By Michael P. Daly and Jessica D. Khan

On January 14, the Supreme Court of the United States held that lawsuits that are filed in the name of a State Attorney General but seek relief on behalf of a State’s citizens cannot be removed to federal court as “mass actions” under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). See Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., No. 12-1036 (Jan. 14, 2014). Resolving a split between the Fifth Circuit on the one hand and the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits on the other, the ruling means that businesses will have to defend AG actions in state courts, and state courts will have to resolve whether such actions can proceed even though the consumers on whose behalf they are brought have agreed to settle their claims in a class action or, conversely, to pursue their own claims individually rather than collectively.

“Mass Actions”

CAFA gives federal courts original subject matter jurisdiction over certain “class actions” and “mass actions.” It defines a “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” and defines a “mass action” as “any civil action . . . in which the 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, except that jurisdiction shall exist only over those plaintiffs whose claims in a mass action [exceed $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs].” 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(1)(B), (d)(11)(B)(i). [1] Excluded from the definition of “mass action” are (among other things) actions in which “all of the claims are asserted on behalf of the general public (and not on behalf of individual claimants or members of a purported class) pursuant to State statute specifically authorizing such action . . . .” Id. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(ii)(III).

The Hood Case

Jim Hood, the Attorney General of Mississippi, filed a parens patriae action that alleged that the companies that manufacture and market liquid crystal display (LCD) panels had engaged in price-fixing that violated the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act and Mississippi Antitrust Act. Hood sought equitable and compensatory relief on behalf of both the State and its citizens. The defendants removed the action to federal court under CAFA and the Attorney General moved to remand. The district court remanded, finding that the suit was not a “mass action” because it fell within the definition’s “general public” exception. The Fifth Circuit reversed. Looking at each claim rather than the action as a whole, it reasoned that the real parties in interest were not only the State but also the individual citizens who had purchased LCD products, and as a result the “claims of 100 or more persons [we]re proposed to be tried jointly.” Id. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i). Hood then petitioned for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

Yesterday, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed. Justice Sotomayor’s opinion is a primer on statutory construction:

Respondents argue that the [mass action] provision covers [AG actions] because “claims of 100 or more persons” refers to “the persons to whom the claim belongs, i.e., the real parties in interest to the claims,” regardless of whether those persons are named or unnamed. We disagree.

To start, the statute says “100 or more persons,” not “100 or more named or unnamed real parties in interest.” Had Congress intended the latter, it easily could have drafted language to that effect. Indeed, when Congress wanted a numerosity requirement in CAFA to be satisfied by counting unnamed parties in interest in addition to named plaintiffs, it explicitly said so: CAFA provides that in order for a class action to be removable, “the number of members of all proposed plaintiff classes” must be 100 or greater, and it defines “class members” to mean “the persons (named or unnamed) who fall within the definition of the proposed or certified class.” Congress chose not to use the phrase “named or unnamed” in CAFA’s mass action provision, a decision we understand to be intentional.

More fundamentally, respondents’ interpretation cannot be reconciled with the fact that the “100 or more persons” referred to in the statute are not unspecified individuals who have no actual participation in the suit, but instead the very “plaintiffs” referred to later in the sentence—the parties who are proposing to join their claims in a single trial….[2]

The Court then rejected the argument that “plaintiffs” should be read as including both named and unnamed parties, finding that such a reading “stretches the meaning of ‘plaintiff’ beyond recognition” and would impose an “administrative nightmare” on the lower courts:

The term “plaintiff” is among the most commonly understood of legal terms of art: It means a “party who brings a civil suit in a court of law.” It certainly does not mean “anyone, named or unnamed, whom a suit may benefit,” as respondents suggest.

Yet if the term “plaintiffs” is stretched to include all unnamed individuals with an interest in the suit, then §1332(d)(11)(B)(i)’s requirement that “jurisdiction shall exist only over those plaintiffs whose claims [exceed $75,000]” becomes an administrative nightmare that Congress could not possibly have intended. How is a district court to identify the unnamed parties whose claims in a given case are for less than $75,000? Would the court in this case, for instance, have to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the identity of each of the hundreds of thousands of unnamed Mississippi citizens who purchased one of respondents’ LCD products between 1996 and 2006 (the period alleged in the complaint)? Even if it could identify every such person, how would it ascertain the amount in controversy for each individual claim?

We think it unlikely that Congress intended that federal district courts engage in these unwieldy inquiries. By contrast, interpreting “plaintiffs” in accordance with its usual meaning—to refer to the actual named parties who bring an action—leads to a straightforward, easy to administer rule under which a court would examine whether the plaintiffs have pleaded in good faith the requisite amount. Our decision thus comports with the commonsense observation that “when judges must decide jurisdictional matters, simplicity is a virtue.”[3]

The decision means that the troubling trend of retaining private class action lawyers to file public AG actions in state courts can continue and could conceivably quicken. It also raises a number of interesting questions the Court did not address, for example whether AG actions are barred by agreements to settle class actions brought on behalf of the same consumers,[4] or affected by agreements to resolve claims in individual arbitration rather than representative litigation.[5]

For more information on the implications of this decision, contact Michael P. Daly at (215) 988-2604 or Michael.Daly



[1] The defendants did not ask the Court to hold that the case qualified as a “class action,” although they had raised that point below. See Opinion at 4 & n.2.

[2] Opinion at 5-6 (emphasis in original, citations omitted).

[3] Id. at 7-10 (citations omitted).

[4] Cf. New Mexico ex rel. King v. Capital One Bank (USA) N.A., 13-0513, 2013 WL 5944087, at *4-8 (D.N.M. Nov. 4, 2013) (finding that class action settlement barred AG action to the extent it sought compensatory relief).

[5] Cf. Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles, LLC, 206 Cal. App. 4th 949, 964 (2012) (finding that Concepcion requires enforcement of waiver of right to bring representative action under California’s Private Attorney General Act), review granted Sept. 19, 2012 (No. S204032).


Source: Class Action Alert