Remand Not Warranted in CAFA Case

Often defendants in proposed class actions think of an individual's playing a dual role as lead plaintiff and class counsel as a useful fact to defeat class certification under the adequacy prong. Credit a plaintiff for "creative" -- although ultimately unsuccessful -- use of this situation in a proposed class action. See Hoffman v. DSE Healthcare Solutions, LLC, No. 2:13-cv-07582-JLL-JAD (D.N.J. 3/21/14)(unpublished).

Plaintiff Harold M. Hoffman filed a consumer fraud class action complaint in state court under New Jersey's consumer fraud act. Plaintiff’s Complaint alleged that defendant made “false and misrepresented claims of product efficacy” about a dietary supplement known as Lipo-Flavonoid Plus.  Defendant removed the lawsuit to federal court pursuant to the diversity jurisdiction conferred by the Class Action Fairness Act ("CAFA"), codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d). According to defendant, the court had original jurisdiction over this action because (1) the suit is a “class action” as defined in 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(1)(B); (2) there is "minimal diversity"; and (3) the "aggregate value of the amount in controversy based on Plaintiff's allegations exceeds $5 million."

Plaintiff' filed a motion to remand the case to the Superior Court of New Jersey.Specifically, plaintiff argued that class certification is impossible in federal court because his dual role as class representative and class counsel, which, he said, is per se impermissible in the Third Circuit. Without class certification, plaintiff asserted, defendant cannot establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million, as required by CAFA. Defendant responded that plaintiff cannot unilaterally divest the court of  jurisdiction simply because he represents himself. 

When a class action complaint expressly disclaims the ability to recover the $5 million jurisdictional amount, the Third Circuit instructs that the burden is on defendant to prove "to a legal certainty that plaintiff can recover" that amount. See Frederico v. Home Depot, 507 F.3d 188, 197 (3d Cir. 2007). The concept of legal certainty is not well defined, but falls somewhere below "absolute certainty" and above "preponderance of the evidence." See Nelson v. Keefer, 451 F.2d 289, 293 n.6 (3d Cir. 1971)). A court examines both the dollar figure offered by the plaintiff and plaintiff's actual legal claims to determine whether the amount in controversy exceeds the statutory threshold.

The court's analysis here turned on a reading of Knowles, where the Supreme Court interpreted CAFA to hold that a named plaintiff cannot unilaterally circumvent CAFA by his own non-binding actions. Specifically, the Supreme Court rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to evade the scope of CAFA jurisdiction by stipulating that the class he sought to represent would not seek damages that exceed the $5 million jurisdictional threshold.  Here, the court agreed with defendant that just as a class representative could not bind a class with a stipulation to limit the class’ damages in order to avoid federal jurisdiction, a class representative, such as Hoffman, cannot bind the class by unilaterally deciding to select himself as counsel.

The primary issue was whether defendant could show “to a legal certainty” that the individual claims of all proposed class members aggregated to more than $5 million. If defendant satisfied this burden, remand would be inappropriate.  And the court found that defendant had made the requisite showing. Estimating the actual aggregate losses of the individuals in the proposed class was a relatively straightforward process, said the court, where plaintiff brings suit requesting treble damages under the CFA.

Motion denied.

 

Ninth Circuit to Rehear CAFA Mass Action Removal

The Ninth Circuit en banc has agreed to rehear a panel's split decision on mass action removal under the Class Action Fairness Act that created a circuit split on the removal issue.  See Romo v. Teva Pharm. USA Inc. (9th Cir., en banc, 2/10/14).

This case presents the issue of whether removal was proper under the “mass action” provision of CAFA when plaintiffs moved for coordination pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure section 404. CAFA authorizes federal removal for mass actions when “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 panel originally concluded that this CAFA jurisdictional requirement was not met under the totality of the circumstances in this case, and affirmed the district court’s remand order.

More than forty actions have been filed in California state courts regarding products containing
propoxyphene. Some of the parties filed a petition asking the California Judicial Council to establish a coordinated proceeding for all California propoxyphene actions pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure section 404. The defendant then removed the cases. The district court found that there was no federal jurisdiction under CAFA because plaintiffs’ petition for coordination did not constitute an explicit proposal to try the cases jointly, and remanded the case back to state court. The appeals court panel agreed, rejecting defendant's argument which emphasized that plaintiffs had sought coordination to avoid “inconsistent judgments,”and “conflicting determinations of liability” -- which certainly sound like trial issues.

The decision created a split with cases like  In re Abbott Labs., Inc., 698 F.3d 568 (7th Cir. 2012).

En banc oral argument is set for the week of June 16, 2014.


