributor and has its primary place of business in New York. In doing so, Schmidt assembled various component parts that were produced by other manufacturers. Included among those parts was a "camlock closure," which was designed and manufactured by yet another company, Sypris, a Kentucky company.  This was the allegedly defective part.

Sylvan leased the machine to L&L Painting Company, a New York company, for use in the removal of paint from bridges. When it proved inadequate for that task, Sylvan took the machine back from L&L and sold it to plaintiff's employer, the West Virginia Paint and Tank Company. The day of the accident, Mr. Leja attempted to open the camlock closure without first releasing the pressure inside the machine by activating the blow-down valve. The result was that pressure stored inside the machine apparently caused an explosion that propelled the lid off.

Plaintiff sued manufacturer Schmidt in state court, who removed to federal court and brought in component part maker Sypris. Arguing that it lacked the minimum contacts with New Jersey necessary for the court to exercise jurisdiction, Sypris moved to dismiss the third-party claims asserted against it by Schmidt pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2).

In its original ruling, the court granted granted the motion.  In doing so, it first distinguished between the two types of personal jurisdiction – specific and general – stating that specific personal jurisdiction would exist if the cause of action arises out of or is related to Sypris's contacts with New Jersey. Sypris' conduct and connection with New Jersey must be such that it could reasonably anticipate being haled into court here. World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980). Additionally, Sypris must have purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum state, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.

Where the cause of action does not arise out of the defendant's forum activities, a court may exercise another variety of personal jurisdiction known as general personal jurisdiction, if the defendant has engaged in “continuous and systematic” contacts with the state, here New Jersey. Such general jurisdiction requires “a very high threshold of business activity.”

In this case, the court had previously found that the cause of action did not arise out of, and was not related to, Sypris' contacts with New Jersey. Sypris did not purposefully sell or direct the top closure, which allegedly caused the injuries, to New Jersey. In fact, the Sandblaster to which the part was attached arrived in New Jersey only after multiple transactions and travels to interim locations outside of New Jersey. The travels and eventual resting place of the Sandblaster in New Jersey was not the result of Sypris' purposeful conduct. Rather, the eventual sale of the Sandblaster to plaintiff's employer in New Jersey was a “random, fortuitous, or attenuated contact” that was insufficient to exercise specific personal jurisdiction.

As to general jurisdiction, the court had found that Sypris had no daily or regular contact with New Jersey that was central to the functioning of its business.  The percentage and absolute amount of sales to New Jersey is generally irrelevant.  Rather, the focus of analysis should be on whether the nature of defendant's contacts with the forum state was central to the conduct of its business, and here they were not. All of the defendant's activities were better characterized as sporadic, intermittent contacts rather than substantial and continuous.

Then along comes Nicastro.  The motion for reconsideration relied on Nicastro's holding that: the stream-of-commerce theory supports the exercise of jurisdiction if the manufacturer knew or reasonably should have known of the distribution system through which its products were being sold in the forum state. According to the NJ Supreme Court, due process permits the state to provide a judicial forum for its citizens who are injured by dangerous and defective products placed in the stream of commerce by a foreign manufacturer that has targeted a geographical market that includes New Jersey.  Here, Sypris had stipulated during the prior proceedings that it was aware that Schmidt generally distributed its machines throughout the nation.

There were procedural problems with the motion, and in addition, on the issue of the "intervening law," the court noted that the question of whether New Jersey's long-arm statute allows this federal court to assert personal jurisdiction over Sypris turns on the interpretation of the United States Constitution – an area that is uniquely the province of the federal courts.

On the merits of the reconsideration argument, the court said that the NJ holding was at odds with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States in World-Wide Volkswagen and Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).  The former ruled that, “the foreseeability that is critical to due process analysis is not the mere likelihood that a product will find its way into the forum State. Rather, it is that the defendant's conduct and connection with the forum State are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.”  World-Wide Volkswagen, 444 U.S. at 297. The mere foreseeability that a product one sells may end up in the forum state does not render the seller amenable to suit in the forum state.  Justice Brennan's opinion in Asahi – the less restrictive of the two plurality decisions in that case – included a similar requirement, stating that the stream of commerce theory only creates personal jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer if it “delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum State.” Asahi, 480 U.S. at 119-20. In doing so, Justice Brennan noted the contrast between “the foreseeability of litigation in a State to which a consumer fortuitously transports a defendant's product (insufficient contacts) and the foreseeability of litigation in a State where the defendant's product was regularly sold (sufficient contacts).”

The court concluded that this case falls under the “insufficient contacts” category identified by Justice Brennan in Asahi, and the fortuitous series of events by which the machine found its way to New Jersey is illustrative of that point. In light of the fact that Sypris custom-built the type of closure at issue in this case according to Schmidt's specifications and did not sell similar closures to other manufacturers, Sypris cannot be said to have introduced those closures “into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they w[ould] be purchased by consumers” in New Jersey. See Asahi, 480 U.S. at 119-20. Therefore, the court reaffirmed its earlier rulings that it lacked specific personal jurisdiction over Sypris, and the Motion for Reconsideration was denied.

We will see if the Supreme Court agrees as it reviews Nicastro directly.

 

Second Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Alien Tort Statute Claim Against Corporate Defendants

A federal appeals court last week dismissed claims that defendants including Royal Dutch Shell PLC aided alleged human rights abuses in Nigeria, ruling that corporations cannot be found liable under the Alien Tort Statute.  See Kiobel, et al. v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. et al., No. 06-cv-4800 (2d Cir., Sept. 17, 2010).

