Duane Morris Takeaways: In the proceeding entitled In Re National Prescription Opiate Litigation, No. 21-4051, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 31328 (6th Cir. Nov. 10, 2022), the Sixth Circuit denied a petition for writ of mandamus regarding a District Court’s Scheduling Order in the giant opioid multidistrict class action and its allowance of the late pleadings amendments as to new defendants, Meijer Distribution, Inc., and Meijer Stores Limited Partnership (“Meijer Defendants”). The newly-added Meijer Defendants argued that the District Court violated the Rule 16(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by allowing Plaintiffs to improperly join them in the ongoing 3-year old case without first seeking leave of court and without demonstrating good cause. The Sixth Circuit held that the District Court acted within its broad discretion and did not violate the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because it provided a cut-off date that allowed for the specific amendments. The Sixth Circuit explained “[t]hough unconventional, the District Court’s actions are not so extraordinary as to warrant mandamus.” Id. at *1. The decision illuminates the broad discretion that district courts enjoy in managing class action litigation and the important role that scheduling orders play throughout the entire litigation.

Case Background

In July 2018, Plaintiffs filed the underlying lawsuit against a group of pharmacies. The case was removed to federal court and ultimately became part of the opioid multidistrict class action proceeding entitled In Re National Prescription Opiate Litigation, 1:17-MD-2804 (N.D. Ohio 2017) (“MDL”).

Significantly, in the underlying case, the district court entered an order on May 3, 2018, which amended its Case Management Order and provided that “‘[i]f a case is later designated as a bellwether for motion practice or trial, a separate CMO will be entered that will provide further opportunity to amend.’” (“2021 Bellwether Order”). See Petition at 4-5.

In 2021, the District Court selected the underlying case to proceed as a bellwether case against the pharmacies. See Sixth Circuit Order at 1. Subsequently, on May 19, 2021, Plaintiff filed a supplemental pleading, adding the Meijer Defendants to the underlying case. See id.; Petition at 5. The amendments were made nearly three years after Plaintiff filed suit and more than 26 months after the deadline to add new defendants.

After unsuccessfully moving to strike the Meijer Amendments and certify the Court’s 2021 Bellwether Order for interlocutory appeal, on November 9, 2021, Defendants filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Sixth Circuit. See Petition at 7. In the Petition, the Meijer Defendants argued that the District Court allowed Plaintiff to add the Meijer Defendants years after the deadline for amending pleadings passed and without requiring Plaintiff to demonstrate good cause, as required by Rule 16(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Petition at 1. The Meijer Defendants requested that the Sixth Circuit issue a writ ordering the District Court to strike the untimely amendments and dismiss the Meijer Defendants from the case. See id. at 2.

The Sixth Circuit’s Ruling Denying The Writ Of Mandamus

The Sixth Circuit denied the writ of mandamus. It held that the District Court’s order, while “unconventional,” fell within the parameters of Rule 16(b). See Sixth Circuit Order at 1. The Court of Appeals explained that Rule 16(b) requires that “scheduling orders limit the time to join other parties” and the District Court’s 2021 Bellwether Order “explicitly provided permission for plaintiffs to amend their complaint if their case was selected as a bellwether.” Id. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that because Plaintiffs exercised their right to amend after the underlying case was chosen as a bellwether, Plaintiffs did not need to seek permission from the District Court. Id. at 2.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the 2021 Bellwether Order allowed plaintiffs to amend whenever their case was selected as a bellwether, and there was no cut-off for amendments. Id. The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that, under the 2021 Bellwether Order and without any cut-off date, the amendments could have gone differently (i.e., made on the eve of trial or adding a defendant that was completely new to the litigation). Id. at 2. Instead, the Sixth Circuit determined that the Meijer Defendants suffered little, if any, prejudice. Id. at 2-3. Thus, the Court of Appeals explained, “[t]hat unusual aspect of the scheduling order did not clearly violate Rule 16 because it provided some limit (when the case was selected as a bellwether), although the order went right to the edge of the district court’s discretion under Rule 16.” Id. at 2.

In denying the writ, the Sixth Circuit held that the Meijer Defendants “ha[ve] shown that the district court’s scheduling order was unconventional but not a judicial usurpation of power nor a clear abuse of discretion.” Id. at 3.

Implications For Companies

The Sixth Circuit’s order recognizes the broad discretion that district courts have in managing their dockets and illustrates the importance that scheduling orders play in all types of cases, and specifically in MDLs and class actions. Companies should pay close attention to all of the proposed deadlines included in any scheduling orders, and try to prevent these types of amendments from being entered at the outset.