 

Ninth Circuit En Banc Decision on Daubert Errors

Readers may recall we posted about a Ninth Circuit case involving a worker at a paper mill who claimed asbestos exposure from various products used there.  The trial court admitted testimony from three experts over defendants’ objections, without conducting an adequate Daubert review, resulting in a trial verdict of $10.2 million. The Ninth Circuit reversed the trial verdict, and the panel remanded the case to the trial judge for a new hearing and trial. See Henry Barabin. et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., No. 10-36142 (9th Cir.) The Ninth Circuit then agreed to hear the case en banc, and our guess was that the court was thinking more about the fact that the panel remanded the case for a new trial in light of the court’s 2003 decision in Mukhtar v. California State University, 299 F.3d 1053 (9th Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003).

The court has now issued its en banc opinion, upholding the reversal of the verdict; agreeing with the original panel that the trial court had conducted an improper Daubert review; and rejecting two key arguments that plaintiffs made in trying to save the case. Plaintiffs, first, wanted a remand for purposes of the Daubert hearing only. They argued that an appeals court did not have the authority to exclude the experts on its own (even after the inadequate job by the trial judge) and must remand that decision. The en banc court disagreed, said that it did have such authority, although here the record was insufficient to allow the panel to make that decision. The en banc court thus held that a reviewing court has the authority to make Daubert findings based on the record established by the district court, and overruled Mukhtar v.California State University, 299 F.3d 1053, 1066 n.12 (9th
Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003), to the extent that it required that Daubert findings always be made by the district court.

Second, plaintiffs argued that on remand the trial judge should get another shot at a Daubert decision without necessarily holding a complete new trial. But, the court held that if expert admissibility error occurred and was prejudicial, the only recourse was an entire new trial. Thus, the plaintiffs now have to first get past a real Daubert analysis, and if they do, then win an entire new trial in front of a new jury.

We have argued here that to remand for an evidentiary hearing post-jury verdict undermines Daubert's requirement that a reliability determination must be made by the trial court before the jury is permitted to hear the evidence. Otherwise, instead of fulfilling its mandatory role as a gatekeeper, the district court clouds its duty to ensure that only reliable evidence is presented. A post-verdict analysis does not protect the purity of the trial, but instead creates an undue risk of post-hoc rationalization. This is hardly the gatekeeping role the Supreme Court envisioned in Daubert and its progeny. The rule recognized here gives trial courts a real and important incentive to be proper, active gatekeepers.

(Note that my partner Mark Behrens was asked to submit an amicus brief on behalf of the Coalition For Litigation Justice, Inc., Chamber Of Commerce Of The United States Of America, NFIB Small Business Legal Center, American Insurance Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association Of America, American Chemistry Council, And National Association Of Manufacturers.)

 

CAFA Local Exception Rejected

 A federal court in Georgia ruled last week that a proposed class action alleging injury from chemical exposures was properly removed under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.  See Anderson v. King America Finishing Inc., No. 1:11-cv-2258-JEC (N.D. Ga., 3/25/13).


Plaintiffs alleged that defendant King America Finishing released a toxic chemical into the Ogeechee River from its manufacturing plant in Dover, Georgia. According to plaintiffs, the toxic chemical release caused damage to surrounding land downstream from the Dover plant. In addition, plaintiffs claimed that certain individuals who swam in the Ogeechee River suffered from physical injuries due to the release. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint in Fulton County Superior Court. They purported to represent a property damage class defined to include “[a]ll possessors of property affected, directly or indirectly, by [the May, 2011] release of chemicals into
the waters of the Ogeechee River.” One named plaintiff also purported to represent a personal injury class defined to include “[a]ll persons who have been exposed, directly or indirectly, with the waters of the Ogeechee River that had been contaminated by the Release.”


Defendants removed the case to federal court pursuant to the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d) and 1453. CAFA generally provides for the removal of any class action in which there is: (1) minimal diversity, (2) at least 100 putative class members and (3) $5 million in alleged damages. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(2) and 1453. It was undisputed that these requirements were met in this case. Plaintiffs conceded that all of the named plaintiffs were diverse from defendant, that the putative class exceeded 100 members, and that the claims exceeded $5 million in damages.

Nevertheless, plaintiffs filed a motion to remand the case to state court, based on the “local controversy” exception to CAFA jurisdiction, which provides for the remand of a class action that “uniquely affects a particular locality to the exclusion of all others.” Evans v. Walter Indus., Inc., 449 F.3d 1159, 1164 (11th Cir. 2006). Specifically, a “local controversy” is defined by CAFA as a class action in which: (1) greater than two-thirds of the class members are citizens of the state in which the action was originally filed, (2) at least one “significant” defendant is a citizen of the state in which the action was filed and (3) the principal injuries alleged in the action were incurred in the state in which the action was filed. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(4)(A).

Defendants did not dispute elements 2 and 3. The argument among the parties centered on the two-thirds requirement.  Under CAFA, plaintiffs bear the burden of proving that the exception applies. In order to meet their burden on the two-thirds requirement, plaintiffs had to present evidence from which a court could credibly adduce that more than two-thirds of the purported class members were Georgia citizens. Plaintiffs used tax and voter registration records,  reference to the Secretary of State’s Corporation website, and interviews of personal injury class members who were determined by interview to be Georgia citizens, to just get over the threshold.