Plaintiffs asserted claims for aiding and abetting violations of the law of nations against defendants —all of which are corporations— under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”), 28 U.S.C. § 1350,
a statute enacted by the first Congress as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789. The court called it a jurisdictional provision unlike any other in American law and of a kind apparently unknown to any other legal system in the world. The ATS laid largely dormant for over 170 years. Judge Friendly called it a “legal Lohengrin” since “no one seems to know whence it came.”  

Then, in the early 1980's, the statute was given new life, when courts first recognized that the ATS provides jurisdiction over (1) tort actions, (2) brought by aliens (only), (3) for violations of the law of nations (also called “customary international law,” 3) including, as a general matter, war crimes and crimes against humanity—crimes in which the perpetrator can be called “hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.” Since that time, the ATS has given rise to an abundance of litigation in U.S. district courts. For most of that time, aliens brought ATS suits in U.S. courts only against notorious foreign individuals.  This case involved one of the key unresolved issues since the ATS was reinvigorated: Does the jurisdiction granted by the ATS extend to civil actions brought against corporations under the law of nations?

Plaintiffs were residents of Nigeria who claimed that Dutch, British, and Nigerian corporations engaged in oil exploration and production aided and abetted the Nigerian government in
committing violations of the law of nations. Their suit could proceed only if the ATS provides jurisdiction over tort actions brought against corporations under customary international law.  The district court dismissed the claim, and the Second Circuit reviewed de novo the dismissal for failure to state a claim, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), assuming all well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegations in the complaint to be true.  The court noted that the substantive law that  determines jurisdiction under the ATS is neither the domestic law of the United States nor the domestic law of any other country.  By conferring subject matter jurisdiction over a limited number of offenses defined by international law, the ATS requires federal courts to look beyond rules of domestic law —however well-established they may be— to examine the specific and universally accepted rules that the nations of the world treat as binding in their dealings with one another.  The ATS thus leaves the question of the nature and scope of liability —who is liable for what— to customary international law.  Whether a defendant is liable under the ATS depends entirely upon whether that defendant is subject to liability under international law. It is inconceivable, said the court of appeals, that a defendant who is not liable under customary international law could be liable under the ATS. 

Customary international law includes only those standards, rules or customs affecting the relationship between states or between an individual and a foreign state, and used by those states for their common good and/or in dealings inter se.  The Second Circuit concluded, after exhaustive review, that the principle of individual liability for violations of international law has been limited to natural persons —not “juridical” persons such as corporations— because the moral responsibility for a crime so heinous and unbounded as to rise to the level of an “international crime” has rested solely with the individual men and women who have perpetrated it. Quoting the Nuremberg tribunal's explanation for individual liability for violations of international law:  “Crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.”  Indeed, said the Second Circuit, international law has steadfastly rejected the notion of corporate liability for international crimes, and no international tribunal has ever held a corporation liable for a violation of the law of nations.

The court concluded, therefore, that insofar as plaintiffs were bringing claims under the ATS against corporations, the plaintiffs failed to allege violations of the law of nations, and plaintiffs’ claims fell outside the limited jurisdiction provided by the ATS.

The majority felt the need to address the lengthy, and surprisingly strident, dissent.  The majority observed that the responsibility of establishing a norm of customary international law lies with those wishing to invoke it, and in the absence of sources of international law endorsing (or refuting) a norm, the norm simply cannot be applied in a suit grounded on customary international law under the ATS. Thus, even if there were, as the dissent argued, an absence of sources of international law addressing corporate liability, that supposed lack of authority would actually support the majority holding.  As it happens, no corporation has ever been subject to any form of liability under the customary international law of human rights, and thus the ATS, the remedy Congress has chosen, simply does not confer jurisdiction over suits against corporations.

The majority also noted the "passion" with which the dissent disagreed with the holding, as it called the majority “illogical” on nine separate occasions, “strange,” and “internally inconsistent.”  More than 200 years ago, Chief Justice John Marshall began the practice of announcing the judgment of the Supreme Court in a single opinion. This, in turn, led to formal dissenting opinions, which can serve a valuable purpose in the law. But one of the most famous dissents in legal history was by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), when a majority of the Court struck down a state regulation limiting the hours someone could work in a bakery. The dissent began with a different tone: "I regret sincerely that I am unable to agree with the judgment in this case and that I think it my duty to express my dissent." Id. at 65.  Not quite the approach here.

 

CAFA Jurisdiction Not Ousted By Plaintiffs Dropping Class Allegation

Readers know that the Class Action Fairness Act expanded federal jurisdiction over certain class actions.  An interesting set of issues has arisen over whether and when federal jurisdiction remains after class proceedings take a turn. In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit held that CAFA jurisdiction survives even after class allegations are removed from the complaint.  In re Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Corp., 2010 WL 1980172 (7th Cir., 5/19/10).

Plaintiffs were a class of local property owners who filed a complaint in Wisconsin state court against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company. They alleged that BNSF's failure to inspect and maintain a railroad trestle caused their town to flood in July 2007, damaging their property. Defendants removed. After the district court denied a remand motion, plaintiffs asked for leave to amend their complaint to omit the class allegations. The district court allowed the amendment, noting that it would streamline the litigation. The court also construed the plaintiffs' motion as an implied motion to remand the case, which it granted. The district court explained that its revised jurisdictional analysis was based on the amended complaint, and that since the new complaint did not contain class allegations, it did not provide jurisdiction under CAFA.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed: jurisdiction under CAFA is secure, even though, after removal, the plaintiffs amend their complaint to eliminate the class allegations. The well-established general rule is that jurisdiction is determined at the time of removal, and nothing filed after removal affects jurisdiction. CAFA is, at base, an extension of diversity jurisdiction. Even in cases filed originally in federal court, later changes that compromise diversity do not destroy jurisdiction.

