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Posts Tagged ‘amount in controversy’

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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The Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument Monday in the case of Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles.  At issue is whether a plaintiff can avoid federal removal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) by stipulating to a recovery of less than $5 million on behalf of  a would-be class.  Debra Lyn Bassett has a good preview of the argument over at SCOTUSblog:

http://www.scotusblog.com/2013/01/argument-preview-avoiding-removal-by-limiting-damages/

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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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Having been focused on several other speaking and writing projects recently (in addition to my day job), it’s taken longer than I had hoped to comment on several recent class-action-related decisions by the federal circuit courts of appeals.  Here’s a brief summary of three recent decisions of note:

Washington State v. Chimei Innolux Corp., No. 11-16862 (9th Cir. Oct. 3, 2011) – joining the Fourth Circuit in holding that a parens patriae action brought by state attorneys general or other state officials for the benefit of the state’s citizens is not a “class action” for the purposes of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).

Klier v. Elf Atochem N. Am., Inc., No. 10-20305 (5th Cir., Sept 27, 2011) – holding in the absence of an express provision in the settlement agreement to the contrary that unclaimed funds should be distributed pro rata to class members who participated in the settlement as opposed to being given to charity as a cy pres distribution.  Take note of the concurrence by Judge Edith H. Jones, which makes a strong argument that in the absence of any agreement to the contrary or express waiver of the right to recover unclaimed funds, the equities favor returning those funds to the defendant rather than paying them to the class or distributing them to charity.

Esurance Ins. Co. v. Keeling, No. 11-8018 (7th Cir., Sept. 26, 2011) – holding that when punitive damages are at issue, the correct standard is whether it would be “legally impossible” for the plaintiff to recover an amount of punitive damages that, when combined with the amount of compensatory damages sought, would exceed the $5 million amount in controversy threshold under CAFA, but concluding that it was not legally impossible under Illinois law, even though it was unlikely, that $4.4 million in punitive damages could be awarded in a case where the compensatory damages were slightly more than $600,000.

A great resource for more timely commentary and analysis on recent class action decision in the federal courts of appeals is Alison Frankel’s blog On the Case.

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I will be speaking in an upcoming live phone/web seminar on CAFA removal issues sponsored by Strafford Publications.  Here is some information about the program:

CAFA Removal and Remand: Latest Developments

Tuesday, March 29, 1:00pm-2:30pm EDT

Program Description:

Jurisdictional ambiguities in the CAFA statute continue to challenge litigators. One example is the Eleventh Circuit’s Cappuccitti v. DirecTV ruling that the district court lacked jurisdiction because no individual plaintiff or putative class member met the amount-in-controversy requirement. While the Eleventh Circuit later vacated its decision, its initial confusion was caused by CAFA’s ambiguous jurisdictional structure. Another evolving jurisdictional issue is the federal court’s authority to retain jurisdiction post-removal. Courts still wrestle with the effect of post-removal events such as denial of class certification or loss of diversity on continued federal court jurisdiction. While several recent cases more firmly establish continued post-removal federal court jurisdiction, this issue is far from settled.

This program will provide class action litigators with an examination of the latest case law developments in CAFA removal and remand, analyze continued jurisdictional ambiguities and pitfalls, and offer litigation strategies for navigating these ambiguities. The panel will offer perspectives and guidance on these and other critical questions: How are the courts resolving ambiguities in CAFA’s amount-in-controversy requirements for federal court jurisdiction? Do the federal courts retain jurisdiction even after class certification is denied or diversity is destroyed? What post-removal events or circumstances can result in a remand to state court?

The panel presentation will be followed by a  live question and answer session.

For more information and to register, see the Strafford Publications website.

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The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed itself just months after its widely reviled opinion in Cappuccitti v. DirecTV.  In a per curiam opinion issued October 15, 2010, a three judge panel concluded, on rehearing, that the earlier Cappuccitti decision was simply “incorrect.”  The key holding means that a plaintiffs’ class under CAFA does not have to meet a threshold requirement of having at least one plaintiff with a claim of $75,000 or more. 

“Subsequent reflection has led us to conclude that our interpretation was incorrect. Specifically, CAFA’s text does not require at least one plaintiff in a class action to meet the amount in controversy requirement of 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Accordingly, we construe both parties’ petitions for rehearing en banc to include petitions for panel rehearing, vacate our earlier opinion, and replace it with this one.” Cappuccitti v. DirecTV, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 4027719 (11th Cir. Oct. 15, 2010) (cites omitted).

 This decision should quiet the near universal criticism that has been clanging through the echo chamber of the class action bar since the appellate court’s July 19 ruling. The July opinion focused on the jurisdictional thresholds of the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).  The summer Cappuccitti decision was controversial because it seemingly invented a new requirement for federal courts to exercise original jurisdiction over class actions filed under CAFA.  The opinion set an unprecedented threshold that at least one plaintiff in a CAFA class action must allege an amount in controversy of at least $75,000.  Critics of the ruling observed that such a requirement would effectively end the filing of CAFA class actions in the Eleventh Circuit.  The CAFA law blog has extensively covered the potential impacts.  But never mind, that’s all in the past.  After the most recent ruling, the CAFA doors are now back open.

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