The court rejected their calculations, finding no sound evidentiary basis for including several of these groups in the calculation. For example, with regard to the legal entities, the Secretary of State’s website merely lists a Georgia office address for each entity. The website does not indicate that any of these entities have their “principal place of business” in Georgia. In addition to the evidentiary issues with the numerator in plaintiffs’ equation, there were serious questions about the denominator as well. Both the property and the personal injury classes were defined broadly in the complaint to include all land and persons directly or indirectly allegedly impacted by the May, 2011 release. Given that broad definition, the property class likely included many more members than the 900 or so landowners in the particular geographical area chosen by plaintiffs’ attorneys for their showing. Likewise, there could be many more individuals who were “indirectly” injured by the release than the 20 potential class members interviewed by plaintiffs.  The court could not simply speculate about the citizenship of these unaccounted for class members.
Accordingly, the court denied the plaintiffs' motion for remand.

Court of Appeals Applies CAFA Mass Action Provision

The Seventh Circuit has resolved a conflict between district court decisions about whether a motion to consolidate and transfer related state court cases to one circuit court constitutes a proposal to try the cases jointly triggers the “mass action” provision of the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”).  The court held that plaintiffs’ motion to consolidate did propose a joint trial, and thus removal was proper. See In re Abbott Laboratories Inc., No. 12-8020 (7th Cir. 10/16/12).
 

Between August 2010 and November 2011, several hundred plaintiffs filed ten lawsuits in three different Illinois state courts for personal injuries they alleged were caused by Depakote, a prescription medication.  Later, plaintiffs moved the Supreme Court of Illinois to consolidate and
transfer their cases to one venue, St. Clair County. In the memorandum in support of their motion, plaintiffs indicated they were requesting consolidation of the cases through trial and not solely for pretrial proceedings. Defendant removed each of the cases to federal court (in two districts) asserting that the motion to consolidate brought the cases under CAFA’s “mass action” provision, which allows the removal of any case where 100 or more people propose to try their claims jointly. Plaintiffs moved to remand in both courts.

The Southern District granted the motion to remand, concluding that the language in the motion to consolidate did not propose a joint trial. The Northern District court denied plaintiffs’ motion to
remand, noting that the motion to consolidate clearly sought to consolidate the 10 complaints for all purposes, including for purposes of conducting a trial.  Plaintiffs argued on appeal that they did not specifically propose a joint trial because their motion to consolidate did not address how the trials of the various claims in the cases would be conducted, other than proposing that they all take
place in St. Clair County. In plaintiffs’ view, for the mass action provision to apply, they would have needed to take the further step of requesting a joint trial or an exemplar trial that would affect the remaining cases.

The court of appeals noted that plaintiffs argued that they never specifically asked for a joint trial, but a proposal for a joint trial can be implicit. See Bullard v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway
Co., 535 F.3d 759 (7th Cir. 2008).  A joint trial does not have to encompass joint relief. For example, a trial on liability could be limited to a few plaintiffs, after which a separate trial on damages could be held. Similarly, a trial that involved exemplary plaintiffs, followed by application of issue or claim preclusion to more plaintiffs without another trial, would be one in which the claims of 100 or more persons are being tried jointly. In short, said the court of appeals, a joint trial can take different forms as long as the plaintiffs’ claims are being determined jointly.

Here, plaintiffs may not have explicitly asked that their claims be tried jointly, but the language in their motion came close. Plaintiffs requested consolidation of their cases “through trial” and “not solely for pretrial proceedings.” They further asserted that consolidation through trial “would also facilitate the efficient disposition of a number of universal and fundamental substantive questions applicable to all or most Plaintiffs’ cases without the risk of inconsistent adjudication
in those issues between various courts...”  It is difficult to see how a trial court could consolidate the cases as requested by plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ claims would somehow not be tried jointly. Although the transferee court will decide how their cases proceed to trial, it does not matter whether a trial covering 100 or more plaintiffs actually ensues; the statutory question is whether one has been proposed.

The court thus reversed the Southern District's grant of the plaintiff's motion to remand and affirmed the Northern District's ruling. 

Supreme Court Grants Cert in CAFA Case

Here is one to watch, especially for our readers with a class action practice. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari last week in a case raising the issue whether class plaintiffs may stipulate to a damages amount below the jurisdictional threshold of the Class Action Fairness Act to avoid removal of the case to federal court. See Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, No. 11-1450, U.S., certiorari granted 8/31/12).

Since the Act was passed in 2005, as surely as one end of a balloon expands when you squeeze the other end, litigants have reacted to the Congressional effort to expand federal jurisdiction over class actions by seeking exceptions and loopholes to keep the cases in state court.  This case will be the first time the Supreme Court considers a case arising under CAFA, and one of those creative efforts to avoid its reach.

