Archives: Fourth Circuit

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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Fourth Circuit Uses Spokeo to Spike $11.7 Million Class Action Judgment

View John Wester's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comStanding to sue, a venerable piece of American jurisprudence for sure, continues to draw attention in recent class action cases, including in the Fourth Circuit. In its second decision this year evaluating last term’s Supreme Court decision, Spokeo v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit found insufficient “an informational injury” the lead plaintiff advanced under the Fair Credit Reporting Act—the same statute under review in Spokeo.  Dreher v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc., 856 F. 3d 337 (4th Cir. May 11, 2017). See also Beck v. McDonald, 848 F. 3d. 262 (4th Cir. 2017) (affirming the dismissal of a class action lawsuit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based on the plaintiffs’ failure to establish a non-speculative, imminent injury-in-fact under the federal Privacy Act for purposes of Article III standing).

Dreher presented a high-stakes controversy—the trial court had certified a class of 69,000 members and had awarded $11,700,000 in damages. The lead plaintiff, pursuing a security clearance for government employment, had tried to expunge an inaccurate credit card debt in a credit report an Experian affiliate maintained on him.  The affiliate listing his bad debt in error went into receivership but continued to list Dreher’s debt.  Some 15 months elapsed between Dreher’s starting efforts and the deletion of the inaccurate credit information from his report, but this delay did not affect Dreher’s security clearance.  The government granted his clearance in eight days.

Dreher persuaded the trial court that Experian and its affiliate had willfully violated the FCRA by failing to provide “the sources” of Dreher’s credit report. “When a consumer reporting agency fails to disclose those sources, it violates [the statutory] right, thus creating a sufficient injury-in-fact for constitutional standing.” Dreher, 71 F. Supp. 3d 572, 574 (E. D. Va. 2014). Notably for the Fourth Circuit, the trial court—declining to analyze whether Dreher’s injury was specific and concrete—ruled that “any violation of the statute sufficed to create an Article III injury-in-fact.” 856 F. 3d at 342 (emphasis in original).

Reminding that the burden to establish all of the Spokeo elements of standing falls on the plaintiff, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Dreher “stumbles on the first of the[ ] requirements: injury in fact.” Id. at 343. The court then provided details that will be instructive for future analyses of class action standing:

To establish injury in fact, “a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered ‘an invasion of a legally protected interest’ that is ‘concrete and particularized.’” Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1548 … The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision because that court “failed to fully appreciate the distinction between concreteness and particularization.” Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1550.  The Court found that in analyzing the “particular and concrete” aspect of the standing requirement, the Ninth Circuit “elided” the “independent requirement” of concreteness.  Id. at 1548. … A concrete injury is “de facto,” meaning that “it must actually exist” and is “real, and not abstract.” Id. at 343, 344.

Acknowledging that an intangible injury can be concrete, the Fourth Circuit specified that one cannot “allege a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.” 856 F. 3d at 344 (quoting Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1548).

Applying these principles, the Fourth Circuit unpacked Dreher’s claim that he suffered a “cognizable informational injury” because Experian, a consumer reporting agency, denied him clear and accurate disclosure of the source of the entity reporting his credit. Dreher failed to show how his having the right information – accurate identification of the entity with whom he was corresponding—“would have made any difference at all in the ‘fairness or accuracy’ of his credit report, or that it would have made the credit resolution process more efficient.” Id. at 346.  Granted there is “value in knowing who it is you’re dealing with,” id., but a consumer’s speaking to an employee without knowing the employee works for a different affiliate of Experian did not create a “real world harm” Congress was seeking to prevent through the FCRA. Dreher did not show a concrete and adverse effect from the violation of the statute, a clear requirement for standing under Spokeo.

Looking at the national scene, we see a real increase in the spokes on the Spokeo wheel. Dreher joins the Seventh and Eight Circuits which have ruled, three times since Spokeo, that procedural, technical violations of statutory rights will not sustain Article III standing. In contrast, rulings by three other circuits, the Third, Ninth, and Eleventh, all this year, evaluating violations of the FCRA, Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and Video Privacy Protection Act, have upheld Article III standing based on technical violations of the statutes.

With six circuits now reporting, when the Supreme Court will return to this field looms as a more urgent question.

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Securities Class Actions Continue To Rise

View Adam Doerr's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.com Earlier this year, we reported that Multiple Studies Show Increase in Securities Class Actions. Cornerstone Research, one of the groups covered in our earlier report, recently issued its 2016 Midyear Assessment. This new analysis, which covers cases filed in January through June of this year, is consistent with several of the trends we reported previously, including the increasing number of securities class actions, the rise in the number of cases against smaller companies, and the increase in the number of Fourth Circuit cases.

