Supreme Court Holds CAFA Jurisdiction May Not Be Defeated With Amount in Controversy Stipulation

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The top of the west façade of the U.S. Supreme Court Building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a ruling today with substantial implications for California wage & hour and other employment class actions, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that a putative class representative’s stipulation that he and the class would seek less than $5 million in damages does not defeat federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (“CAFA”).  Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, No. 11-1450, 586 U.S. __ (Mar. 19, 2013).

The question presented concerned a class-action plaintiff who stipulates, prior to certification of the class, that he, and the class he seeks to represent, will not seek damages that exceed $5 million in total. Does that stipulation remove the case from CAFA’s scope?

Justice Breyer writing for the Court concluded no, reasoning that stipulations must be binding, and a “plaintiff who files a proposed class action cannot legally bind members of the proposed class before the class is certified.”

We do not agree that CAFA forbids the federal court to consider, for purposes of determining the amount in controversy, the very real possibility that a nonbinding, amount-limiting, stipulation may not survive the class certification process. This potential outcome does not result in the creation of a new case not now before the federal court. To hold otherwise would, for CAFA jurisdictional purposes, treat a nonbinding stipulation as if it were binding, exalt form over substance, and run directly counter to CAFA’s primary objective: ensuring “Federal court consideration of interstate cases of national importance.” §2(b)(2), 119 Stat. 5. It would also have the effect of allowing the subdivision of a $100 million action into 21 just-below-$5-million state-court actions simply by including nonbinding stipulations; such an outcome would squarely conflict with the statute’s objective.

The Court concluded that “the stipulation at issue here can tie Knowles’ hands, but it does not resolve the amount-in-controversy question in light of his inability to bind the rest of the class.”

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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