Fourth Circuit Provides Guidance Concerning Proof of the Amount in Controversy under CAFA

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comWe don’t often get appellate guidance after a federal trial judge remands a case to state court following removal because 28 U.S.C. Sect. 1447(d) generally makes such a ruling unreviewable. But the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”), 28 U.S.C. Sect. 1332(d), permits a court of appeals to accept an appeal of a remand from a class action. The Fourth Circuit exercised this right in Scott v. Cricket Communications, LLC, No. 16-2300 (4th Cir. July 28, 2017), in order to provide some guidance about the quantum and quality of proof required to prove the amount in controversy under CAFA.

Let’s face it. When a plaintiff files a putative class action in state court, he does so because he believes that jurisdiction will be more favorable than a federal forum. In order to defeat removal under CAFA, therefore, the plaintiff must figure out a way to stay under the $5,000,000 CAFA controversy limit. Only an ill-advised plaintiff would file a class action in state court in which he alleges specifically that the class is entitled to receive over $5,000,000. Indeed, as Judge Duncan points out in Cricket Communications, a “removing defendant is somewhat constrained by the plaintiff,” because “[a]fter all, as ‘masters of their complaint’ plaintiffs are free to purposely omit information that would allow a defendant to allege the amount in controversy with pinpoint precision.”

Michael Scott, the sole named plaintiff in the Cricket Communications case, filed his suit in state court after purchasing two Samsung Galaxy phones from Cricket for “hundreds of dollars each.” He alleged he—and others like him—got a raw deal because Cricket had begun to shut down its Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, thereby rendering his phones “useless and worthless.” He defined the class to include Maryland citizens who—for a nine-month period—purchased a CDMA mobile telephone from Cricket that was locked for use only on Cricket’s (defunct) CDMA network.

When it removed the case, Cricket provided a declaration from an individual who attested that during the relevant period, Cricket customers in Maryland purchased at least 50,000 phones. A supplemental affidavit from Cricket, filed after the motion to remand, clarified that over 47,000 of these phones, associated with billing addresses in Maryland, were “locked into” Cricket’s CDMA network. Accepting the complaint’s reference to each phone being worth “hundreds of dollars” meant, according to Cricket, that the amount in controversy was north of $9,000,000.

The district court, however, remanded the case. The district court observed that the class consisted only of Maryland citizens. Cricket’s removal affidavit was overinclusive, it felt, because some portion of the 47,000 phones sold to customers in Maryland were likely sold to non-citizens. Accordingly, the court found the evidence by Cricket was not “sufficiently tailored to Scott’s narrowly defined class.”

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit agreed that Cricket bore the burden of demonstrating that removal jurisdiction was proper: “When a plaintiff’s complaint leaves the amount of damages unspecified, the defendant must provide evidence to show . . . what the stakes of litigation . . . are given the plaintiff’s actual demands.” And since the class was limited to Maryland citizens, it was Cricket’s job to provide proof that at least 100 Maryland citizens purchased more than $5,000,000 of locked phones from Cricket. The panel agreed that citizenship, as the district court had observed, was different from residence.

Also like the district court, the Fourth Circuit agreed that the initial statement by Cricket that it sold at least 50,000 CDMA mobile phones in Maryland “suffices to allege jurisdiction under CAFA.” But once Scott challenged these allegations through a motion to remand, Cricket was required to prove the jurisdictional amount by a preponderance of the evidence. The appellate court, however, disagreed with the way in which the district court assessed whether the removing defendant had satisfied its burden.

Of necessity, Judge Duncan observed, a defendant must to some extent rely on “reasonable estimates, inferences and deductions.” The “key inquiry,” according to the court, is “not what the plaintiff will recover” but “an estimate of the amount that will be put at issue in the course of the litigation.” The panel found that “[a] removing defendant can use overinclusive evidence to establish the amount in controversy so long as the evidence shows it is more likely than not that ‘a fact finder might legally conclude that’ damages will exceed the jurisdictional amount.”

Because the district court applied, in the Fourth Circuit’s judgment, the wrong legal standard in reviewing this evidence, the court of appeals remanded, emphasizing that Cricket must provide enough facts “to allow a court to determine—not speculate—that it is more likely than not” that the $5,000,000 amount in controversy has been satisfied. Although Cricket, the court said, need not make a “definitive determination of domicile,” it needed to provide more evidence to allow a determination about domicile of the class members.

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About David Wright

David Wright focuses his practice on the efficient and creative resolution of complex business, product liability and employment disputes through strategic counseling, informed risk assessment, negotiation, alternate dispute resolution, and trial.