Published on:

Watson v. Philip Morris-Class Action Defense Issues: U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Tobacco Company Argument That Heavily Regulated Industry Falls Within Scope of Federal Officer Removal Statute

In Decision with Significant Impact on Defense of Class Action Lawsuits, U.S. Supreme Court Holds that Private Party cannot Remove Lawsuit to Federal Court under Federal Officer Removal Statute Merely because it Complies with Federal Laws

Plaintiffs filed a suit in Arkansas state court against Philip Morris alleging violations of the state’s unfair and deceptive business practices statutes arising out of its marketing of “light” cigarettes, which plaintiffs argued suggested that they were “safer” – i.e., lower in tar and nicotine – than regular cigarettes. Watson v. Philip Morris Cos., Inc., 551 U.S. __, 127 S.Ct. 2301 [Slip Opn., at 1-2] (2007). Defense attorneys removed the action to federal court on the basis of the federal officer removal statute, which the district court agreed authorized removal, id., at 2. The Supreme Court explained that the district court reasoned the lawsuit “attacked Philip Morris’ use of the Government’s method of testing cigarettes” and that plaintiffs “had sued Philip Morris for ‘act[s]’ taken ‘under’ the Federal Trade Commission, a federal agency (staffed by federal ‘officer[s]’).” Id. The district court certified the question for interlocutory review, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed “emphasiz[ing] the FTC’s detailed supervision of the cigarette testing process” and relying upon cases authorizing removal “by heavily supervised Government contractors.” Id., at 2-3. The Eighth Circuit held that Philip Morris was “acting under” the FTC with respect to its marketing of “light” cigarettes, thus authorizing removal. Id., at 3. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.

The federal officer removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), permits removal of suits brought against the “United States or any agency thereof or any officer (or any person acting under that officer) of the United States or of any agency thereof, sued in an official or individual capacity for any act under color of such office” (italics added). The Supreme Court recognized that the phrase “acting under” are “broad” and that “the statute must be ‘liberally construed,’” but added that “broad language is not limitless.” Watson, at 3 (citations omitted). The High Court’s analysis of the legislative history led it to conclude that the Congressional intent was to cover persons “aiding or assisting” federal officers in the performance of their duties, or acting directly “under or by authority of any such officer.” Id., at 3-7. So viewed, the Supreme Court held that the words “acting under” in the federal officer removal statute must be a reference to “a relationship that involves ‘acting in a certain capacity, considered in relation to one holding a superior position or office.’” Id., at 7. “In our view, the help or assistance necessary to bring a private person within the scope of the statute does not include simply complying with the law.” Id., at 8 (italics in original).

The Supreme Court summarized its holding at page 9 as follows: “The upshot is that a highly regulated firm cannot find a statutory basis for removal in the fact of federal regulation alone. A private firm’s compliance (or noncompliance) with federal laws, rules, and regulations does not by itself fall within the scope of the statutory phrase ‘acting under’ a federal ‘official.’ And that is so even if the regulation is highly detailed and even if the private firm’s activities are highly supervised and monitored. A contrary determination would expand the scope of the statute considerably….” Accordingly, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit. Id., at 14.