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Class Action Defense Cases–Murray v. Fidelity: Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of Class Action Complaint Holding Defense Tender Mooted New Plaintiffs’ Individual Claims

Class Action Complaint that was Non-Justiciable for Failure of Original Plaintiffs’ Claims was Properly Dismissed Following Addition of New Plaintiffs because Defense Tender of Full Payment Prior to Amendment Adding New Plaintiffs as Class Representatives Mooted their Claims Fifth Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Fidelity National Financial and others “alleging that Ticor Title Insurance Company…had overcharged them to record documents related to their residential real estate closings and that the other Defendants were also liable under theories of vicarious liability.” Murray v. Fidelity Nat’l Financial, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, 2010 WL 143454, *1 (5th Cir. January 15, 2010). However, it turned out plaintiffs had not conducted business with Ticor Title but, rather, “had dealt with a third party that promoted itself as ‘Ticor Title of San Antonio,’ despite having no authority to act for any of the Defendants.” Id. Accordingly, plaintiffs moved the district court to amend their class action complaint to add two additional plaintiffs (the Murrays) as class representatives on the ground that the Murrays had conducted business with Defendant Chicago Title Insurance Group. Id. While that motion was pending, Chicago Title tendered the Murrays a check in full payment of their individual claim; the district court nonetheless granted plaintiffs’ motion and added the Murrays as named representatives for the putative class. Id. The new group of plaintiffs thereafter filed an amended class action complaint, id. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action complaint on the ground that the Murrays’ claims had been rendered moot by Chicago Title’s tender; defendants moved also for summary judgment on the grounds that the original plaintiffs “failed to establish any case or controversy against any Defendant, because none of the Defendants handled Original Plaintiffs’ real estate transactions.” Id. The federal court granted the defense motions, id. The Murrays appealed the dismissal of their claims against Chicago Title, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The Murrays argued that because Rule 15(a)(2) requires plaintiffs to inform defendants of the names of proposed class representatives, this “provides defendants the opportunity to ‘pick off’ would-be class representatives by tendering the amount claimed individually by the plaintiff, thereby effectively preventing the original plaintiffs from amending a complaint to add other plaintiffs who better represent the interests of the putative class.” Murray, at 1. Relying on its decision in Zeidman v. J. Ray McDermott & Co., 651 F.2d 1030 (5th Cir. 1981), the Circuit Court held that “As a general principle, a purported class action becomes moot when the personal claims of all named plaintiffs are satisfied and no class has been certified.” Murray, at 2 (citing Zeidman, at 1045). The Court observed at page *2, “In such a case there is no plaintiff (either named or unnamed) who can assert a justiciable claim against any defendant and consequently there is no longer a ‘case or controversy’ within the meaning of Article III of the Constitution.” Id. (citations omitted). And while the Fifth Circuit has “recognized a limited exception to this general principle” where a plaintiff’s claims have been “prematurely mooted” by the defendant. Id. (citations omitted). More specifically, the Circuit Court explained at page *2:

Foreshadowing the concerns raised by the Murrays, the [Zeidman] court noted “that in those cases in which it is financially feasible to pay off successive named plaintiffs, the defendants would have the option to preclude a viable class action from ever reaching the certification stage.” [Citation.] The court ultimately held “that a suit brought as a class action should not be dismissed for mootness upon tender to the named plaintiffs of their personal claims, at least when … there is pending before the district court a timely filed and diligently pursued motion for class certification.” [Citation.]

The salient difference, however, is that here the Murrays could have avoided the problem created by the tender “by filing a separate complaint, which could have been consolidated with the original suit, had that suit not been moot.” Murray, at *3. “The availability of consolidation undermines the rationale for extending Zeidman to plaintiffs seeking to be added through amendment and minimizes the burden of multiple filings on the district court’s docket.” Id. In other words, “the Murrays had a readily available means of preventing the defendants from mooting their suit” but they failed to exercise that option. Id. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit declined the invitation to extend Zeidman “to the circumstances of this case.” Id. In any event, because the original class action was non-justiciable because it was “moot from the very beginning,” the Circuit Court would not extend Zeidman to the Murrays’ case because “there was no suit to which the Murrays could be added.” Id. The Fifth Circuit therefore affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the class action, id., at *4.

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