The court also analogized to its recent conclusion in Cunningham Charter Corp. v. Learjet, Inc., 592 F.3d 805 (7th Cir.2010). The court there held that in a case removed under CAFA, jurisdiction survives even if the district court denies class certification. Id. at 806-07; see also United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Indus. & Serv. Workers Int'l Union, AFL-CIO, CLC v. Shell Oil Co., 2010 WL 1571190, at *3-4 (9th Cir. Apr.21, 2010).  CAFA jurisdiction attaches when a case is filed as a class action; keeping the case in federal court after removal minimizes the expense and delay caused by shuttling a case from court to court and furthers CAFA's purpose of allowing putative class actions to be litigated in federal court.

When the post-removal change is not the district court's denial of class certification but is instead the plaintiffs' decision not to pursue class certification, the same considerations of expense and delay apply, said the court.  In addition, allowing plaintiffs to "amend away" CAFA jurisdiction after removal would present a significant risk of forum manipulation. CAFA's legislative history reflects an awareness of the latter concern, citing the existing rule that jurisdiction cannot be ousted by later events.  Otherwise plaintiffs who believed the tide was turning against them could simply  amend their complaint months (or even years) into the litigation to require remand to state court.  See S.Rep. No. 109-14, at 70-71 (2005).

  

Companion Bill Introduced To Ease Suits Against Foreign Manufacturers

Previously we alerted readers to the introduction of The Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2009 (S. 1606),  introduced in the Senate in August 2009 by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). The bill followed up on hearings last Spring during which witnesses testified about the perceived delays and difficulties with serving foreign manufacturers with process and establishing jurisdiction.

Last week, Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and several co-sponsors introduced in the House their own version of the Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2010 (H.R. 4678). The operative provisions of the House bill overlap those in the Senate bill, although the Senate bill also includes a section which discusses the alleged need for the legislation.

The proposed legislation would impact five categories of products: drugs, devices and cosmetics; biological products; chemical substances; pesticides; and consumer products. The bills only apply to manufactured products “in excess of a minimum value or quantity established by the head of the applicable agency" in regulations applying the legislation.

Both bills make consent to jurisdiction and service of process a condition of importing products into the United States. That is, the bills instruct several relevant product-regulating agencies to issue regulations requiring foreign manufacturers and producers to designate a registered agent. A person would not be able to import into the United States a covered product (or component part that will be used in the United States to manufacture a covered product) if such product or any part of such product (or component part) was manufactured or produced outside the United States by a manufacturer or producer who does not have a registered agent. 

Such a system which requiring an agent for service of process for every foreign manufacturer or producer who imports products into the U.S. would render the Hague Convention's  methods for service abroad unnecessary for such companies, and raises the risk that other countries may choose to create similar rules, subjecting U.S. companies to litigation in those other countries where their products may be sold.

Under the bills, a foreign manufacturer or producer of covered products that registers an agent as above thereby consents to the personal jurisdiction of the State or Federal courts of the State in which the registered agent is located for the purpose of any civil or regulatory proceeding.  Presumably, the expanded jurisdiction would also make it easier for U.S. companies to pursue indemnification claims against foreign manufacturers who were upstream suppliers.

Currently, foreseeing that one's product may enter a state is not, on its own, a sufficient basis for that state to assert jurisdiction. Asahi Metal Industry Co., Ltd. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102, 112(1987); but cf. Nicastro v. McIntyre Machinery America Ltd., No. A-29-08 (N.J. 2/2/10).  It has been argued that Congress cannot create jurisdiction where the Constitution would forbid it. And it may be that a constitutional challenge would lie to some applications of the proposed bills. E.g., Texas Trading & Milling Corp. v. Federal Republic of Nigeria, 647 F.2d 300 (2d Cir. 1981). Presumably, the sponsors are looking to bypass the due process concerns by providing for consent to jurisdiction.

It is unclear what the effect of the bills might be on countries around the world regarding their willingness to enforce judgments entered in the United States, as the issue of the lack of foreign manufacturer assets in the U.S. is not addressed by the proposed legislation.


 

 

State Supreme Court Issues Noteworthy Personal Jurisdiction Opinion

The New Jersey Supreme Court has recently ruled that a New Jersey court can exercise jurisdiction in a product liability action over a foreign manufacturer based on the manufacturer's relationship with a nationwide distributor and on its presence at national trade shows. Nicastro v. McIntyre Machinery America Ltd.,  No. A-29-08 (N.J. 2/2/10).

Personal jurisdiction addresses the reach of the court’s power over a party, and without such jurisdiction, any ruling by the court is not binding on the party. Plaintiff lawyers focus on personal jurisdiction as part of the equation where they can sue; defendants as part of where they can be sued properly. The rules governing personal jurisdiction are well described in numerous reference works. As a general matter, a defendant can only be sued where it has sufficient minimum contacts with the state such that a suit there does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.