Readers will recall that CAFA allows for removal of class actions in which just minimal diversity exists and the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million. A number of class plaintiffs have attempted to defeat the defendant's removal under the Class Action Fairness Act by filing a stipulation that purports to limit the damages sought to less than the $5 million threshold for federal jurisdiction.  A key question is whether that stipulation can be binding on absent class members, and thus possibly impact federal jurisdiction, when the Court recently reaffirmed that in a putative class action "the mere proposal of a class ... could not bind persons who were not parties." Smith v. Bayer Corp., 131 S. Ct. 2368, 2382 (2011).  In light of that holding, the question presented in this case is:

When a named plaintiff attempts to defeat a defendant's right of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 by filing with a class action complaint a "stipulation" that attempts to limit the damages he "seeks" for the absent putative class members to less than the $5 million threshold for federal jurisdiction, and the defendant establishes that the actual amount in controversy, absent the "stipulation," exceeds $5 million, is the "stipulation" binding on absent class members so as to destroy federal jurisdiction?


The facts of the case involve a putative class action in Arkansas state court alleging that defendant Standard Fire Insurance Co. breached homeowners insurance policies by failing to fully  reimburse losses.  Standard Fire attempted to remove the case under CAFA but the federal district court remanded the case pursuant to the stipulation that plaintiffs would not seek damages above $5 million.   The Eighth Circuit denied Standard Fire's petition to appeal the remand order. Defendant then petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in with an amicus brief in favor of the petition.


The petition argued that putative class members are not bound by such actions taken by the named plaintiffs before class certification. Such a limitation, if effective at the time suit is filed, would violate the due process rights of the proposed class members.  The Chamber echoed that district courts must conduct a meaningful analysis to determine with legal certainty whether the stipulation will truly limit the ability of absent class members to recover no more than the stipulated amount, and whether the stipulation is consistent with due process. If allowed to stand, the lower court's decision could result in an enormous CAFA loophole allowing plaintiffs to drag businesses into class action-friendly state court systems.  Plaintiff argued that the petition was premature because the issue could be considered at the class certification stage within the adequacy of representation prong. 

Definitely one to watch.

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.


 

Update on Gulf Oil Spill Litigation

Couple of interesting issue being debated in the Gulf Oil Spill Litigation.  In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179 (E.D. La.).

The first concerns control over the testing of key components of the rig, once they are recovered.  Readers know how important such testing can be in supporting or refuting causation theories. But the very act of testing, even if not destructive, potentially alters the condition of the product.  Who goes first; what tests get run in what order; who does the testing; how tests are done... all of these can be vitally important issues in accident investigation and product liability litigation.

Defendant Transocean Ltd. unit has asked the judge in the MDL to grant a motion for a protective order that would block the government's apparent plan to unilaterally control testing of the oil rig's blowout preventer. Press reports suggest the blowout preventer could be recovered from the Gulf floor in the near future. Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc. and several other defendants thus filed a motion last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana for an expedited hearing on the protective order covering the blowout preventer.

The federal government has indicated that it wants to take exclusive control of the blowout preventer, transport it to a government site, and then contract for forensic testing and analysis. The motion argues that while the government has solicited input from other parties on testing protocol, it never said it would pay attention to any of those suggestions.

The second issue is a battle between Transocean and co-defendant BP over document discovery. Transocean attorneys are claiming that BP has been withholding documents and limiting Transocean's access to sensitive information connected to the accident, including records of tests on the blowout preventer, lab reports on components of the rig such as the well cement mix, and data on equipment used to keep well pipes in place during cementing.  BP, for its part, calls the claim a "publicity stunt” designed to divert attention from Transocean's alleged role in the accident.  BP claims it has already turned over thousands of pages of documents, including materials on the initial exploration plan, lab tests and daily drilling reports, and mud log reports.

Third, the American Petroleum Institute and other parties who are defendant-intervenors have asked the MDL judge to remand one of the many coordinated cases.  Gulf Restoration Network et al. v. Salazar et al.  This one is the suit brought by environmental groups against the federal government, and the argument is that it is fundamentally different from the other cases because it focuses on administrative law issues regarding the government’s approval of offshore drilling plans.

The Gulf Restoration Network, along with the Sierra Club, accused the U.S. Department of the Interior of ignoring environmental regulations when it allegedly waived safety regulations to allow BP and Transocean to conduct offshore drilling exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

The discovery for negligence claims at the core of the MDL, these moving parties assert, will not materially assist or advance a case that stems from the legal issue whether the federal government took proper steps in granting the companies the offshore drilling exploration permits.  In fact, the argument goes, keeping Gulf Restoration in the MDL would unreasonably delay what would normally be a quick resolution to an administrative law action.

