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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Knowles: Plaintiff Cannot Defeat CAFA Jurisdiction By Stipulating To Recover Less Than $5 Million

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court of the United States in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, ___ U.S. ___ (3/19/13), has held that a plaintiff in a putative class action may not defeat federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) by stipulating at the start of the case that he or she will not seek to recover more than $5 million.  The official syllabus does a good job of stating the Court's decision succinctly:  
The Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) gives federal district courts original jurisdiction over class actions in which, among other things, the matter in controversy exceeds $5 million in sum or value, 28 U. S. C. §§ 1332(d)(2), (5), and provides that to determine whether a matter exceeds that amount the "claims of the individual class members must be aggregated," § 1332(d)(6). When respondent Knowles filed a proposed class action in Arkansas state court against petitioner Standard Fire Insurance Company, he stipulated that he and the class would seek less than $5 million in damages. Pointing to CAFA, petitioner removed the case to the Federal District Court, but it remanded to the state court, concluding that the amount in controversy fell below the CAFA threshold in light of Knowles' stipulation, even though it found that the amount would have fallen above the threshold absent the stipulation. The Eighth Circuit declined to hear petitioner's appeal.
Held: Knowles' stipulation does not defeat federal jurisdiction under CAFA. Pp. 3-7. 
(a) Here, the precertification stipulation can tie Knowles' hands because stipulations are binding on the party who makes them, see Christian Legal Soc. Chapter of Univ. of Cal., Hastings College of Law v. Martinez, 561 U. S. ___. However, the stipulation does not speak for those Knowles purports to represent, for a plaintiff who files a proposed class action cannot legally bind members of the proposed class before the class is certified. See Smith v. Bayer Corp., 564 U. S. ___, ___. Because Knowles lacked authority to concede the amount in controversy for absent class members, the District Court wrongly concluded that his stipulation could overcome its finding that the CAFA jurisdictional threshold had been met. Pp. 3-4.  
(b) Knowles concedes that federal jurisdiction cannot be based on contingent future events. Yet, because a stipulation must be binding and a named plaintiff cannot bind precertification class members, the amount he stipulated is in effect contingent. CAFA does not forbid a federal court to consider the possibility that a nonbinding, amount-limiting, stipulation may not survive the class certification process. To hold otherwise would, for CAFA jurisdictional purposes, treat a nonbinding stipulation as if it were binding, exalt form over substance, and run counter to CAFA's objective: ensuring "Federal court consideration of interstate cases of national importance." § 2(b)(2), 119 Stat. 5 
It may be simpler for a federal district court to value the amount in controversy on the basis of a stipulation, but ignoring a nonbinding stipulation merely requires the federal judge to do what she must do in cases with no stipulation: aggregate the individual class members' claims. While individual plaintiffs may avoid removal to federal court by stipulating to amounts that fall below the federal jurisdictional threshold, the key characteristic of such stipulations — missing here — is that they are legally binding on all plaintiffs. Pp. 4-7.  
Vacated and remanded.  
The opinion is available here. has a page for the case here, which includes the opinion below, transcript of oral argument, and other materials.  

I had thought that we would present a Watch List program on this case, but the decision is pretty straight-forward, and there likely would not be tremendous interest in the program, so we are going to skip this one. Stay tuned for information on other Watch List programs.  

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