A unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court has restored the integrity of the Class Action Fairness Act, or CAFA. At issue in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles was the transparent attempt by a named plaintiff to ouster federal court jurisdiction by “stipulating” that the damages sought through a class action complaint would not exceed the $5,000,000 minimum jurisdictional limit of CAFA.
In a brief and direct decision, Justice Stephen Breyer disallowed the use of such a pre-certification stipulation, concluding that prior to the issuance of any certification order, a named plaintiff does not have the ability to bind absent class members and to concede the value of those class members’ claims.
Knowles was the named plaintiff in an action filed in Arkansas state court against Standard Fire concerning an alleged practice of failing to include general contractor fees in homeowner’s insurance loss payments. The complaint filed by Knowles, as well as an attachment to the complaint, contained a stipulation that Knowles and the Class would not seek to recover damages “in excess of $5,000,000 in the aggregate.”
Accordingly, after Standard Fire removed the action to federal court under CAFA jurisdiction, Knowles moved to remand the action back to state court based on the stipulation that Knowles claimed made the “amount in controversy” fall beneath the $5,000,000 CAFA threshold and therefore defeated jurisdiction under CAFA. While the federal district court agreed with Knowles, other cases reached the opposite view, and thus the issue ended up at the Supreme Court.
In Knowles, the district court had found that the amount at issue would have exceeded the $5,000,000 minimum limit, but for the stipulation. As such, the Supreme Court had little difficulty concluding that the stipulation was ineffective to bind absent class members because, at the precertification stage, the proposed class members are not yet – and potentially never will be – parties to the action, and thus the named plaintiff cannot bind those non-parties. At the pre-certification stage, the named plaintiff cannot bind “anyone but himself.”
In enacting CAFA, Congress sought to relax the jurisdictional threshold of class actions and ensure “Federal court consideration of interstate cases of national importance.” The unilateral “stipulation” attempted in Knowles and in other cases not only frustrated the intent of Congress but also prejudiced the claims of absent class members. The Supreme Court correctly restored the balance in CAFA.