Of particular interest is the significant increase in the number of merger & acquisition cases filed in federal courts. In the first half of 2016, there were 24 filings involving M&A transactions – a 167% increase from the second half of 2015. Given the size of this increase, it seems likely that this is related to significant changes in Delaware’s handling of merger objection litigation following the Trulia decision, and we will continue to monitor how this shift impacts merger litigation in federal courts in the Carolinas and the North Carolina Business Court.

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Multiple Studies Show Increase in Securities Class Actions

View Adam Doerr's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comRecent studies by PricewaterhouseCoopers, NERA Economic Consulting, Cornerstone, and Kevin LaCroix of D&O Diary have all found that federal securities class actions are on the rise. According to PwC, the data shows a trend towards more cases filed against smaller companies, especially for claims regarding accounting irregularities. Smaller companies also face a significant risk of claims regarding inadequate internal controls over financial reporting, likely due to their smaller size and more limited resources.

NERA found that standard federal securities class actions – complaints alleging violations of Rule 10b-5, Section 11, or Section 12 – increased for the third straight year. Both PwC and NERA determined that the number and proportion of federal cases challenging mergers and acquisitions also increased in 2015. It is unclear whether this is a result of Delaware’s increased scrutiny of merger litigation settlements, but we will monitor this trend, which also affects merger litigation in state courts, including the North Carolina Business Court.

Cornerstone analyzed the timing and progress of cases and found that the time to resolution appears to be increasing. Fewer cases were dismissed within the first year after they were filed, and the percentage of cases settled within three years also decreased. Despite this, only a small proportion of cases – just 26% — made it to a motion for class certification. The other 74% of cases were dismissed or resolved prior to class certification. When courts actually decided class certification motions, they granted them 75% of the time.

The studies were not consistent in identifying the number of cases filed in the Fourth Circuit, but all agreed that filings here are well behind those filed in the Second and Ninth Circuits, which saw more than 60% of securities class action filings. Although the Fourth Circuit did not see as much volume as these courts, one of the 10 largest settlements of 2015, a $146.3 million settlement of misrepresentation claims against an energy company, took place in the Western District of North Carolina.

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Fourth Circuit Holds that Court, Not Arbitrators, Decides Whether Arbitration Agreement Provides for Class Arbitration

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comCharacterizing an unpublished 2007 decision to the contrary as a “thin reed” displaced by later Supreme Court guidance, the Fourth Circuit held that the question of whether an arbitration agreement permits class proceedings is a “gateway” issue for the court, and not a procedural question left to the arbitrator to decide. Del Webb Communities, Inc. v. Carlson, No. 15-1385 (4th Cir. March 28, 2016). The case was filed after a builder – facing numerous construction defect claims and an arbitrator’s decision whether to certify those claims as a class proceeding – filed a petition to compel “bilateral arbitration” under the Federal Arbitration Act. The district court found that the decision whether to conduct class arbitration was a threshold question for the arbitrator. A unanimous Fourth Circuit panel disagreed.

After dealing with some jurisdictional issues – including CAFA jurisdiction and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine – the Court found that, although the Supreme Court had not decided the question, the high court’s adumbrations provided strong guidance on the subject. Writing for the panel, Judge Diaz concluded that a decision concerning “class arbitration” was tantamount to a question concerning arbitrability, which placed the issue squarely within the province of the judiciary under prevailing authority. In Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., 559 U.S. 662 (2010), the Supreme Court had held that a party cannot be forced to arbitrate on a class-wide basis absent “a contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so.” But the Court didn’t decide in that case who (the Court or the arbitrator) determined whether this “contractual basis” existed. The Fourth Circuit, agreeing with other Circuits on the question, observed that there was a world of difference between assuming the risk of an error in a bilateral arbitration agreement and accepting such a risk in a class arbitration proceeding. The Court viewed this question as tantamount to a decision on the scope of arbitration, which is a question reserved for the court unless the parties have clearly and unmistakably provided to the contrary.

Never mentioned by the Court in its decision is a line of cases holding that when the parties adopt the AAA rules in their contract, they have “clearly and unmistakably” committed the issue of arbitrability to the arbitrator. In Del Webb, the parties had selected the AAA Construction Arbitration Rules, and Rule R-9 of those rules expressly provides that “The arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction, including any objections with respect to the existence, scope or validity of the arbitration agreement.” In a recent North Carolina Business Court decision, Judge Bledsoe – citing numerous federal district and circuit court opinions on the subject – held that the adoption of the AAA rules in the parties’ contract “clearly and unmistakably” committed the issue of the arbitrability of a claim to the arbitrator. But Judge Bledsoe’s case did not involve class arbitration, and it is clear that the Fourth Circuit was not about to give final say to an arbitrator concerning certification of a putative class unless every party to the contract had clearly signed off on that proposition.

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