Class actions allow multiple individuals who suffered a common personal injury to file a single lawsuit against a defendant or group of defendants. Typically, the plaintiffs who file the class action decide whether or not to bring their case in state or federal court. But in some cases, the defendants may force the “removal” of a class action from state to federal court.
A 2005 law, the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), permits defendants to do this. CAFA provides for removal when there are more than 100 plaintiffs in the class, the amount they seek is more than $5 million, and at least one plaintiff is a resident of a different state than at least one of the defendants. However, removal is not allowed when the class action arises from “an event or occurrence in the State in which the action was filed, and that allegedly resulted in injuries in that State or in States contiguous to that State.”
Spencer v. Specialty Foundry Products Inc.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has federal appellate jurisdiction over Georgia, recently addressed the application of this “local controversy” exception to a pending class action from Alabama. This case, Spencer v. Specialty Foundry Products Inc., involves a group of 230 individuals who previously worked at a metal foundry in Alabama. The plaintiffs actually worked at the foundry at different times ranging between 1981 and 2017.
The crux of the plaintiff’s lawsuit was they were exposed to toxic chemicals during their time at the foundry. The foundry itself went out of business in 2017. The plaintiffs therefore filed their class action against a number of companies that “marketed, manufactured, distributed, and sold products used at the foundry.” It was these products, the plaintiffs allege, that caused their toxic exposure.
The plaintiffs filed their class action in Alabama state court. One of the defendants then removed the case to federal court under the CAFA. The plaintiffs asked the federal court to remand (return) the case back to state court, noting that “all of the claims … arise from an event or occurrence in the State in which the action was filed.” In other words, this was a “local controversy” that belonged in Alabama state court.
The judge agreed and granted the motion to remand, although on grounds other than the local controversy exception, which the court found did not apply here. The defense then filed an immediate appeal with the 11th Circuit. That court determined the local controversy exception did not apply at all, and reversed the trial court’s decision to remand.
The exception expressly applies to “an event or occurrence.” The appeals court said that could refer to “a singular harm-causing moment in time, as well as a contextually connected series of incidents that culminates in that harm-causing event or occurrence.” But it could not broadly cover “any continuing set of circumstances in a single location, regardless of when and how the harm came about,” which is what the plaintiffs here alleged. The 11th Circuit offered the following analogy: “[I]t would stretch this phrase beyond its ordinary meaning to say that a game between the Braves and the Mets in one season and another game between the Braves and the Marlins, years later, are part of the same event or occurrence simply because both games involve the same team playing the same sport.”