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The Supreme Court issued its first-ever decision interpreting the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) today, and its holding strengthens defendants’ right to a federal forum in class actions. 

The question presented in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, No. 11-1450, slip op. (U.S., Mar. 19, 2012) was a simple one: can a plaintiff avoid federal jurisdiction under CAFA by stipulating to less than $5 million in damages on behalf of the putative class?  The Court’s unanimous answer was no, and its reasoning is also simple:

Stipulations must be binding . . . [and] a plaintiff who files a proposed class action cannot legally bind members of the proposed class before the class is certified.

Slip op. at 3-4.  

Does Standard Fire mean the end of any debate about the federal courts as a forum for class actions?  Probably not.  Justice Breyer’s well-reasoned opinion makes the issue sound like a no-brainer, but this is an issue that had been far from settled in the lower courts.  The fact that the Supreme Court had to intervene on this issue is in part a symptom of a lingering antagonism by many lower federal court judges toward diversity jurisdiction.  The ruling is unlikely to change the predisposition of some federal judges to look for ways to clear their dockets by remanding diversity cases to the state courts.  Although the effectiveness of this particular method for avoiding CAFA jurisdiction is now settled in defendants’ favor, that is not to say that other tactics for avoiding federal jurisdiction in class actions won’t succeed in the future.

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Forbes columnist Daniel Fisher has authored an excellent preview of the three class-action-related cases set to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this term.  The article, entitled Class-Action Lawyers Face Triple Threat At Supreme Court, previews the issues in each of the three cases and summarizes what’s at stake for class action lawyers.  The article points out that although the three decisions have potential to spell disaster for class action plaintiffs given the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, two of the three class-action-related decisions last term came out in favor of the plaintiffs.  I highly recommend this article, as well as Fisher’s work more generally.

For quick reference, the three cases set for decisions on class action issues this term, and the questions presented for review, are as follows:

Comcast v. Behrend, No. 11-864 – “Whether a district court may certify a class action without resolving whether the plaintiff class has introduced admissible evidence, including expert testimony, to show that the case is susceptible to awarding damages on a class-wide basis.”

Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, No. 11-1450 – “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?”

Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans, No. 11-1085 – “1. Whether, in a misrepresentation case under SEC Rule 10b-5, the district court must require proof of materiality before certifying a plaintiff class based on the fraud-on-the-market theory.  2. Whether, in such a case, the district court must allow the defendant to present evidence rebutting the applicability of the fraud-on-the-market theory before certifying a plaintiff class based on that theory.”

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The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari to decide whether a plaintiff’s stipulation to seek less than $5 million in damages can deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear the case under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (“CAFA”). The specific question presented in Standard fire Insurance Company v. Knowles is as follows:

Last Term, this Court held 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 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?

For copies of the cert petition and other briefs, and the opinion below, see the SCOTUS Blog page for the case:

http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/the-standard-fire-insurance-co-v-knowles/

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