In 2001, plaintiff was injured while operating the McIntyre Model 640 Shear, a recycling machine used to cut metal. The Model 640 Shear was manufactured by J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd., a company incorporated in the United Kingdom, and then sold, through its exclusive United States distributor, McIntyre Machinery America, to the employer.  Plaintiff sued, alleging that the shear machine was defective in that it did not have a safety guard that allegedly would have prevented the accident. The trial court granted the foreign defendant's motion to dismiss the action, finding that the English manufacturer did not have sufficient minimum contacts with New Jersey to justify the state’s exercise of personal jurisdiction. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the exercise of jurisdiction by New Jersey “would not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” and was justified “under the ‘stream-of-commerce plus’ rationale."  Under that test, the actions of a defendant must be “purposefully directed toward the forum State” for a court of that state to exercise personal jurisdiction. Acknowledging that the English company had no presence in, or minimum contacts with, New Jersey, the state Supreme Court said plaintiff's argument for jurisdiction “must sink or swim with the stream-of-commerce theory of jurisdiction.”
 

New Jersey has a long-arm rule that permits service of process on a non-resident defendant “consistent with due process of law.”  Therefore, its courts may exercise jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant “to the uttermost limits permitted by the United States Constitution.” The Supreme Court seemed influenced by the view  that we live in a global marketplace. It also noted that a state has a strong interest in protecting its citizens from defective products as well as a paramount interest in ensuring a forum for its injured citizens who have suffered catastrophic
injuries due to allegedly defective products in the workplace. While its conception of jurisdiction must surely comport with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice, the court noted it must also reflect modern truths – the radical transformation of the international economy.

Accordingly, the court held that a foreign manufacturer will be subject to this state’s jurisdiction if it knows or reasonably should know that through its distribution scheme its products are being sold in New Jersey. A manufacturer that knows or reasonably should know that its products are distributed through a nationwide distribution system that might lead to those products being sold in any of the fifty states must expect that it will be subject to the state’s jurisdiction if one of its defective products is sold to a New Jersey consumer, causing injury. The focus under this approach is not on the manufacturer’s control of the distribution scheme, but rather on the manufacturer’s knowledge of the distribution scheme through which it is receiving economic benefits in each state where its products are sold. A manufacturer cannot shield itself merely by employing an independent distributor – a middleman – knowing the predictable route the product will take to market. If a manufacturer does not want to subject itself to the jurisdiction of a New Jersey court while targeting the United States market, then, the court said, it must take some reasonable step to prevent the distribution of its products in that state.

The power of the state to subject a person or business to the jurisdiction of its courts has evolved with the changing nature of the American economy, said the court. As the nation is part of a global economy driven by startling advances in the transportation of products and people and instantaneous dissemination of information, the expanding reach of a state court’s jurisdiction, as permitted by due process, has reflected those historical developments.

The stream-of-commerce doctrine of jurisdiction is particularly suitable in product-liability actions, opined the court. It will not necessarily be a substitute for other jurisdictional doctrines -- such as minimum contacts -- that will apply in contract and other types of cases. Within the confines of due process, jurisdictional doctrines must reflect the economic and social realities of the day. The exercise of jurisdiction by New Jersey in this case was called "a reasoned response" to the globalization of commerce that permits foreign manufacturers to market their products through distribution systems that bring those products into the state. With the privilege of distributing products to consumers comes the responsibility of answering in a New Jersey court if one of those consumers is injured by a defective product, concluded the majority.

A lengthy dissent argued that the majority had ignored the fact that the original stream of commerce idea had included the element of a manufacturer's expectation that its products will be purchased in the forum state.  It also criticized an apparent shift in focus from the defendant to the plaintiff, including the severity of injuries.

The majority's test may come to have implications for manufacturers selling to other states as well, outside New Jersey. Many foreign and out-of-state manufacturers reasonably should know that their products are distributed through a nationwide system that might result in sales in any given state. It is quite possible the U.S. Supreme Court will want to clarify the reach of the so-called stream of commerce test, which was mentioned in Justice O’Connor’s plurality opinion in
Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987).

Supreme Court Clarifies Definition of "Principal Place of Business"

Our readers know a crucial early decision for defendants in cases brought in state court is whether to seek to remove the case to federal court.   In a decision that will impact when corporations can remove litigation to federal court based on diversity, the Supreme Court this week adopted a new test of corporate citizenship. Hertz Corp. v. Melinda Friend, et al., No. 08-1107 (S.Ct. 2/23/10).

Plaintiffs, California citizens, sued Hertz Corporation in a California state court.  Hertz sought removal to the federal district court, claiming that because it and plaintiffs were citizens of different states, the federal court had diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiffs, however, claimed that Hertz was a California citizen, like themselves, and that, hence, diversity jurisdiction was lacking under §1332(c)(1), which provides that “a corporation shall be deemed to be a citizen of any State by which it has been incorporated and of the State where it has its principal place of business.”

To show that its “principal place of business” was in New Jersey, not California, Hertz submitted a declaration stating, among other things, that it operated facilities in 44 States, that California accounted for only a portion of its business activity, that its leadership is at its corporate headquarters in New Jersey, and that its core executive and administrative functions are primarily carried out there. The district court concluded that it lacked diversity jurisdiction because Hertz was a California citizen under Ninth Circuit precedent, which asked, instead, whether the amount of the corporation’s business activity is “significantly larger” or “substantially predominates” in one state.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the phrase “principal place of business” has proven difficult to apply.  Lower courts were at times uncertain as to where to look to determine a corporation’s “principal place of business” for diversity purposes. If a corporation’s headquarters and executive offices were in the same state in which it did most of its business, the test seemed straightforward. But if those corporate headquarters, including executive offices, were in one state, while the corporation’s plants or other centers of business activity were located in other states, the answer was less obvious. In particular, courts have had difficulty when a corporation’s operations are not far-flung but rather limited to only a few states. When faced with this question, various federal courts have focused more heavily on where a corporation’s actual business activities are located, adopting divergent and increasingly complex tests to interpret the statute.

