United States: Guest Post − West Virginia Court Finds Both Fraudulent Joinder & Misjoinder In Opioid Action

Last Updated: July 24 2017
Article by James Beck

What follows is a guest post from long-time friend of the blog Thomas J. Hurney, Jr. of Jackson Kelly PLLC in Charleston, West Virginia. Tom comes to us today with news of an interesting – and favorable – federal court remand denial in one of the recently filed opioid litigation in his state. It raises interesting legal issues in the context of litigation where the possibility of local prejudice makes the right of removal to federal court extremely important. As always with our guest posts, Tom is 100% responsible for what follows. He thus deserves all the credit and any blame.

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With respect (a lot) to the Drug & Device folks, removal and remand cases are pretty hard to spice up. While these cases may cry out for humor and whimsy, this guest post with an old-school case summary will have to do the trick.

A number of governmental entities – states, counties and cities – have sued drug manufacturers, distributors, pharmacists and doctors, alleging that because of their distribution, sales and prescription practices, communities have been "flooded" with opioids, resulting in "an acute epidemic of drug use and related social problems." Relying on tort and nuisance theories, these governmental plaintiffs seek damages to "compensate ... for sums [they] expended and will be forced to expend responding to social problems caused by the opioid epidemic."

In County Commission of McDowell County v. McKesson Corp., ___ F. Supp.3d ___, 2017 WL 2843614 (S.D.W. Va. July 3, 2017), the County Commission sued several pharmaceutical distributors, including named-defendant McKesson, and added a local physician. The defendant distributors were all citizens and residents of states other than West Virginia. The defendant physician was a West Virginia resident, transparently added to destroy diversity jurisdiction, so that plaintiff McDowell County could sue in (you guessed it) McDowell County Circuit Court.

The defendants removed the action, alleging the physician was fraudulent joined, and also fraudulently mis-joined, to defeat diversity. The defendants argued that the physician was fraudulently joined because there was no possible cause of action against him, as the plaintiffs failed to serve him with a Notice of Claim and Certificate of Merit at least thirty days before filing suit, as required by the West Virginia Medical Professional Liability Act, W.Va. Code §55-7B-6. Because this failure required dismissal of the complaint against the doctor, there was no possible existing claim, so he was therefore fraudulently joined.

Defendants also argued fraudulently mis-joinder, because "the claims against [the physician] arise out of different transactions, involve different evidence, and rest on different legal theories than the claims against the diverse defendants."

The Plaintiff moved for remand.

Remand was denied with a scholarly opinion that literally started at the beginning. Citing Chief Justice Marshall's decision in Strawbridge v. Custiss, 7 U.S. (3 Cranch) 267 (1806), this to-be-published opinion reviewed the history of diversity jurisdiction, noting that "[t]he rule of complete diversity appears nowhere in the statute." Although diversity jurisdiction has existed since the First Judiciary Act of 1789, it has "always been the subject of some controversy," with the stated reasons for diversity jurisdiction including local prejudice and perhaps a desire to protect creditors from state legislation favorable to debtors. "In the early days of the republic, at least in Virginia [of which West Virginia was a part before 1863], prejudice was palpable. The state courts there were notoriously hostile to foreign merchants." As an example, state juries were permitted to deny interest on a debt judgment for a creditor, effectively removing the profit from the transaction. Id. at *1.

The reference to "local prejudice" as a basis for diversity jurisdiction is telling, since McDowell Co. v. McKesson is precisely the type of litigation that, these days, highly likely to raise this concern, that being a local municipality suing in its home court seeking recovery of damages that would (among other things) be likely to reduce local jurors' taxes.

Concerning the trend in federal courts against diversity jurisdiction, the opinion pointed out that "[i]n recent times, crowded federal dockets, a dearth of evidence showing the existence of state court prejudice, and continuing doubts about the utility of diversity jurisdiction have pushed federal courts in the direction of limiting it." Consciously bucking that trend, the decision defended the importance of diversity jurisdiction, stating

Nevertheless, Congress has created diversity jurisdiction and a litigant whose case comes within it has a right to be in federal court. As the Supreme Court has said: "[T]he Federal courts may and should take such action as will defeat attempts to wrongfully deprive parties entitled to sue in the Federal courts of the protection of their rights in those tribunals." In re Lipitor (Atorvastatin Calcium) Mktg., Sales Practices and Prods. Liab. Litig., 2016 WL 7339811 at *3 fn.4 (D.S.C. Oct. 24, 2016) (quoting Alabama Great S. Ry. Co. v. Thompson, 200 U.S. 206, 218 (1906)). Therefore, if diversity jurisdiction is to be assigned to oblivion, it is Congress, not the courts who should send it there. Here, where the opioid epidemic is pervasive and egregious, there is at least a possibility of prejudice to the defendants at the hands of a jury drawn exclusively from the very county that is the plaintiff in this suit. A federal jury casts a wider net and is drawn from a division composing several counties. All may have an opioid problem, but not one that is specific to the plaintiff county.