 


 

Welding Fume MDL Court Releases "Trial Template"

The Judge overseeing the Welding Fume Products Liability MDL Litigation has issued a “Trial Template” to assist transferor courts in handling the 3,900 remaining cases in the future.  In re: Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1535 (N.D. Ohio).

The document outlines the proceedings that have occurred in this MDL since its 2003 inception,
and summarizes the court’s pretrial rulings applicable to every MDL case. (All of this MDL court's written Orders cited in the document are available through the MDL court’s site.)  The stated purpose of the document is to assist trial judges in transferor courts who may preside over the trial of an individual welding fume case, after the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation remands the
case from the MDL court back to the transferor court.

(Another good source on this mass tort for the interested reader is Jowers v. Lincoln Elec. Co., 608 F.Supp.2d 724 (S.D. Miss. 2009), in which the court reviewed all of the parties’ evidence in the context of resolving defendants’ post-judgment motions, filed after the jury reached a rare plaintiff’s verdict in the fourth MDL bellwether trial.)

Key points: since the MDL was created in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in June 2003, more than 9,800 cases have been transferred from other courts, and 2,700 have been removed to or directly filed with the court. Voluntary dismissals, remands and other events have reduced the number of pending cases to approximately 3,900. The gravamen of the complaint in each of these cases is that manganese contained in the fumes given off by welding rods has caused the plaintiff to suffer neurological injury, and the defendant manufacturers of these welding rods failed to warn of this hazard. At trial, defendants typically interpose some or all of the following fact-based defenses: (1) the warning language defendants used was adequate; (2) the plaintiff did not prove he used a particular defendant’s welding rods; (3) the plaintiff did not prove he saw a particular defendant’s warnings; (4) the plaintiff did not prove his neurological condition was caused by exposure to welding fumes; (5) the plaintiff’s neurological condition is not manganese-induced "Parkinsonism," it is something else (e.g., psychogenic movement disorder); (6) the defendants are immune pursuant to their role as government contractors; (7) the defendants are not liable because the plaintiff’s employer was a learned intermediary; (8) the defendants are not liable because the plaintiff was a sophisticated user; (9) the plaintiff did not prove that a better warning would have made any difference; (10) the plaintiff is, to some degree, responsible for his own injuries under the theories of contributory negligence, comparative negligence, or assumption of the risk; and (11) punitive damages are not available because the plaintiff did not present clear and convincing evidence of gross negligence.

The MDL court presided over six bellwether trials and is now in the process of suggesting remand to transferor courts of cases that have become close to trial-ready, the judge said. The court has so far applied the laws of five states in MDL bellwether trials: Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, California, and Iowa. The parties sometimes, but not always, have agreed on which state’s law applies. In cases of disagreement, the choice-of-law analysis a transferor court will have to apply is likely to be fact-specific.

The court has granted summary judgment to certain defendants (MetLife & Caterpillar) in all welding fume cases. Further, the Court entered a “Peripheral Defendant Dismissal Order,” dismissing without prejudice all defendants in every case except those against whom a given plaintiff is most likely to proceed at trial. Still remaining as defendants in virtually every case are five of the biggest welding rod manufacturers: (1) Lincoln Electric Company, (2) BOC Group (formerly known as Airco) (3) ESAB Group, (4) TDY Industries (formerly known as Teledyne Industries and Teledyne McKay), and (5) Hobart Brothers Company. Defendant-specific discovery in each case may lead to dismissal of some of these five defendants, and possibly to renaming of some previously-dismissed defendants, the court observed. 

Regarding discovery, the parties have engaged in huge amounts of generic discovery directed at
information potentially relevant to every case. This includes, for example, the defendants’ alleged historical knowledge of the hazards posed by welding fumes, the warnings defendants provided to welders over time, and the state of medical and scientific knowledge regarding neurotoxicity of manganese in welding fumes. For the most part, the parties have completed all general discovery. To prepare for trial in a specific welding fume case, the parties must engage in substantial case-specific discovery directed at information relevant to the individual plaintiff’s particular claims and circumstances. This discovery typically will address the plaintiff’s employment history, medical history, and welding experiences. The court observed that at least some of this plaintiff-specific discovery may not occur until after the MDL court has remanded the case to the transferor court. Accordingly, a transferor court may need to oversee some aspects of case-specific discovery.

As to plaintiffs, about ten years ago, the national plaintiffs’ bar engaged in a concerted effort to notify welders that, if they suffered from a movement disorder, their neurological injury might be caused by exposure to welding fumes. The MDL court then imposed several obligations on plaintiffs’ counsel to ensure they intend to actually try the cases they filed. These additional obligations include the filing of: (1) a “Notice of Diagnosis” of neurological injury, signed by a medical doctor; and (2) a “Certification of Intent to Try the Case,” to be submitted by plaintiff’s counsel following initial medical records discovery. These obligations have winnowed the plaintiffs’ cases substantially, so the MDL court believes that there is some likelihood that a case remanded to a transferor court will go to trial.