In an effort to find a single, more uniform interpretation of the statutory phrase, the Supreme Court returned to the “nerve center” approach under which a “principal place of business” is best read as referring to the place where a corporation’s officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation’s activities. In practice it should normally be the place where the corporation maintains its headquarters — provided that the headquarters is the actual center of direction, control, and coordination, i.e., the “nerve center,” and not simply an office where the corporation holds its board meetings.

Among the considerations that convinced the Court that the “nerve center” approach, while admittedly imperfect, was superior to other possibilities:  first was the statutory language which uses the word “place” in the singular, not plural, and refers to a place within a state, not the state itself.  This rules out those lower court tests that look not at a particular place within a state, but incorrectly at the state itself, measuring the total amount of business activities that the corporation conducts there and determining whether they are significantly larger than in the next-ranking state.

Second, administrative simplicity is a major virtue in a jurisdictional statute. A “nerve center” approach is simple to apply, comparatively speaking. MassTortDefense agrees that a clear rule -- predictability -- is something the business community has been looking for.  Greater predictability may assist businesses in making investment and other financial decisions.  The new rule may also reduce the need for extensive and expensive jurisdictional discovery.

The Court admitted that while there may be no perfect test that satisfies all administrative and policy criteria, this test is relatively easier to apply. The Court warned that if the record reveals attempts at jurisdictional manipulation -- for example, that the alleged “nerve center” is nothing more than a mail drop box, a bare office with a computer, or the location of an annual executive retreat -- the courts should instead take as the “nerve center” the place of actual direction, control, and coordination, in the absence of such manipulation.

7th Circuit Weighs In on CAFA Issue

The Seventh Circuit recently issued a decision clarifying an issue under the Class Action Fairness Act:  when the federal court denies class certification in a case in federal court because of CAFA, does that divest the court of jurisdiction?  The court of appeals reversed an Illinois district court ruling that a failed class action lost jurisdiction, ruling that the lower court misinterpreted CAFA. Cunningham Charter Corp., et al. v. LearJet Inc., No 09-8042 (7th Cir., Jan. 22, 2010).

Cunningham sued Learjet in an Illinois state court asserting claims for breach of warranty and products liability on behalf of itself and all other buyers of Learjets who had received the same warranty from the manufacturer that Cunningham had received. The defendant removed the
case to federal district court under CAFA. Eventually, the district judge denied the motion on the ground that neither proposed class satisfied the criteria for certification set forth in Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The judge then ruled that the denial of class certification
eliminated subject-matter jurisdiction under the Act, and so he remanded the case to the state court.

The 7th Circuit, per Judge Posner, disagreed.  the court offered some context, a textual explanation, and policy reasons. The general principle that jurisdiction once properly invoked is not lost by developments after a suit is filed, such as a change in the state of which a party is a citizen that destroys diversity. E.g., St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 293-95 (1938). That general principle was applicable to this case because no one suggests that a class action must be certified before it can be removed to federal court under the Act.  Cases should not be shunted between court systems; "itigation is not ping-pong."

Text: The Act defines class action as “any civil action filed under rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure or similar State statute or rule of judicial procedure authorizing an action to be brought by 1 or more representative persons as a class action.” § 1332(d)(1)(B). No requirement of certification.

Policy: If a state happened to have different criteria for certifying a class from those of Rule 23, the result of a remand because of the federal court’s refusal to certify the class could be that the case would continue as a class action in state court. That result would be contrary to the Act’s purpose of relaxing the requirement of complete diversity of citizenship so that class actions involving
incomplete diversity can be litigated in federal court.

In finding that federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act does not depend on certification, the court joined Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1268 n. 12 (11th Cir. 2009).

Judge Posner concluded, that  is the better interpretation." See Richardson, “Class Dismissed, Now What? Exploring the Exercise of CAFA Jurisdiction After the Denial of Class Certification,” 39
New Mex. L. Rev. 121, 135 (2009); Clermont, “Jurisdictional Fact,” 91 Cornell L. Rev. 973, 1015-17
(2006).

 

 

Rule 15 Amendments May Impact Removal Prospects

Readers of MassTortDefense know how important the choice of forum can be for significant product liability and mass tort matters.  The differences between federal and state court -- perhaps right down the street from each other -- can be huge, with differing juror pools, differing procedural rules, differing views on class actions, different methods of selecting the judiciary, etc.

Thus, it is worth making sure a subtle amendment to Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which took effect Dec. 1, 2009, does not miss your attention, because of the potential impact it has on removal to federal court.

Prior to the amendments to Rule 15 — which governs amended and supplemental pleadings —  a plaintiff could amend the complaint once as a matter of course before any responsive pleading was filed.  Responsive pleading came to mean the defendant’s answer, and not a motion to dismiss.  E.g., Foster v. DeLuca, 545 F.3d 582 (7th Cir. 2008).  Thus, a defendant could eliminate the plaintiff’s right to amend as a matter of course by serving an answer.  That is, under the old version of Rule 15, a defendant could prevent amendments designed to eliminate the basis for removal by serving an answer just prior to or along with the filing of the notice of removal. When a plaintiff wanted to amend after the defendant had removed and answered, the plaintiff had to obtain consent or leave of court. So what about the removal, then? Any proposed amendment to the complaint affecting the court’s jurisdiction would trigger a heightened scrutiny of the amendment.  E.g., Hensgens v. Deere & Co., 833 F.2d 1179 (5th Cir. 1987). Defendants could argue that the  proposed amendment should be rejected on this basis. 

