On August 31, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for certiorari in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles (11-1450). The question presented by the petition is whether a named plaintiff in a state court class action can avoid removal to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) by filing a “stipulation” with the class action complaint that provides that the class will not seek damages in excess of the threshold for federal jurisdiction under CAFA. This case will represent the Court’s first examination of CAFA since the statute was passed seven years ago.
To remove a class action under CAFA, the class damages must reach or exceed $5 million. The class representative in Knowles filed a stipulation with his class action complaint stating that he will not seek damages for himself or any other individual class member in excess of $75,000 (inclusive of costs and attorneys’ fees) or seek damages for the class in excess of $5 million (inclusive of costs and attorneys’ fees). Standard Fire argued that the actual amount in controversy, absent the stipulation, exceeded $5 million and that the class representative’s stipulation could not be used to avoid federal jurisdiction. The district court disagreed with Standard Fire and relied on the stipulation to determine that there was no CAFA jurisdiction. The Eighth Circuit denied Standard Fire’s petition for interlocutory review of the district court remand order.
Standard Fire’s certiorari petition argued that the district court’s reliance on the plaintiff's stipulation conflicted with the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Smith v. Bayer Corp., where the Court held that a class representative does not represent the interests of the members of a putative class unless and until a court grants a motion for class certification and that “the mere proposal of a class . . . could not bind persons who were not parties.” The Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari even though there was no appellate decision in this case and even though Standard Fire had not asserted in its petition that there was now a true split in the circuits is rather unusual, and suggests that the Court may be inclined to reject stipulations of the type used by plaintiff in this case.