Hammonds v. Monsanto Co., No. 4:11 CV 1660 DDN, 2011 WL 5554529 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 15, 2011).

While remanding this action to state court, a District Court in Missouri held that a defendant cannot consolidate several smaller state court actions into one ‘mass action,’ when plaintiff chose to structure her claims and remain outside of CAFA’s grant of jurisdiction.

The plaintiff, Helen Hammonds, filed this action on behalf of herself individually and as survivor of decedent William Hammonds against the defendants, Monsanto Co., Solutia, Inc., Pharmacia Corp., and Pfizer, Inc., in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Missouri.

The plaintiff’s husband William was a North Carolina resident who died in 2008 from lymphohematopoietic cancer. The plaintiff alleged that William’s cancer arose from substantial dietary and environmental exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (“PCBs”), chemical compounds used in insulating fluids in certain electrical equipment that were manufactured by the original Monsanto Chemical Company (Old Monsanto) until 1977, when Congress banned their manufacture. The plaintiff alleged that defendants, Monsanto Co. (New Monsanto), Solutia, Inc., Pharmacia Corporation, and Pfizer, Inc., subsequently acquired portions of Old Monsanto, thereby exposing them to liability for the PCBs.

The defendants removed the action to the federal district court under the “mass action” provision of CAFA, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(2).

The plaintiff moved to remand, which the District Court granted.

The defendants argued that this was one of seven cases which collectively constituted a “mass action” under CAFA because each of these actions involved identical allegations. The defendants stated that the plaintiff’s counsel filed seven different lawsuits, each with less than 100 plaintiffs, to evade federal jurisdiction under CAFA.

The defendants, relying on Westerfeld v. Independent Processing, LLC, 621 F.3d 819 (8th Cir. 2010) and Freeman v. Blue Ridge Paper Products, Inc., 551 F.3d 405 (6th Cir. 2008) contended that for jurisdictional purposes, the claims from the similar actions should be viewed as one “mass action.” They argued that Eighth Circuit abjures efforts to avoid federal court jurisdiction by manipulative artful pleading, and that a plaintiff ought not be able to avoid CAFA jurisdiction by splintering into separate actions what would otherwise be mass actions under CAFA. The defendants argued that the plaintiff’s counsel argued in this case the uniqueness of this action while they argued in the Missouri circuit courts the commonality of the related actions. The defendants argued that, if the Court accepted the plaintiff’s arguments, CAFA would effectively be rendered ineffective, Congress’s intent that nationwide cases be heard in federal court would be thwarted, and the plaintiffs should be required to narrow their allegations in order to avoid removal.  (Editors’ Note:  See the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Westerfeld posted on September 13, 2010 and the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Freeman posted on February 17, 2009.)

The plaintiff argued that CAFA defines “mass action” generally as one involving the claims of at least 100 persons, whose claims involve common questions of law or fact. She argued that this case involved the claims of only one person, her.

The Court observed that the defendants’ theory was contravened by the plain language of CAFA which, by its clear terms, restricts “mass actions” to suits involving 100 or more plaintiffs. Each of the six other actions that were removed from the Missouri courts have since been remanded, Hampton v. Monsanto Co., 4:11 CV 1662 CEJ, 2011 WL 5307835 (E.D.Mo. Nov. 3, 2011); Rodriguez v. Monsanto Co., No. 4:11 CV 1658 AGF, 2011 WL 5245251 (E.D.Mo. Nov. 2, 2011). (Editors’ Note: See the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Hampton posted on December 5, 2011 and the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Rodriguez posted on December 6, 2011.)

Agreeing with the reasoning in Hampton and Rodriguez, the Court stated that these cases made clear that neither Westerfeld nor Freeman involved the “mass action” provision at issue in this case. Specifically, Westerfeld analyzed the applicability of the “local-controversy exception” to federal jurisdiction over class actions, and Freeman analyzed whether claims can be aggregated to satisfy the monetary threshold of CAFA’s ‘class action’ federal jurisdiction provision.

Moreover, the Court stated that Anderson v. Bayer Corp., 610 F.3d 390, 393 (7th Cir. 2010) and Tanoh v. Dow Chem. Co., 561 F.3d 945, 953 (9th Cir. 2009) have directly rejected defendants’ theory. In Anderson, the Seventh Circuit held that “by excluding cases in which the claims were consolidated on a defendant’s motion, Congress appears to have contemplated that some cases which could have been brought as a mass action would, because of the way in which the plaintiffs chose to structure their claims, remain outside of CAFA’s grant of jurisdiction”. In Tanoh, the Ninth Circuit held that Congress anticipated that defendants might attempt to consolidate several smaller state court actions into one ‘mass action,’ and specifically directed that such a consolidated action was not a mass action eligible for removal under CAFA.  (Editors’ Note: See the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Anderson posted on September 8, 2010 and the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Tanoh posted on August 13, 2009.)

The Court thus concluding that the defendants had not met their burden of establishing that all prerequisites to jurisdiction had been satisfied remanded this action to the state court.