The new Rule 15 permits a plaintiff to amend “as a matter of course” even after the defendant has served “a responsive pleading.”  A party may file an amended pleading without leave of court within 21 days after service of a responsive pleading or 21 days after service of a Rule 12 motion, whichever is earlier. After that, a party may file an amended pleading only with leave of court. 

That raises the issue for your consideration whether the new ability of the plaintiff to amend “as a matter of course,” even after the defendant has served an answer, permits the plaintiff to make one of those jurisdiction-destroying amendments.  One possibility is that courts will look at "matter of course" amendments under the new rule the same way they were analyzed by many courts under the old rule.  That is, courts were guided by 28 U.S.C. § 1447(e), which states that if after removal the plaintiff seeks to join additional defendants whose joinder would destroy subject matter jurisdiction, the court may deny joinder, or permit joinder and remand the action to the state court. Schur v. L.A. Weight Loss Centers, Inc., 577 F.3d 752, 759 (7th Cir. 2009); Whitworth v. TNT Bestway Transp. Inc., 914 F.Supp. 1434 (E.D.Tex.,1996).  Courts, in the motion for leave context and sometimes in the "as of course" context as well, to decide between those two choices, would scrutinize the amendments closely, and due consideration is given to the original defendant’s interest in the choice of forum. Courts examine whether the purpose of the amendment is to defeat federal jurisdiction; how timely/prompt the plaintiff has been in seeking the amendment; whether the plaintiff will be prejudiced if amendment is not allowed; and any other equities. Bailey v. Bayer CropScience L.P., 563 F.3d 302 (8th Cir. 2009).

If this heightened scrutiny is applied to "matter of course" amendments made under the new version of Rule 15, removals may be in less jeopardy when when a plaintiff attempts to amend the complaint post-removal, post-answer  “as a matter of course.”

BPA Litigation Update- Part I

In the BPA MDL, Judge Ortrie D. Smith granted in part and denied in part defendants’ motions to dismiss various claims. In re: Bispehnol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1967 (W.D. Mo.).

Readers of MassTortDefense will recall that last year the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized fourteen cases; since then, the Panel has continued to transfer cases from around the country, so now about thirty-eight cases have been transferred. In addition, approximately ten cases have been filed in the MDL District and have become part of the consolidation. Defendants roughly fall into two categories: the Bottle Defendants and the Formula Defendants. Generally, the Bottle Defendants make baby bottles, sippy cups and similar products for infants and toddlers, and/or sport bottles. The Formula Defendants sell infant formula packaged in metal cans.

Most of the complaints assert, on behalf of consumers, various causes of action including: (1) violation of state consumer protection laws, (2) breach of express warranty, (3) breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, (4) intentional misrepresentation, (5) negligent misrepresentation, and (6) unjust enrichment.

In one Order the court began by addressing the motions to dismiss claims for fraud, misrepresentation and breach of express warranties. The MDL court had previously, mindful of Rule 9, required plaintiffs to identify defendants’ alleged statements that form the basis for their claims of fraud, misrepresentation, and breach of express warranties. Plaintiffs’ continued failure to do so was, said the court, now fatal to these claims. Likely because they were unable to comply, and perhaps because they recognized what compliance would do to their already slim chances for class certification (because of the individual issues that a response would highlight), plaintiffs responded to the aforementioned requirement by saying that they had not identified any advertisements or other media because the allegations are not based on any particular representations. A misrepresentation claim not based on any misrepresentation. Rather, plaintiffs’ allegations are based on defendants’ supposed “overall course of conduct” in marketing and selling the products at issue. Taken as a whole, defendants’ alleged “overall course of conduct” somehow deceptively conveyed the impression or message that the products at issue are safe and healthy for use by infants and children.

By disclaiming reference to any particular fraudulent act, plaintiffs had disclaimed one of the essential elements of a fraud or misrepresentation claim. All states require proof of reliance and causation. For a statement to be relied upon and thus cause a purchaser’s injury, the statement must have been heard by the purchaser. Plaintiffs’ theory – that the placement of a product in a stream of commerce alone somehow conveys a sufficient representation about the product’s safety that can serve as grounds for fraud liability – is a rule that has not been demonstrated to exist in any of the fifty states.

Allowing the mere sale of products to convey an affirmative representation regarding safety would eviscerate the law of warranty and be contrary to the rationale supporting the limited circumstances in which actions constitute representations, noted the court.  Plaintiffs’ failure to identify any expressions made by defendants to them about their products precludes any claim that an express warranty was made, let alone violated. Given the absence of any “affirmation of fact or promise,” (see UCC Article 2-313), plaintiffs cannot allege an express warranty was made. The Supreme Court’s decision in Iqbal requires a plaintiff to identify the basis for, if not the content of, the alleged warranty. And, in a related issue, plaintiffs’ were thus unable to allege how the supposed, non-existent, warranties became “part of the basis of the bargain.”  A representation cannot be part of the “bargain” if the other party to the bargain did not know the representation was made! Merely alleging a representation became part of the bargain does not satisfy Iqbal. If one party (here, the buyer) is not aware of the statement, that party cannot claim the statement became a part of the parties’ bargain.