On the expert front, the parties sought to introduce at trial testimony from a plethora of experts in a number of fields, including neurology, neuro-pathology, neuro-psychology, neuro-radiology, epidemiology, bio-statistics, industrial hygiene, industrial engineering, chemistry, materials science, toxicology, warnings, corporate ethics, military specification and procurement, economics, government lobbying, and ancient corporate documents. Early in this MDL, the court held a multi-day Daubert hearing to determine the admissibility of opinions offered by these experts. Further, the court engaged in additional analyses of the admissibility of expert testimony prior to each MDL
bellwether trial.

Before each MDL bellwether trial, the parties filed numerous motions in limine addressing the admissibility of various pieces of evidence, ranging from critical documents to relatively short comments made by witnesses. The court reviews each of those rulings in this latest document.  Similarly, the court had ruled on a number of motions for summary judgment as a matter of state and federal law. These motions are also described in the document.  For example, to prevail on his product liability claims against a particular manufacturing defendant, a welding fume plaintiff must show he actually used that manufacturer’s products. Because many plaintiffs worked as welders for a variety of employers in different locations over many years, and because welding rods are somewhat fungible, the discovery of product identification evidence can be difficult, and the results less than clear, said the court. Whether a given defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on lack of product identification is a highly fact-specific question, and the answer as to certain defendants in certain cases may not become clear even until after trial.

Finally, the court provides a number of useful appendices and charts, including MDL Bellwether Trial Result Summary and MDL Bellwether Trial Witness Chart.

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).

  

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.”

CAFA Mass Tort Removal in Drug Case

A federal court in Illinois recently denied remand of approximately 100 cases involving Trasylol, an anti-bleeding drug, citing the Class Action Fairness Act. Gilmore v. Bayer Corp., 2009 WL 4789406(N.D. Ill., 12/10/09). (Federal Trasylol litigation was consolidated in 2008 in the Southern District of Florida. In re Trasylol Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 08-MD-1928 (S.D. Fla.). The plaintiffs typically assert that the product causes heart and kidney complications, and that the defendants allegedly failed to warn of the risks.)

The suit was originally filed in state court. The defendants removed the case, but Judge G. Patrick Murphy remanded it for lack of federal jurisdiction. Additional plaintiffs were added in October, followed by a second removal motion. The defendants asserted diversity of citizenship under CAFA. The plaintiffs again sought remand.

The Southern District of Illinois ruled that the removing defendants asserted correctly that this case was a removable “mass action” within the meaning of CAFA. Among the actions covered by CAFA is a “mass action,” defined by the statute 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,” and in which there is minimal diversity of citizenship (at least one plaintiff is not a citizen of the same state as at least one defendant) and the plaintiffs each seek a recovery exceeding $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs. 28 U.S .C. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i).

The court concluded that an independent review “discloses plainly that the removal of this case is proper under the CAFA.”  The operative complaint asserted claims on behalf of one hundred persons, the minimum number of plaintiffs required for the exercise of jurisdiction pursuant to CAFA's “mass action” provisions.  Further, this case obviously presented questions of law and fact common to the claims of all one hundred plaintiffs, said the court. Common questions of fact and law included, for example, what information Bayer, Bayer LLC, and Bayer Healthcare possessed concerning the alleged harmful effects of Trasylol, what information they elected to disclose to physicians and patients about those harmful effects, and what information they were required by law to disclose about those effects, according to the court.

With respect to the requirement of minimal diversity of citizenship, this jurisdictional prerequisite was satisfied in this case as plaintiff Thomas Gilmore is a citizen of Washington and Bayer is incorporated under Indiana law and has its principal place of business in Pennsylvania.

Finally, with respect to the jurisdictional amount in controversy under the CAFA's “mass action” provisions, the Court noted that in other cases involving allegations of personal injuries allegedly caused by the drug similar to the allegations contained in the operative complaint in this case that the plaintiffs' claims individually exceeded $75,000.

Our readers know that Congress enacted CAFA to allow more interstate class actions to be heard in federal court, and to address class action abuse.  "Mass actions" were recognized as class actions in disguise, and included in CAFA the provision to prevent the statute's objectives from being undermined by these "close substitutes that escape the statute's application." The courts increasingly offer a common sense reading of CAFA  that thwarts any attempt by plaintiffs' counsel to avoid federal court through the class-action substitute.

Court Allows Plaintiffs to Structure Suits To Avoid CAFA

Two thousand Central American banana farm workers suing over their alleged exposure to a pesticide were permitted split up their suits to avoid federal court jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act.  See Vanegas v. Dole Food Co., 2009 WL 690198 (C.D. Cal. 3/9/09).  The opinion allowed the plaintiffs to craft their suits against the Dole Food Co., Dow Chemical Co., and other defendants, so that they each have no more than 100 plaintiffs and avoid CAFA's mass action reach.

