Thursday, November 7, 2013
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether parens patriae actions brought by state attorneys general are removable as mass actions under the Class Action Fairness Act. (Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., U.S., No. 12-1036) The lower courts have split on the issue, with the Fifth Circuit holding that such actions are removable when the citizens are the "real parties in interest," and the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits reaching the opposite conclusion. The Fifth Circuit, in Louisiana ex rel. Caldwell v. Allstate Insurance Co., held that because the attorney general sought damages on behalf of insurance policy holders, the policy holders were the real parties in interest to that relief. But other courts, even within the Fifth Circuit, have distinguished that reasoning. Judge Fallon, for example, in some of the Vioxx cases, held that the Kentucky attorney general's action against Merck was not removable as a class action. He distinguished Caldwell, reasoning that it was decided under CAFA's mass action provision and the citizens of Kentucky were not the real parties in interest. Instead, the Kentucky attorney general was requesting injunctive relief and civil penalties, not damages as was the case in Caldwell.
The issue is an important one as the standard for certifying a class action has become more rigorous. Many commentators have argued that state attorneys general should step into the breach to provide relief and deterrence when actions aren't certifiable as class actions. Yet, questions remain about this approach. Specifically, most parens patriae statutes do not contain the same protections as Rule 23 does with regard to adequate representation. Plus, courts are often unsure how to evaluate issue or claim preclusion when a private citizen sues in the wake of a parens patriae action.
For the interested reader, yesterday's BNA Class Action Litigation Report had an article by Jessie Kokrda Kamens about the oral argument. Her take was that even though some justices questioned state attorneys generals' motives in bringing parens patriae actions, they weren't ready to declare them removable under CAFA.