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Class Action Fairness Act Cases–Bullard v. Burlington Northern: Seventh Circuit Affirms Denial Of Remand Motion Holding Suit On Behalf Of 144 Plaintiffs Was A Mass Action Within Meaning Of Class Action Fairness Act

As Matter of First Impression, Class Action Fairness Act Permitted Removal of Suit as a “Mass Action” because Plaintiffs’ Counsel Designed the Lawsuit as a “Class Action Substitute” Seventh Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a complaint in Illinois state court against four defendants alleging that they had “designed, manufactured, transported, or used chemicals that allegedly escaped from a wood-processing plant and injured people living nearby”; defense attorneys removed the complaint to federal court, arguing that federal court jurisdiction existed under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). Bullard v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe R.R. Co., 535 F.3d 759 (7th Cir. 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1-2]. Specifically, defense attorneys argued that the litigation constituted a “mass action” within the meaning of the Class Action Fairness Act, id.¸ at 2. (Under the Class Action Fairness Act, “mass actions” also may be removed to federal court; the Seventh Circuit summarized the definition of “mass actions” under CAFA as cases “involving the claims of 100 or more litigants – if at least one plaintiff demands $75,000, the stakes of the action as a whole exceed $5 million, and minimal diversity of citizenship exists.” Id., at 2 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(11)).) Plaintiffs’ moved the district court to remand the case to state court; they conceded that the diversity and amount-in-controversy tests had been met, but argued that the lawsuit was not a “mass action” under the Class Action Fairness Act. Id. The district court denied the motion, and the Seventh Circuit granted leave to appeal “because the legal issue is novel” and “has not been addressed in this or any other circuit.” Id. The Circuit Court affirmed.

The Class Action Fairness Act permits removal of “mass actions” when “monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly on the ground that plaintiffs’ claims involve common questions of law or fact.” Bullard, at 2. Plaintiffs argued that this means “defendants may remove a ‘mass action’ only on the eve of trial, once a final pretrial order or equivalent document identifies the number of parties to the trial.” Id. The Circuit Court characterized the lawsuit as “a class-action substitute.” Id., at 3. The Court explained at page 3, “Their complaint alleges that several questions of law and fact are common to all 144 plaintiffs; it provides no more information about each individual plaintiff than an avowed class [action] complaint would do. No one supposes that all 144 plaintiffs will be active; a few of them will take the lead, just as in a class action, and as a practical matter counsel will dominate, just as in a class action. Nonetheless, plaintiffs say, they are entitled to litigate in state court because the Class Action Fairness Act has a loophole.” The loophole envisioned by plaintiffs, however, would prevent the application of the removal of “mass actions” until just before trial. As the Seventh Circuit noted, this reading would eviscerate the statute. “Courts do not read statutes to make entire subsections vanish into the night.” Id., at 3.

In short, the Circuit Court agreed with the district court that “one complaint implicitly proposes one trial.” Bullard, at 4. And plaintiffs’ unilateral statements in support of remand were insufficient to constitute a “stipulation” so as to preclude the application of the Class Action Fairness Act. Id. The Court concluded at page 5, “A proposal to hold multiple trials in a single suit (say, 72 plaintiffs at a time, or just one trial with 10 plaintiffs and the use of preclusion to cover everyone else) does not take the suit outside § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i): any ‘civil action…in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly’ is treated as a ‘class action’ (emphasis added). The question is not whether 100 or more plaintiffs answer a roll call in court, but whether the ‘claims’ advanced by 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly. A trial of 10 exemplary plaintiffs, followed by application of issue or claim preclusion to 134 more plaintiffs without another trial, is one in which the claims of 100 or more persons are being tried jointly, and 1332(d) thus brings the suit within the federal jurisdiction.” Accordingly, the Circuit Court affirmed.

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