Plaintiffs allege that they were injured by exposure to 1, 2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane (“DBCP”), a toxic chemical sold under the brand names “Nemagon” and “Fumazone.” Plaintiffs allege that defendants manufactured, marketed, and distributed DBCP. Plaintiffs further allege that they were exposed to DBCP as a consequence of working on banana plantations in Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala, owned or operated by defendants.

Plaintiffs were divided, alphabetically and by country, into 30 cookie cutter cases such that each case has less than 100 plaintiffs; they alleged claims for (1) products liability-negligence; (2) strict products liability; (3) products liability-defect in design, manufacture, and chemical composition; (4) products liability-breach of warranty; (5) fraudulent management; (6) intentional misrepresentation; (7) fraud by concealment; (8) general negligence; and (9) conspiracy.

Defendants removed, and plaintiffs sought remand. Plaintiffs argued that this case is not a “mass action” pursuant to the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, 28 U.S .C. §§ 1332(d) and 1453, because their complaint s each contain less than 100 plaintiffs. Defendant responded that plaintiffs may not “gerry-mander their lawsuit to circumvent CAFA,” citing Freeman v. Blue Ridge Paper Products, Inc., 551 F.3d 405, 2008 WL 5396249, at *1 (6th Cir. Dec.29, 2008); Proffitt v. Abbott Laboratories, 2008 WL 4401367, at *5 (E.D.Tenn. Sept.23, 2008)). Defendants argued that plaintiffs cannot artificially splinter their actions to avoid jurisdictional thresholds.

The district court remanded, holding that the removal statute is to be “strictly construed against removal jurisdiction and any doubt must be resolved in favor of remand,” citing Hofler v. Aetna U.S. Healthcare of California, Inc., 296 F.3d 764, 767 (9th Cir.2002). These actions do not constitute “mass actions” under CAFA, said the court, because each of these actions has been brought by less than 100 plaintiffs. Tanoh v. AMVAC Chemical Corp., 2008 WL 4691004, at *5 (C.D.Cal. Oct.21, 2008). Nothing in CAFA suggests that plaintiffs, as masters of their complaint, may not “file multiple actions, each with fewer than 100 plaintiffs, to work within the confines of CAFA to keep their state-law claims in state court.” Tanoh, 2008 WL 4691004 at *5.

The court distinguished Freeman, saying the Sixth Circuit limited its ruling to one type of claim splitting. “In Freeman, the plaintiffs divided their suit into five separate suits with identical parties and claims, each covering distinct, sequential six-month time periods,” the court said. “By contrast, each of the cases at issue here involves distinct plaintiffs. Moreover, the Sixth Circuit explicitly noted that its holding is limited to the situation where there is “no colorable basis for dividing up the sought-for retrospective relief into separate time periods, other than to frustrate CAFA.”
 

Denial of Class Certification Does Not Alter CAFA Jurisdiction

A federal court has issued an opinion on an important aspect of the Class Action Fairness Act, namely whether the denial of class action status deprives a federal court of jurisdiction under the Act. In Kitts v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., 2009 WL 192550 (W.D. La., 1/23/09), the district court declined to remand to state court a personal injury action stemming from an oil spill. Although some district courts have held that post-removal events such as class certification denial can render the court without subject matter jurisdiction under CAFA, the Western District of Louisiana held that the better approach is to retain jurisdiction.

On June 15, 2007, plaintiffs filed a putative class action suit in state court in Louisiana, claiming damages resulting from a 2006 oil spill alleged to have occurred from a facility owned and operated by defendant. Plaintiffs' complaint alleged they suffered injuries from this spill, respiratory problems and illnesses, sinus damage, difficulty breathing, and burning of the throat and nasal passages. Defendant removed, based on CAFA. The federal district court later denied class certification. Plaintiffs then filed a Motion to Remand alleging that remand to state court was appropriate because the refusal to certify this matter as a class action divested the court of subject matter jurisdiction.

The court, however, found compelling the reasoning of those cases finding jurisdiction continues to exist even after denial of the class action. Particularly appropriate was the conclusion reached by the Southern District of Florida in Colomar v. Mercy Hospital, Inc., 2007 WL 2083562, *3 (S.D.Fla.07/20/2007). In support of its denial of a Motion to Remand filed in a case properly removed under CAFA, but after the minimally diverse defendant was dismissed and class certification was denied, the Florida district court stated that the courts considering the issue of whether a federal court retains jurisdiction after class certification is denied have concluded that case developments subsequent to removal do not alter the courts' CAFA jurisdiction, if jurisdiction was proper at the time of removal.

