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CAFA Class Action Defense Cases–Dennison v. Carolina Payday Loans: Fourth Circuit Affirms Remand Of Class Action To State Court Holding Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) Minimal Diversity Not Established

Class Action Properly Remanded to State Court because under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act) Defendant is Citizen of Both State of Incorporation and State of Principal Place of Business, and CAFA does not Permit Defendant to Choose State of Citizenship to Satisfy Minimal Diversity for Removal Jurisdiction Fourth Circuit Holds

Plaintiff filed a class action in South Carolina state court against Carolina Payday Loans alleging violations of state law in “payday loans” that were allegedly unconscionable; plaintiff was a South Carolina citizen, and brought the putative class action complaint on behalf of herself and other South Carolina citizens. Dennison v. Carolina Payday Loans, Inc., 549 F.3d 941, 942 (4th Cir. 2008). Defense attorneys removed the class action to federal court asserting removal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA); the defense argued minimal diversity had been met because Carolina Payday “is a citizen of Georgia, where it claims it has its principal place of business, even though it is also a citizen of South Carolina, where it is incorporated,” or because some members of the putative class may have moved out of state. Id. The district court granted plaintiff’s motion to remand the class action to state court because Carolina Payday and the putative class members were citizens of South Carolina. Id. The district court additionally found that the class action “fell within the ‘home-state exception’ to CAFA jurisdiction set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(4) because in a class limited by definition to ‘citizens of South Carolina,’ at least two-thirds of the class members necessarily are citizens of South Carolina.” Id. The Fourth Circuit granted defendant’s request for permission to appeal the remand order, and affirmed.

The Circuit Court found this case to be “substantively identical” to Johnson v. Advance America, Cash Advance Centers of South Carolina, Inc., 549 F.3d 932 (4th Cir. 2008). Dennison, at 942. Because the class action complaint expressly defined the putative class “to include only citizens of South Carolina,” defense counsel’s speculation that class members may have moved out of state was inaccurate. Id. The Fourth Circuit first held that a class defined as “all citizens of South Carolina” is indistinguishable from a class defined as “citizens of South Carolina who are domiciled in South Carolina” because “an individual must be domiciled in a State in order to be a citizen of that State.” Id., at 942-43 (citations omitted). Accordingly, the class action complaint properly limited the scope of the class to South Carolina residents/citizens. Id., at 943. The Court therefore found irrelevant Carolina Payday’s evidence that some of its South Carolina borrowers were now citizens of other states because class membership was limited to “citizen[s] of South Carolina at the time the complaint was filed.” Id. The Fourth Circuit also found unpersuasive the defense argument that because Carolina Payday has its principal place of business in Georgia, it is allowed to rely on its Georgia citizenship to establish minimal diversity under CAFA. See id., at 943-44. The Circuit Court explained at page 944 that CAFA “does not give greater weight to a corporation’s principal place of business than to its place of incorporation” and that, accordingly, for purposes of establishing diversity under CAFA “Carolina Payday is a citizen of both South Carolina, its State of incorporation, and Georgia, assuming it is able to demonstrate that its principal place of business is in Georgia.” The Fourth Circuit therefore affirmed the district court order remanding the class action to state court, id., at 944.

NOTE: One circuit judge dissented in part, concluding that the class action complaint failed to limit class membership to “only citizens of South Carolina as of the time the Complaint was filed.” Dennison, at 944. However, the circuit judge concurred in the judgment “because Carolina Payday failed to meet its burden of proof to establish the citizenship of any plaintiff in a state other than South Carolina.” Id.

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