CAFA Class Action Defense Cases–Spivey v. Vertrue: Seventh Circuit Reverses Order Remanding Class Action To State Court And Holds Petition Under CAFA For Leave To Appeal May Be Filed More Than 7 Day After Entry Of Order

Jul 14, 2008 | By: Michael J. Hassen

District Court erred in Remanding Class Action to State Court because Defense Established Removal Jurisdiction under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act) Seventh Circuit Holds

Plaintiff filed a class action complaint in state court against Vertrue alleging that it improperly billed its customers for unauthorized charges; specifically, the putative class action “proposed to represent a class of persons whose credit cards had been charged without authorization through 22 of Vertrue’s programs.” Spivey v. Vertrue, Inc., 528 F.3d 982, 983 (7th Cir. 2008). Defense attorneys removed the class action to federal court, asserting that federal court jurisdiction existed under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA); plaintiff’s lawyer moved to remand the class action to state court, arguing that the amount in controversy did not exceed $5 million. Id. The district court agreed with plaintiff and remanded the class action to state court, id. Defense attorneys petitioned the Seventh Circuit for leave to appeal, as authorized by CAFA. Id. Plaintiff objected on the ground that the petition was untimely – defense attorneys “mailed the petition on the seventh day after the district court’s remand order, and the petition reached [the Circuit Court], and so was ‘filed,’ see Fed. R.App. P. 25(a)(2), on April 18, 2008, the tenth day after the district court’s order.” Id. The Seventh Circuit granted leave to appeal, held that the petition was timely, and reversed.

The Class Action Fairness Act authorizes an appellate court to review a district court order “granting or denying a motion to remand a class action to the State court from which it was removed if application is made to the court of appeals not less than 7 days after entry of the order.” Spivey, at 983 (quoting § 1453©(1)). The Seventh Circuit held at page 983 that “[t]he petition was timely under this language” because it was filed “not less than 7 days” following entry of the order remanding the class action to state court. Id. Plaintiff’s lawyer argued that Congress clearly intended to require a petition for review to be filed “not more than 7 days” after the order is entered, and that “not less than 7 days” is patently erroneous. Id. The Circuit Court noted that several courts have noted this ambiguity and yet Congress has not acted, thus suggesting that CAFA says what Congress intended. Id., at 983-84 (citations omitted). It therefore rejected the arguments of treatises and other courts that reading § 1453©(1) literally creates an absurdity, id., at 984. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit noted at page 984, “To the extent that our colleagues in other circuits hold that a petition filed within seven days of the district court’s order should be accepted, rather than thrown out with instructions to submit another once a week has passed, we concur. Whether a petition filed within a week after the remand is timely was the question actually presented in those appeals. An affirmative answer tracks Fed. R.App. P. 4(a)(2), which says that a premature notice of appeal remains on file and springs into effect when the decision becomes appealable. It makes sense to use the same approach for a premature permission for leave to appeal.” But on the other hand, no federal court had thrown out a petition as untimely when it complied with the literally language of the statute as that would be fundamentally unfair, id., at 984-85. “Litigants and lawyers always should be safe in relying on a statute’s actual language.” Id., at 985. This is particularly true in this case, the Circuit Court explained, because defense attorneys expressly attempted to avoid the ambiguity in the statute “by straddling the deadline.” Id. Accordingly, the Court held that the petition was timely.

Turning to the merits, the Circuit Court explained that the defense met the $5 million limit by submitting evidence that “[Vertrue’s] billings, for 4 of the 22 programs in Illinois alone, come to almost $7 million.” Spivey, at 985. The district court found this insufficient “because Vertrue did not concede that more than $5 million in charges was unauthorized.” Id. This was error, the Seventh Circuit explained, because the jurisdictional limit is defined by the amount in controversy, not the amount plaintiff “is sure to recover.” Id., at 985-86. Put simply, “A removing defendant need not ‘confess liability in order to show that the controversy exceeds the threshold.’” Id., at 986 (citation omitted). Because defense attorneys “explained plausibly how the stakes exceed $5 million,” the class action properly had been removed to federal court “unless it is legally impossible for the plaintiff to recover that much.” Id. (citations omitted). That, however, was not the basis for the district court’s order remanding the class action to state court; rather, “the judge said that Vertrue’s failure to admit what portion of all charges was unauthorized makes it uncertain how high the judgment (if any) will be.” Id. In that, the district court erred. Accordingly, the Court reversed the lower court’s remand order and sent the class action back to the federal court “for adjudication on the merits.” Id.

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