The court declined to dismiss the claims for fraudulent omissions, based on what it called a “common-sense” view of Rule 9 under which it was unnecessary to require plaintiffs to specifically identify who failed to disclose information and each occasion upon which they failed to disclose it. Rule 9 is satisfied, said the court, with respect to a claim of fraudulent omissions if the omitted information is identified and “how or when” the concealment occurred.

The claim for breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose was dismissed because while the ordinary purpose for baby bottles can be described as to allow babies and toddlers to drink liquids, a plaintiff cannot rely on this ordinary purpose to support a claim that there was a warranty of fitness for a particular purpose; they must point to some other purpose that is not “ordinary” in order to support their claim.

The court put off ruling on the claims for breach of the implied warranty of merchantability because defendants’ arguments (including lack of privity, untimeliness, and failure to provide notice), seemed premised on the unique characteristics of various states’ laws. Thus, they seemed more amenable to analysis at the time of any class certification decision, which will inevitably raise choice of law issues. A similar deferral was applied to dismissal of all unjust enrichment claims. Many of defendants’ arguments seemed to depend on unique aspects of various states’ laws, found the court.

Defendants also made a strong argument that the claims, at bottom, were improper “no injury” claims. The court agreed as to the category of plaintiffs who disposed of or used up the products before learning about BPA. They received all the benefits they desired and were unaffected by defendants’ alleged concealment. Importantly, the court recognized that while they may contend they would not have purchased the goods had they known more about BPA, these plaintiffs received 100% use (and benefit) from the products and have no quantifiable damages. In this instance, plaintiffs’ position “leads to absurd results.”  These buyers obtained the full anticipated benefit of the bargain. While they may not have paid the asking price, had they allegedly known, offset against this is the fact that they received the full benefits paid for – leaving them with no damages. Plaintiffs here may allege they would not have purchased those products had they supposedly known the true facts, but, again, they obtained full use of those products before learning the truth: the formula was consumed or the children grew to an age where they did not use bottles and sippy cups, so they were discarded. These consumers thus obtained full value from their purchase and have not suffered any damage. These plaintiffs are relegated to the unjust enrichment claim.

The court distinguished, however, those plaintiffs who learned about BPA’s presence and potential effects and either still have the goods or subsequently replaced or disposed of them. Defendants’ argument does not apply to this category, found the court.

That left before the court only plaintiffs’ claims that defendants made fraudulent omissions, violated various state consumer protection statutes, breached the implied warranty of merchantability, and that defendants were unjustly enriched. With these remaining claims pending, the court, in a second order, granted in part defendants’ motion to dismiss on the basis of preemption and denied their motion to dismiss on the ground of primary jurisdiction.

Defendants’ preemption and primary jurisdiction arguments were generally alike in that they both contend their use of BPA should only be subject to regulation by the FDA. Indeed, FDA has issued regulations prescribing the conditions for “safe” use of resinous and polymeric coatings, allowing the coatings to be formulated from “optional substances” that may include “[e]poxy resins” containing BPA. Thus, BPA’s presence in some resinous and polymeric coatings and in polycarbonate resins is subject to regulation by the FDA. It is also a fair reading of FDA’s regulations authorizing BPA’s use that the FDA thinks that food additives containing BPA could be used safely without labeling requirements.

The doctrine of primary jurisdiction applies when enforcement of a claim that is originally cognizable in the courts requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body. The FDA clearly has specialized expertise and experience to determine whether BPA is “safe.” However, said the court, the ultimate issues in these cases, as alleged by plaintiffs, are whether defendants failed to disclose material facts to plaintiffs and thus, for example, whether defendants breached the implied warranty of merchantability through the sale of products containing BPA. FDA’s decision that BPA is “safe” is not determinative of any of those issues, said the court. This conclusion seemed to give insufficient attention, in our view, to the argument that plaintiffs have predicated their claims on proof that BPA is allegedly unsafe: the undisclosed facts are not material unless BPA is not safe. The products are not unmerchantable unless BPA is unsafe, Since plaintiffs base their claims on such evidence, the claims seemed to fall within the primary jurisdiction of the FDA.  The MDL court did not agree.

Turning to the preemption issue, the court first rejected the claim of implied preemption. While noting that FDA has approved BPA use in food additives and noting the agency’s decision not to require labeling, the court concluded that the FDA’s approval of BPA as safe without labeling requirements establishes only a regulatory minimum; nothing in these regulations either required or prohibited defendants from providing the disclosures sought. The court cited Wyeth v. Levine for the proposition that that there is no preemption when federal law did not prevent the drug manufacturer from strengthening its drug label as necessary to comply with the standard to be imposed by state law.

However, the Formula Defendants also raised express preemption; they asserted that the FDA regulations exempt Formula Defendants from having to disclose the presence of BPA in their products. Express preemption exists when a federal law explicitly prohibits state regulation in a particular field. With respect to food labeling, federal law generally prohibits states from establishing any differing requirements for the labeling of food. Thus, plaintiffs’ claims are expressly preempted because they would impose disclosure requirements concerning BPA, the exact opposite of the exemption. Now, here is the interesting twist: plaintiffs asserted that Congress also provided an exception to express preemption under the law for “any requirement respecting a statement in the labeling of food that provides for a warning concerning the safety of the food or component of the food.”  But, the court noted, plaintiffs cannot have it both ways.  If their claims are based on warnings about the safety of food, then their claims would have been subject to dismissal under the primary jurisdiction doctrine because the determination whether BPA is “safe” is solely the province of the FDA, and the FDA has concluded that the use of BPA in epoxy liners is “safe” so long as the manufacturer abides by the FDA’s prescribed conditions. See 21 C.F.R. § 175.300 (2009).  If the claims against the Formula Defendants are not subject to primary jurisdiction, as plaintiffs argued, then they are subject to express preemption analysis.

