Melissa Ramirez, et. al. v. Vintage Pharmaceuticals, 852 F.3d 324 (3d Cir. 2017).

In this case, the Third Circuit found that the language the plaintiffs held out as disclaiming their intent to seek a joint trial was not sufficiently definite to prevent removal as a mass action under CAFA. Accordingly, it reversed the U.S. District Court’s order, which had remanding the action to the state court, and remanded the matter to the U.S. District Court for further proceedings.

Plaintiffs, a group of 113 birth-control users, brought an action against the Defendants in Pennsylvania state court alleging that they were harmed by the packaging error on certain brands of Qualitest birth-control pills. The packaging error reversed the sequence of pills contained within each birth control package, which precipitated an unintended and less effective dosage program.

The complaint alleged that the similarly-situated Plaintiffs—who were residents of 28 different states but whose claims arose out of a common set of operative facts—filed their claims together for purposes of case management on a mass tort basis. One week after filing their complaint, Plaintiffs submitted a motion to assign their action to the Court of Common Pleas’ Mass Tort Program. Before that motion was briefed or ruled upon, Defendants removed the action to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania as a “mass action” under CAFA. Plaintiffs sought remand, arguing that they had not presented such a “mass action.” The District Court agreed and granted the motion to remand, concluding that the Plaintiffs did not propose to try their claims jointly.

Defendants appealed. Because the other jurisdictional requirements had been met, the appeal rested entirely on whether Plaintiffs had proposed to try their claims jointly. For purposes of determining whether an action qualifies as a mass action, a proposal for a joint trial may be either explicit or implicit. See Atwell v. Boston Sci. Corp., 740 F.3d 1160, 1163 (8th Cir. 2013); In re Abbott Labs., Inc., 698 F.3d 568, 572–73 (7th Cir. 2012). (Editor’s Note:  See the CAFA Law Blog analysis of Atwell posted on September 19, 2014).   The Third Circuit found that here there were at least three explicit indications that the plaintiffs proposed a joint trial in the instant action, all of which were plain from the text of their initial filings.

First, the Third Circuit found that after each count in the complaint, Plaintiffs “respectfully requested a jury trial” (singular), never multiple or separate trials. Next, the Third Circuit found that Plaintiffs continued the singular language in their prayer for relief, which sought “an award of damages in such amount to be determined at trial.” Finally, the Third Circuit noted that Plaintiffs’ Notice to Defend warned Defendants that, if they failed to appear and file their defenses and objections to their claims, “a judgment” (singular) may be entered against them. Plaintiffs also specified that their “claims arose out of a common set of operative facts” that were “common to all counts.” The Third Circuit therefore held that the instances of singular language, taken together, provided strong evidence of a proposal for joint trial.

Plaintiffs, however, argued that they had included some language in their complaint that should be read as a disclaimer of a joint trial. CAFA explicitly exempts “claims [that] have been consolidated or coordinated solely for pretrial proceedings.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(ii)(IV) (emphasis added). Here, Plaintiffs stated that their “claims have been filed together . . . for purposes of case management on a mass tort basis.” Plaintiffs asserted that the language evinced their intent to limit coordination of their claims to “case management,” which they characterized as referring strictly to a pre-trial phase of the litigation. But the Third Circuit found that Plaintiffs’ language was far from precise or definitive enough to signal their intent to limit coordination only to pre-trial matters. It further explained that even if the plaintiffs had included the word only in the statement, the court would still need to determine whether “case management” only applied to pre-trial phases of the litigation.

Despite the ambiguity, Plaintiffs contended that the burden of proof fell on Defendants, and that the language they had included in their complaint was enough to prevent Defendants from satisfying that burden. Plaintiffs are given a great deal of power in CAFA removal contexts; they can effectively insulate themselves from its jurisdiction. Here, the Third Circuit held that the burden of proof did belong to Defendants as the side seeking removal, but they had met that burden. With the exception of the language regarding case management, the entirety of the Complaint and the Notice to Defend contemplated a single joint trial. Plaintiffs made no effort to structure the action in a way that would preclude CAFA jurisdiction, which would have been as easy as filing two actions each with less than 100 claims instead of a single action with all 113 claims or including a statement limiting case management to pre-trial matters.

Finally, the Third Circuity analyzed whether Plaintiffs application for admission to the Mass Tort Program was evidence of their intent to try their claims separately. It held that Plaintiffs could not file a complaint that explicitly or implicitly proposes a joint trial—as here—only to then rely on their later conduct as evidence that they had not initially made such a proposal. Even beyond that principle, the Third Circuit noted that admission to the Mass Tort Program would not necessarily preclude a joint trial, so it did not necessarily evince intent to have claims tried separately.

Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the district court’s order remanding the action to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and remanded the matter the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for further proceedings.

–Barry A. McCain