CAFA Class Action Defense Cases–Moffitt v. Residential Funding: Fourth Circuit Court Affirms District Court Order Denying Remand Of Class Actions Holding CAFA Jurisdiction Existed At Time Remand Motions Filed

Jul 14, 2010 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Even if Defendants Removed Class Actions to Federal Court Prematurely, Subsequent Class Action Complaints Filed by Plaintiffs Prior to Filing Motion for Remand Established Federal Court Jurisdiction under Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) so District Court did not Err in Denying Motion to Remand Class Actions to State Court Fourth Circuit Holds

In 2003, three plaintiffs filed individual state court lawsuits against various defendants, including Residential Funding, “alleging violations of the Maryland Secondary Mortgage Loan Law.” Moffitt v. Residential Funding Co., LLC, ___ F.3d ___ (4th Cir. May 3, 2010) [Slip Opn., at 1, 4]. The lawsuits were dismissed in 2006 on statute of limitations grounds, “[b]ut in 2009, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed, permitting the cases to go forward.” _Id._, at 4 (citation omitted). Plaintiffs’ counsel then advised the various defendants, in writing, “that plaintiffs intended to amend their individual complaints into class actions.” _Id._ Plaintiffs’ counsel also provided defendants with copies of the three anticipated class action complaints. _Id._ The draft class action lawsuits alleged that the putative class covered “thousands of members” and, though they did not pray for a specific amount in damages, the cover letter estimated that the damage suffered by each class member ranged from $20,000 to $90,000. _Id._ Believing that the draft complaint constituted “other paper[s]” within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b) and that the draft class action complaints established federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), and “[f]earing that the thirty-day deadline would expire before plaintiffs actually filed the amended complaints,” defense attorneys removed the lawsuits to federal court. _Id._ Plaintiffs’ counsel thereafter filed the amended class action complaints in the federal court, _id._, at 4-5, and “defendants filed motions for leave to amend their original notices of removal in order to base removal on plaintiffs’ actual filing of the complaints,” _id._, at 5. Plaintiffs then moved to remand the class actions to state court, _id._, at 5. Plaintiffs’ counsel conceded that the amended class action complaints fell within the scope of CAFA for purposes of federal court jurisdiction, but they argued that the removals were premature because neither the letter nor the draft class action complaints constituted “other paper[s]” within the meaning of § 1446(b). _Id._ The district court denied the motion, _id._ Plaintiffs obtained leave to appeal the district court’s order, _id._, at 5-6, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Circuit Court began its analysis by observing that it “need not decide whether the cases were improperly removed” because even if they were “the amended complaints provided an independent basis for the district court to retain jurisdiction.” Moffitt, at 3. Plaintiffs’ “principal argument” is that federal court jurisdiction “did not exist at the time of removal,” accordingly, the motion for remand should have been granted. Id., at 6. The Fourth Circuit recognized that the removal statute requires the case be subject to federal court adjudication “at the time the removal petition is filed,” id. (citation omitted), but held that “the mere fact that a case does not meet this timing requirement is not ‘fatal to federal-court adjudication’ where jurisdictional defects are subsequently cured.” Id. (citation omitted). It was therefore unnecessary for the Court to decide whether federal court jurisdiction over the cases existed at the time defense counsel removed them to federal court, because “plaintiffs independently conferred jurisdiction on the district court by filing their amended class action complaints prior to moving to remand.” Id., at 7. The Circuit Court also reasoned, “Requiring pointless movement between state and federal court before a case is tried on the merits can…impose significant costs on both courts and litigants[,]” and “Here, it would be a waste of judicial resources to remand these cases on the basis of an antecedent violation of the removal statute now that jurisdiction has been established.” Id., at 8. Put simply, the Fourth Circuit found that “these cases would likely end up in federal court regardless of whether we ordered remands at this juncture.” Id. Thus, “considerations of judicial economy weigh against requiring such a pointless exercise and in favor of allowing this case to go forward in a federal forum where jurisdiction has been perfected.” Id. The Circuit Court therefore affirmed the district court order denying plaintiffs’ motion to remand the class actions to state court, id., at 9.

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