It may seem clear to readers of MassTortDefense that even with respect to those claims the court concluded should not be dismissed on the pleadings, the court's analysis highlights several issues that may make it difficult for the plaintiffs to proceed as a viable class action. 

 

Bill Introduced To Ease Suits Against Foreign Manufacturers

We have posted at MassTortDefense about a number of significant product liability issues arising from products made outside the US and imported into this country.  Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.,  Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., have introduced a bill that would make it easier for foreign manufacturers to be sued when their products allegedly injure U.S. consumers.

The Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2009 was introduced in the U.S. Senate last week.  The bill, S. 1606,  follows up on hearings last Spring during which witnesses testified about the perceived delays and difficulties with serving foreign manufacturers with process and establishing jurisdiction.
 

In comments on the Senate floor, sponsors cited recent examples in which Americans had been injured by allegedly defective foreign products. They claimed that the current rules put American manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage because they supposedly allow foreign companies to offer cheaper products that do not comply with U.S. safety requirements. The bill would apply to drugs, medical devices, and cosmetics, biological products, consumer products, as such term is used in the Consumer Product Safety Act, chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, and pesticides.

The bill attacks the issues of service of process and jurisdiction. Service abroad involves the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extra Judicial Documents in Civil and Commercial Matters, to which the U.S. is a signatory. A complaint must be translated into the foreign language, transmitted to the central authority in the foreign country, and then delivered according to the rules of service in the home country of the defendant. This can be a lengthy and expensive process. The proposed legislation would require foreign manufacturers and producers of covered products distributed in commerce (or component parts that will be used in the United States to manufacture such products) to establish a registered agent in the United States who is authorized to accept service of process.  It similarly states that a person may not import into the United States a covered product (or component part that will be used in the United States to manufacture a covered product) if such product (or component part) or any part of such product (or component part) was manufactured or produced outside the United States by a manufacturer or producer who does not have a registered agent.

 The second major hurdle is the inability to establish personal jurisdiction over foreign
manufacturers. Under the new bill, a foreign manufacturer or producer of covered products that registers an agent as above thereby consents to the personal jurisdiction of the State or Federal courts of the State in which the registered agent is located for the purpose of any civil or regulatory proceeding.

Not surprisingly the bill is supported by the "American Association for Justice"  plaintiffs lawyers.

 

 

Legislation Might Increase Litigation Against Foreign Product Manufacturers

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) announced last week his plan to introduce legislation that would increase the ability of U.S. plaintiffs to sue foreign manufacturers of allegedly defective products. This development should be monitored by all foreign manufacturers selling into the United States.

Whitehouse announced the proposed legislation at a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. The hearing was entitled, “Leveling the Playing Field and Protecting Americans: Holding Foreign Manufacturers Accountable.” A variety of witnesses testified about the impact of the issue on both American consumers and American business, and whether there was a need for Congress to put foreign companies on a more equal footing with domestic companies in terms of litigation risks, and to reduce a possible “competitive disadvantage” suffered by U.S. manufacturers.

There are three main procedural hurdles faced by plaintiffs seeking to sue foreign parties: (1) obtaining personal jurisdiction; (2) serving process; and (3) enforcing U.S. judgments abroad. That is, a party suing must first be able to find a court that has Constitutional power/authority over the defendant, personal jurisdiction. Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, Solano County, 480 U.S. 102 (1987). Then after filing, the party must inform the defendant of the lawsuit and its contents.  And at the end of the lawsuit, the party must be able to collect any money awarded, especially when the defendant's assets are outside of the U.S.  If the defendant is judgment proof, the suit is a waste of time for plaintiffs.

One speaker, Prof. Teitz of the Roger Williams University School of Law, described that as a result of different approaches in other legal systems, U.S. consumers face difficulties recovering in U.S. courts and enforcing U.S. judgments abroad, in fact more difficulty than many foreign consumers face in the reverse situation. In addition, there is an obvious competitive impact on U.S.  manufacturers who are sued more easily and cheaply here for obvious reasons and against whom judgments can be enforced throughout the country under the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Service of process may be governed by international conventions and treaties, or may involve the use of diplomatic channels, the Professor said. Legislation to require domestic agents for service of process would reduce the cost and difficulty of service.

A plaintiff attorney testified that the transition of the U.S. economy away from manufacturing has resulted in a dramatic increase in foreign-made goods entering the country. The volume of imports has tripled over the last decade and is expected to triple again by 2015. He recommended legislation allowing jurisdiction based on aggregate national contacts and import licenses that require liability insurance as well as agents for service of process and consent to jurisdiction.

Another attorney noted a competitive disadvantage for U.S. companies that are subject to what he called the “tort tax.” But he cautioned that legislation should not burden U.S. business by expanding federal jurisdiction and changing choice-of-law rules. He also warned of possible problems with the constitutionality of the discussed legislation. For example, legislation might authorize jurisdiction over foreign entities by virtue of their national contacts in both federal and state courts. That may run afoul of the rule that state courts may only assert personal jurisdiction over defendants who purposefully establish minimum contacts with that forum state. See, e.g., International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945).