Sears Class Action Defense Case-Santamarina v. Sears: Seventh Circuits Holds Class Action Not Removable By Defense Because Under California Law Amendments To Class Action Complaint Related Back To Original Filing

Nov 28, 2006 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Error in Refusing to Remand Class Action is not Jurisdictional Error but Defense Improperly Removed Class Action under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act of 2005) Because Amendments to Complaint Related Back Original Filing Which Predated CAFA’s Effective Date

In January 2005, prior to the effect date of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA), plaintiff filed a barebones class action in California state court against Sears alleging false representations that certain Craftsman tools are made in the U.S. when they are manufactured abroad. Santamarina v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 466 F.3d 570, 571 (7th Cir. 2006). Defense attorneys demurred, and plaintiff’s lawyer filed an amended complaint after CAFA became effective. The defense then removed the class action to federal court arguing that the amended complaint did not relate back and was therefore removable under CAFA. The California federal court denied plaintiff’s motion for remand and plaintiff did not appeal that ruling. However, after the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) transferred the case to Illinois, plaintiff asked the district court to reconsider the California court’s ruling. The Illinois federal court held that the defense removal had been improper and remanded the class action to California state court. Id. Sears appealed, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Sears first argued that the Illinois federal court should not have reconsidered the ruling of the California federal court. Santamarina, at 571-72. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, explaining that a court has inherent power to reconsider prior rulings in the same lawsuit, even the rulings of a different judge, “if there is a compelling reason, such as a change in, or clarification of, law that makes clear that the earlier ruling was erroneous.” Id., at 572. The Circuit Court reasoned at page 572, “Not to reconsider in such circumstances would condemn the parties to the unedifying prospect of continued litigation when they knew that a possibly critical ruling was in error and, unless it became moot in the course of the proceedings, would compel a reversal of the final judgment at the end of the case.” The Court of Appeals was critical of plaintiff’s delay in seeking reconsideration “almost 15 months since the case was removed to the federal court and 13 months since it was transferred to Chicago,” but held that “some latitude” was warranted because the class action was removed and remand denied “only a few months after the promulgation of the Class Action Fairness Act.” Id.

Turning to the merits, the Circuit Court held that whether an amendment constitutes a “new action” is determined by examining whether the amendment “relates back” under the law of the state in which the lawsuit was filed. The Court noted that the amended complaint “added two plaintiffs … and considerable detail concerning the nature of the alleged fraud.” Santamarina, at 573. Also, while the original complaint concerned “several” Craftsman tools, “the amended complaint refers to the entire Craftsman line, which consists of 5,000 different tools.” Id. Nonetheless, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the amendments did “relate back” under California law. Id., at 573-74. The Court summarized its reasoning at page 574 as follows: “When it read the original complaint, Sears knew that the plaintiffs were complaining about misrepresentation of the country of origin of Craftsman tools and since it was a class action suit must have realized that any Craftsman tool made abroad (but represented as made in the United States) was fair game.” Accordingly, removal was improper and the Illinois district court order remanding the case to California state court was affirmed. Id.

NOTE: The Seventh Circuit pointedly rejected plaintiff’s claim “that an erroneous refusal to remand a case under the Class Action Fairness Act is a jurisdictional error, which must therefore remain corrigible until the litigation becomes final by issuance of a final judgment and exhaustion of appellate remedies.” Santamarina, at 572.

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