The Supreme Court heard oral argument earlier this week in Shady Grove Orthopedic Assocs. v. Allstate Ins. Co. (No. 08-1008), a case which considers whether a state law (here, New York’s) prohibiting class actions for certain statutory damages claims can preclude class certification in a federal court diversity action. (The Second Circuit’s decision is at 549 F.3d 137 (2d Cir. 2008).)

The case takes your humble blogger back to Civil Procedure class in law school and Prof. Steve Burbank who was, and is, a leading authority on the Rules Enabling Act, because the case potentially implicates the Act’s command that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “shall not abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.”  28 U.S.C. 2072(b). But for readers of MassTortDefense, the import is the ability of state legislatures to restrict the availability of class actions in federal court.

Plaintiff brought a case pursuant to a New York insurance law that provides for interest penalties on claims that are paid late. However, New York Civil Practice Law and Rules §901(b), prohibits plaintiffs from recovering state statutory penalties in class actions unless class proceedings are authorized in the statute (which they were not). The District Court found Section 901(b) applied, which meant the case could not proceed as a class action in federal court.

Civil procedure mavens will note that the case depends in part on whether the state law at issue is substantive or procedural. Plaintiff, Shady Grove, argued that the law is procedural and thus cannot displace the federal rules; class action Rule 23 would trump any contrary procedural state statute or rule. Shady Grove argued that Section 901(b) does not create a substantive right not to face a class action, but rather provides a mere procedural entitlement not to be subject to a class action seeking certain forms of relief in the New York state courts. Justice Ginsburg, at oral argument, however, wondered why the ban was not akin to a restriction on remedies, such as a ceiling on the amount of damages that could be recovered under  state law (and was thus substantive).

Allstate took the view that the statute is substantive, that while Rule 23 sets forth the criteria governing class action certification in federal court, it does not address the initial question of whether a claim is eligible for class certification. Applying Rule 23 would overrule substantive policy decisions that certain claims are categorically ineligible for class certification, and that would venture beyond the bounds of the Rules Enabling Act. Their defense brief included a list of various federal and state laws that represent substantive policy choices curbing class action remedies or ruling out class action claims in specific contexts. At argument, Shady Grove conceded that at least some of them would be invalid under plaintiff’s theory.

Allstate also raised the specter of forum shopping: plaintiffs would be drawn to federal court, thwarting a state’s efforts to limit liability for those claims. The Second Circuit agreed that the New York law barred the plaintiff from bringing its claim against Allstate as a class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.  And at oral argument, Allstate asserted that New York State made the substantive policy decision that class actions seeking monetary penalties for misconduct defined by this state law would unduly magnify those penalties, and thus barred lawsuits combining such claims, forcing plaintiffs to sue for them one at a time. Justice Sotomayer seemed skeptical, wondering if under Allstate’s theory, states could pass a law stating that no cause of action under state law can be brought as a class action, ever.

The Partnership for New York City Inc. joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some other  groups to support Allstate, while Public Justice, a Washington-based liberal pro-plaintiff interest law firm, filed an amicus brief in support of Shady Grove. The plaintiff amicus argued that the controlling doctrine is not Erie, but the decision in Hanna v. Plumer, which, they argued, requires that a valid federal procedural rule must be applied by a federal court in a case involving citizens of different states regardless of contrary state law.

For readers of MassTortDefense, who recognize the overwhelming trend in federal courts not to certify personal injury product liability class actions, there is the countervailing concern that states could choose to expand the availability of class actions, and whether the Supreme Court might adopt an approach that would later force federal courts to certify actions that would seem uncertifiable under Rule 23. And much of the questioning by the Court related to one “slippery slope” or another.

One final thought: given the Court’s recent emphasis on federalism and state’s rights (underlying, in part, recent questionable preemption decisions), a respect for state legislative prerogatives could favor Allstate here.  Indeed, at oral argument Allstate counsel argued that if a state has created a legal claim, it is only appropriate that it be allowed to define its terms and limits. And Justice Ginsburg remarked that this Court has been sensitive to state limitations.