Standard Fire: SCOTUS Foils an Artful Class Action Dodge

With Justice Breyer writing, a unanimous Supreme Court in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles (opinion PDF, background SCOTUSBlog) has struck down as invalid a dodge used by some plaintiff’s lawyers to evade the provisions of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA). As we wrote in October when Cato filed its amicus brief: 

In relevant part, CAFA provides defendants with the right to move class actions to federal court where the claim for damages against them exceeds $5 million. But can clever lawyers keep these cases out of federal court by simply “stipulating” that potential damages are less than $5 million — and before the named plaintiff is even authorized to represent the alleged class? In this case, Greg Knowles is the named plaintiff in a putative insurance-recovery class action against Standard Fire Insurance in Arkansas state court. Before the court certified the class, Knowles tried to avoid that removal to federal court by stipulating that his class would not seek more than $5 million in damages at trial. Notably, the stipulation is worded in such a way that it will not apply if the class definition is later altered. … CAFA was enacted specifically to discourage attorneys from “forum shopping” (seeking friendlier courts) and attempting to keep cases out of federal court. Lawyers who game the system by agreeing to cap damages in an effort to keep cases in more favorable state courts violate the federal due process rights of absent would-be class members, thereby flouting CAFA. 

In his opinion for the unanimous Court, Justice Breyer found that the named class representative lacked a right to limit absent class members’ claims in such a way. Individual litigants remain free to avoid federal jurisdiction through the use of damage stipulations, but that is a decision they are entitled to make only for themselves. That’s very much consistent with the principles Cato urged, and with the importance of individual rights as the fundamental basis for legal action, rather than as mere ingredients to be aggregated by lawyers seeking settlement advantage. Thanks again to the ever-brilliant David B. Rivkin, Jr., Andrew M. Grossman and colleagues at Baker & Hostetler for their work on the Cato brief.