Mandragon v Capital One Auto Finance, 2013 WL 6183001 (9th Cir. Nov. 27, 2013).

In this action, the Ninth Circuit refused the plaintiff’s request that the class definition was sufficient to establish a local controversy exception, and that a requirement of evidence showing that the two-thirds of the class members were in fact California citizens, thereby vacating the district court’s order remanding the case.

The plaintiff filed a putative class action against the defendants Capital One Auto Finance and Ron Baker Chevrolet in the San Diego County Superior Court, alleging violations of various provisions of California state law related to automobile finance contract disclosures. Captial One removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California under CAFA. The plaintiffs filed a motion to remand under the local controversy exception. The plaintiff did not produce any evidence to establish the local controversy exception, but relied on the class definitions that more than two-thirds of the class members were citizens of California.

The plaintiff argued that the class definitions, limiting putative class members to those consumers who purchased and registered cars in California, were sufficient to establish that this action fell within CAFA’s local controversy exception. The district court agreed and remanded. Capital One appealed to the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the district court’s remand order based on what the Ninth Circuit termed as “guesswork” was reviewed.

At the very outset, the Ninth Circuit observed that in many cases before this, it has held that the burden of proof for establishing the applicability of an exception to CAFA jurisdiction rests on the party seeking remand, which in this case, as in most cases, is the plaintiff. This meant that the plaintiff here must thus establish that greater than two-thirds of the prospective class members were citizens of California as of the date the case became removable. The plaintiff argued that more than two-thirds of the members of the class defined to be limited to persons who purchased vehicles in California for personal use to be registered in the State of California, would necessarily be California citizens, but he did not present any evidence, even after Capital One challenged it.

The Ninth Circuit noted that where the facts are in dispute, the statute requires the district court to make factual findings before granting a motion to remand a matter to state court. The Ninth Circuit remarked that it joined the other three circuits that had considered the issue, in holding that the plaintiff must have some facts in evidence from which the district court may make findings regarding class members’ citizenship for the purposes of CAFA’s local controversy exception.

In re Sprint Nextel Corp., 593 F.3d 669 (7th Cir. 2010), the Seventh Circuit noted that freewheeling discretion amounts to no more than guesswork, and a jurisdictional finding of fact should be based on more than guesswork. (Editors’ Note:  See the CAFA Law Blog analysis of In Re Sprint Nextel posted on March 28, 2010). Similarly, in Preston v. Tenet Healthsystem Mem’l Med. Ctr., Inc., 485 F.3d 793 (5th Cir. 2007); and in Evans v. Walter Indus., Inc., 449 F.3d 1159 (11th Cir. 2006), the Fifth Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit, have concurred with the Seventh Circuit that a jurisdictional finding of fact should be based on more than guesswork. (Editors’ Note: See the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Evans posted on May 25, 2006.)

Applying the rulings here, the Ninth Circuit remarked that merely because a purchaser may have a residential address in California, it does not mean that the person is a citizen of California. The Ninth Circuit remarked that if the plaintiff decides to expend the effort, he would be able to gather and submit evidence to support his contention that more than two-thirds of prospective class members were California citizens.

The Ninth Circuit, however, remarked that the burden of proof placed on a plaintiff should not be exceptionally difficult to bear, and that even under CAFA, the jurisdictional allegations in the complaint can be taken as a sufficient basis, on their own, to resolve questions of jurisdiction where no party challenges the allegations. Nevertheless, as the allegations were disputed in this case, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s remand order and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to allow plaintiff an opportunity to renew his motion to remand and to gather evidence to prove that more than two-thirds of the putative class members were California citizens. –JR