The court quoted from the CAFA legislative history, the Senate Report stating that “once a complaint is properly removed to federal court, the federal court's jurisdiction cannot be ousted by later events.... If a federal court's jurisdiction could be ousted by events occurring after a case was removed, plaintiffs who believed the tide was turning against them could simply always amend their complaint months (or even years) into the litigation to require remand to state court.... [I]f subsequent events could unravel a federal court's jurisdiction, a defendant could prevail on the merits, only to have the federal court conclude that it lacks jurisdiction to enter judgment."  S. Rep. 109-14, 109th Cong., 1st Sess.2005, reprinted in 2005 U.S.C.CA.N. 3, *70-71, *66-67.

Here, the court said that to litigate the case up to the eve of trial, and then to seek remand after adverse rulings have issued and summary judgment is briefed, equates to a forum shopping. Plaintiffs admitted that this matter was properly removed under CAFA. Plaintiffs' efforts to unravel jurisdiction on the eve of trial was forum shopping which the traditional rules of removal and remand are designed to preclude.
 

Seventh Circuit Rejects Remand of CAFA Mass Action

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court’s ruling that a case involving plaintiffs alleging damages from chemicals escaping from a wood-processing facility is a “mass action” that belongs in federal court. See Bullard, et al. v. Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway, et al., 2008 WL 2941359 (7th Cir. 2008).

A state court complaint by 144 plaintiffs sought damages from four corporations that had designed, manufactured, transported, or used chemicals that allegedly escaped from a Texas wood-processing plant and purportedly injured people living nearby. Among the plaintiffs’ claims are negligence, trespass, willful and wanton conduct, and fraudulent concealment, asserting that chemicals associated with creosote used to preserve wood were released into the environment through soil, ground water, and/or air mechanisms.

Defendants removed the suit, relying on the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. CAFA expanded federal jurisdiction over various types of class actions. CAFA’s expanded jurisdiction was not limited to pure class actions, however. It also reaches a category of cases – “mass actions” – in which monetary claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims allegedly involve common questions of law or fact. See 28 U.S.C. ¶1332(d)(11)(B)(i).

Plaintiffs moved to remand. They denied that the suit was a “mass action,” noting their complaint never proposed a trial. Thus, according to plaintiffs, defendants may remove a “mass action” only when a final pretrial order or equivalent document identifies the number of parties to the trial, which is to be “joint.” The district judge denied the motion for remand, and plaintiffs obtained interlocutory review “because the legal issue is novel.”

On appeal, plaintiffs argued they are entitled to litigate in state court because the Class Action Fairness Act has a loophole. Section 1332(d)(11)(B)(i) refers to “claims of 100 or more persons ... proposed to be tried jointly.” Complaints do not propose trials, plaintiffs insisted; they'd be happy to win by summary judgment or get a settlement. The case may never get to a trial. Cross that bridge when you come to it.

The Court rejected this reading. Plaintiffs' lawyers who want to avoid federal court, the Court said, have simply designed a class-action substitute. Their complaint alleges that several questions of law and fact are common to all 144 plaintiffs; it provides no more information about each individual plaintiff than an avowed class complaint would do. No one supposes that all 144 plaintiffs will be active; a few of them will take the lead, just as in a class action, and as a practical matter counsel will dominate, just as in a class action.

If the plaintiffs’ proposed strict reading were right, then, actually, §1332(d)(11) would be defunct, because it defines a class action to include a mass action. Taken to its logical end, in plaintiffs' view, no “mass action” could ever be a “class action”, for a suit cannot be officially identified as a “mass action” until the trial is finalized, not on the date of filing which, plaintiffs say, is the operative date. But “courts do not read statutes to make entire subsections vanish into the night,” said the Court.

A second reading would be to reject the date of filing as the only operative date and find that a case could become a “mass action” at any time. That could be long after filing, once plaintiffs are formally and explicitly proposed to be tried jointly. The prospect of this situation is why §1332(d)(11) allows the definition to be applied after the suits' filing date. But nothing in the statute says that the eve of trial is the only time when a “mass action” can be detected.

When plaintiffs take advantage of procedural rules that permit the joinder of multiple plaintiffs in a single suit where the claims arise out of “the same transaction or series of transactions” and “common questions of law or fact” are allegedly present, that's “exactly when a single trial is appropriate.” It does not matter whether a trial covering 100 or more plaintiffs actually ensues; the statutory question is whether one has been “proposed.” This complaint, which describes circumstances common to all plaintiffs, proposes one proceeding and thus, for statutory purposes, sufficiently alleges one trial.

And the Seventh Circuit went on to anticipate and reject plaintiffs' next likely reaction: A proposal to hold multiple trials in a single suit, or just one trial with 10 plaintiffs and the use of preclusion to cover everyone else, does not take the suit outside the language applying to any “civil action ... in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly.” The question is not whether 100 or more plaintiffs answer a roll call in court, but whether the “claims” advanced by 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly. A trial of 10 exemplary plaintiffs, followed by application of issue or claim preclusion to 134 more plaintiffs without another trial, is one in which the claims of 100 or more persons are being tried jointly, and this would bring the suit within federal jurisdiction.