On March 19, 2013, in Standard Fire Insurance Co .v. Knowles, the United States Supreme Court ruled that stipulations by a named plaintiff on behalf of a proposed class prior to class certification cannot serve as the basis for avoiding federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (“CAFA”).
In Knowles, the named plaintiff filed a proposed class action in Arkansas state court alleging defendant Standard Fire failed to include a general contractor fee in its homeowners’ insurance loss payouts. Knowles’ complaint sought to certify a class of hundreds or thousands of other policyholders and included a stipulation that he and the class would not seek aggregate damages exceeding $5 million.
Standard Fire removed the case to federal court, relying on CAFA provisions that afford federal courts original jurisdiction over class actions where, among other requirements, the aggregate amount of all claims exceeds $5 million. The federal district court found the aggregate amount in controversy exceeded $5 million, but remanded to state court based on Knowles’ stipulation that he and the proposed class would not seek more than $5 million in damages. Standard Fire appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit, which declined to hear the appeal.
In reversing the district court’s decision to remand the case to Arkansas state court, the Supreme Court relied on the basic premise that “[s]tipulations must be binding.” The Court further reasoned that Knowles’ stipulation could not bind the class members because a named plaintiff in a class action “cannot legally bind members of the proposed class before the class is certified.” Thus, although Knowles’ stipulation would prevent Knowles from seeking more than $5 million in damages, it could not bind any other potential class members. Moreover, the Court recognized that requiring federal courts to “ignore nonbinding stipulations does no more than require the federal judge to do what the statute requires, namely “aggregat[e] the “claims of the individual class members.” Ultimately, the Court held that any other outcome would run counter to CAFA’s objective of ensuring “[f]ederal court consideration of interstate causes of national importance.”
The Knowles decision has had an immediate impact on class action cases in the Eighth Circuit. Just hours after the opinion was released, the court in a privacy case involving Flash cookies sua sponte denied the plaintiff’s motion to remand. Dalton v. Aldi, Inc., Case No. 4:13-cv-00249-JCH (E.D. Mo. Mar. 19, 2013). The Dalton case is one of a number of recently filed putative class action cases brought in Missouri alleging damages from the purported use of Flash cookies on the defendants’ respective websites. Prior to the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Knowles, several of the matters had been settled in Missouri state court for nominal damages and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys. Knowles likely will hinder plaintiffs’ ability to maintain such privacy actions in state court, but the downside for defendants is that future plaintiffs will have little incentive to cap their damage claims. This decision also likely limits the possibility of an early agreement as to the aggregate value of a class action lawsuit. In the past, class action defense attorneys comfortable litigating in state court could incentivize class action plaintiffs to seek less than $5 million in damages by agreeing not to remove their cases to federal court, ultimately allowing for speedy resolutions to the matters.