By Lou Grossman

On January 9, 2018, a split panel of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an order from the district court, denying a motion to remand a matter removed under the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”). The 2-1 decision In Warren Lester, et. al. v. Exxon Mobil Corp., et. al., No. 14-31383, __F3d___ (5th Cir. 1/9/2018) addressed two issues of first impression for the Fifth Circuit: (1) whether a motion to transfer and consolidate can effectively create a “mass action” removable under CAFA; and (2) if so, whether CAFA may be invoked as a basis for removal when one of the underlying suits comprising the new “mass action” commenced well before the 2005 effective date of CAFA. In affirming the action of the district court below, the Fifth Circuit answered both questions in the affirmative. A full copy of the opinion can be found here.  

The removed actions included two separate matters filed in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana – Warren Lester, et. al. v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, et. al. and Shirely Bottley, et. al. v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, et. al. The Lester matter was filed by over 600 plaintiffs for personal injuries and property damages allegedly resulting from Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (“NORM”) in 2002. The Bottley matter, on the other hand, was filed in 2013 as a wrongful death and survival suit filed on behalf of Cornelius Bottley, a decedent-plaintiff in Lester, by his three remaining heirs. Following the selection of a trial flight in the Lester matter, which was to include the claims of Mr. Cornelius Bottley, the Bottley Plaintiffs moved to transfer and consolidate their suit with Lester. The matter was promptly removed by a defendant named only in the Bottley matter.

The Fifth Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that the consolidation was meant to attach the Bottley matter only to the pending trial flight such that it did not, as CAFA requires, propose a single trial with more than 100 individual plaintiffs. Rather, the Fifth Circuit held that the focus under CAFA is on the consolidation proposed, which in the case of the Bottley plaintiffs, was a consolidation of cases involving “overlapping liabilities, damages and questions of law and fact…the determination [of which] in either case will have great bearing on the other….” Plaintiffs’ Motion did not and, as a matter of law could not, limit consolidation to only the claims set for trial. As such, the Fifth Circuit found that it proposed a “mass action,” i.e. a joint trial of 100 or more plaintiffs’ claims, under CAFA.

More importantly, the Fifth Circuit examined the date of the proposed consolidation as determining the applicability of CAFA. Though Lester had been filed before CAFA’s enactment, the proposed consolidation was proposed years later. The Fifth Circuit found that the proposed consolidation created a new “mass action.” The Fifth Circuit reasoned that a civil action may commence before it becomes a “mass action,” and that the Bottley suit became a “mass action” when Plaintiffs proposed that the claims be tried jointly with those in the Lester matter. Bottley was a “civil action” commenced after CAFA’s effective date that subsequently became a mass action subject to CAFA’s removal provisions.

In affirming the denial of Plaintiffs’ Motion to Remand below, the Fifth Circuit established two compelling rules: (1) that a consolidation is effective to create a “mass action” under CAFA; and (2) that CAFA’s Section 9 requirements are met if one of the two consolidated actions was commenced after CAFA’s effective date.  In addition to providing guidance and interpretation regarding the commencement of a mass action, this opinion demonstrates a broad approach to CAFA.