United States: Guest Post – Eighth Circuit FINALLY Hears Litigation Tourism Issue

Last Updated: April 18 2017
Article by James Beck

Today's guest post is from friend-of-the-blog Sarah Bunce, a partner at Tucker Ellis.  It's about the 8th Circuit finally having before it aspects of the effects of the current, bizarrely applied Missouri joinder and venue rules (see here) on federal jurisdiction.  Not only is it about time, though, it may be past time.  By the time that the 8th Circuit gets around to deciding the case, either (1) the Missouri Supreme Court might have overturned the current reading of those rules, (2) the United States Supreme Court may held the exercise of personal jurisdiction allowed by those rules unconstitutional, or (3) the Missouri legislature might have rewritten the rules to eliminate the basis for the current bizarre judicial rule constructions.  But, in any event, that there's finally movement on another piece of the litigation puzzle.

As always, our guest poster is entitled to 100% of the credit, and any blame, for what follows.

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While most of us wait anxiously for the Supreme Court to hear the issue of litigation tourism at the end of this month in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, the Eighth Circuit got a sneak peek on April 5 when it heard oral argument in Robinson v. Pfizer Inc.  Although the Eighth Circuit may well defer decision until the Supreme Court decides the issue, the background of this case and its potential impact on the future of litigation tourism in the Eighth Circuit—particularly in the Eastern District of Missouri—is worth noting.

For those of us who have attempted to remove multi-plaintiff "litigation tourist" complaints from the City of St. Louis to the Eastern District of Missouri, the Eastern District's response is all too familiar. With the exception of the faint glimmer of hope from Judge Webber in Addelson v. Sanofi S.A., 2016 WL 6216124 (E.D. Mo. Oct. 25, 2016), the court has been rather hostile to such removals, swiftly remanding case after case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The decision in Robinson v. Pfizer Inc. is no exception.  There, sixty-four plaintiffs (only four of whom were Missouri residents) joined in filing suit against Pfizer Inc. in the City of St. Louis alleging injuries as a result of ingesting Lipitor.  As any defendant would do, Pfizer removed the case to the Eastern District of Missouri.  Pfizer argued, under Ruhrgas, the court should first decide personal jurisdiction and dismiss the out-of-state plaintiffs for lack of personal jurisdiction, which would result in complete diversity between the remaining parties.  Pfizer also argued that even if the court considered subject matter jurisdiction first, there would be diversity in light of the fraudulent joinder of the out-of-state plaintiffs.

In granting plaintiffs' motion for remand, the Robinson court would hear none of it.  Skipping directly to the issue of subject matter jurisdiction, the court (incorrectly) characterized Pfizer's argument as one based on fraudulent misjoinder rather than fraudulent joinder.  Ignoring entirely the issue of whether there was personal jurisdiction over defendant to support each individual plaintiff's claims, the court instead viewed the "real issue" to be whether plaintiffs' claims were properly joined under Rule 20.  Finding the joinder of all sixty-four plaintiffs' claims proper, the court ordered the case remanded to state court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

As those of us who have tried (and failed) to successfully remove multi-plaintiff complaints to the Eastern District of Missouri are keenly aware, this is where the story usually ends. Because these remand orders are not appealable, we're stuck in an infinite loop of removing cases and being remanded, hoping that the next time will be the time the court decides personal jurisdiction first or thoughtfully considers the fraudulent joinder doctrine (or maybe stays the case pending transfer to an MDL).

But that's where things get interesting in Robinson.  Plaintiffs (maybe a little too greedily, hindsight being what it is) sought attorney's fees and costs under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c), which grants courts the authority to order payment of costs and fees incurred as a result of the removal.  The Robinson court obliged.  Citing nine other cases involving Pfizer and referencing "at least twenty-five other cases" in the district that had been remanded for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the court determined that, in light of the "repeated admonishments and remands," Pfizer had no objectively reasonable basis for seeking removal and plaintiffs were entitled to costs and expenses.  Robinson v. Pfizer Inc., 2016 WL 1721143, at *4 (E.D. Mo. April 29, 2016).

This was just the hook that Pfizer needed. While the remand order was not appealable, the sanction order was.  So Pfizer appealed.  In challenging the sanctions and defending its right to remove as objectively reasonable, Pfizer cited Daimler and Goodyear and argued that the Eastern District of Missouri was repeatedly and consistently ignoring those holdings.  Thus, while the removal itself technically may not be before the Eighth Circuit, in the course of ruling on the sanctions issue the Eighth Circuit will have the opportunity to consider the due process merits involved.

And the oral argument demonstrated that the issue of sanctions cannot be divorced from the underlying issue of the removal of multi-plaintiff complaints involving out-of-state plaintiffs. This is because to decide whether the court abused its discretion in awarding costs and fees, the Eighth Circuit necessarily must decide if it was objectively reasonable for Pfizer to challenge the joinder of these plaintiffs and the lack of personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state plaintiffs' claims.

The Eighth Circuit panel recognized that Pfizer might have had better luck with its argument in other jurisdictions, and on two occasions the panel questioned why the district court had cited only other Eastern District authority and not any authority from other jurisdictions. (Indeed, there is much contra authority outside of the Eastern District of Missouri. See, e.g., Simmons v. GlaxoSmithKline LLC (In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Prods. Liab. Litig.), 2016 WL 2349105 (D. Mass. May 4, 2016); Liggins v. Abbvie Inc. (In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig.), 2016 WL 640520 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 18, 2016).)  The Eighth Circuit panel also seemed attuned to the underlying issue of allowing joinder to substitute for personal jurisdiction in these multi-plaintiff complaints, referring to it as "osmotic jurisdiction."

At the end of rebuttal Pfizer requested that the court not only reverse the sanctions order, but also correct the error of law on personal jurisdiction perpetuated in the Eastern District of Missouri—expressly asking the Eighth Circuit to confirm that when looking at personal jurisdiction, it must be done plaintiff by plaintiff. If the Eighth Circuit accepts the invitation, it may be the final nail in the coffin for litigation tourism in the Eastern District of Missouri.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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