Id. at *2.

Turning to the analysis of the defendants' removal, the court provided a concise review of the fraudulent joinder and mis-joinder doctrines. "Fraudulent joinder is applicable where a defendant seeking removal argues that other defendants were joined when there is no possible cause of action against those defendants or where the complaint pled fraudulent facts," whereas "[f]raudulent misjoinder . . . is an assertion that claims against certain defendants, while provable, have no real connection to the claims against other defendants in the same action and were only included in order to defeat diversity jurisdiction and removal." Id. (citing Wyatt v. Charleston Area Med. Ctr., 651 F. Supp.2d 492, 496 (S.D.W. Va. 2009)).

Thus, "[i]n order to establish fraudulent joinder in a particular case, a removing defendant must show either (1) there is no possibility that the plaintiff can establish a cause of action against the removing defendant, or (2) that there has been outright fraud in plaintiff's pleading of jurisdiction. Id. The claim against the doctor, therefore, requires remand "[i]f the plaintiff demonstrates a mere 'glimmer of hope' that its claim will succeed. Id. at *3 (quoting Hartley v. CSX Transp., Inc., 187 F.3d 422, 424-26 (4th Cir. 1999)). However, "[t]his is the rare case that fits the 'no possibility of recovery' rubric." Id.

The court agreed that the physician was fraudulently joined because McDowell County did not serve him with a notice of claim and screening certificate of merit at least 30 days before suing him as required by the Medical Professional Liability Act, W.Va. Code §55-7B-6 (MPLA).

West Virginia Code § 55-7B-6, imposes a series of procedural prerequisites for filing a medical malpractice claim. The plaintiff, in such a case, is required, at least thirty days prior to filing suit, to service notice on the defendant of his intention to bring suit. The notice must contain a 'screening certificate of merit' executed under oath by a qualified expert.' If this requirement is not met, the case must be dismissed.

Id. The MPLA plainly applied to the allegations of improper prescription by the doctor – "[i]t can hardly be questioned that writing prescriptions for controlled medication are acts done within the context of rendering health care services," as defined in the MPLA. Id.

Finding that state law requiring pre-suit requirements are jurisdictional (citing Flagg v. Stryker Corp., 819 F.3d 132, 137-38 (5th Cir. 2016) (en banc) [ed. note, we blogged about Flagg here], and Robinson v. Mon, 2014 WL 4161965, at *8 (S.D.W. Va. Aug. 19, 2014)), the court concluded "there is no possibility of recovery by the plaintiff against [the doctor] in this civil action as it presently stands" and the dismissed the county's claim against him without prejudice. Id.

That was not all. Aiming to prevent a recurrence of this kind of jurisdictional subterfuge (remember the "local prejudice" point), the court further found that the local prescribing physician was fraudulently mis-joined because the claims against him for improperly prescribing some opioids were attenuated from the claim that the distributors "flooded" the market.

Fraudulent joinder assumes that the claim against the nondiverse defendant is sufficiently related to the claims against the diverse defendant to have been properly joined in the same lawsuit. Such is not the case with the related, but distinct, doctrine of fraudulent misjoinder. Here, the inquiry is whether claims against the diverse and non-diverse defendants are sufficiently related to be properly joined in a single case.

Id.

Upon review of cases adopting misjoinder, the court found the Fourth Circuit has "not accepted nor rejected the doctrine" but noted several District Courts had done so (commending the reader to the list of cases in In re Lipitor (Atorvastatin Calcium) Mktg., Sales Practices and Prods. Liab. Litig., 2016 WL 7339811 at *3 fn.4 (D.S.C. Oct. 24, 2016)). Id. at *4. Since the propriety of joinder is a state law question, the court looked to Rule 20 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, governing joinder, and cases on its federal counterpart. "Under Federal Rule 20 and the corresponding West Virginia rule, the claims, to be properly joined, must (1) arise out of the same transaction or occurrence, and (2) present a question of law or fact common to all defendants." The court declined to apply a "heightened standard" similar to fraudulent joinder adopted in In re Lipitor ("[T]o establish fraudulent misjoinder, the removing party was required to show either outright fraud, or that there was no possibility that the plaintiff would be able to join the diverse and non-diverse claims"), instead finding "[t]he prevailing standard is whether there is a 'reasonable possibility that a state court would find that [the plaintiffs'] claims against [one set of defendants] were properly joined with [the] claims against the other defendants.'" Id.

The court contrasted Wyatt v. Charleston Area Med. Ctr., a medical device case where the court found that product liability and malpractice claims arose "out of the same occurrence – the plaintiff's surgery 'and the after effects of that surgery,'" with Hughes v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 2009 WL 2877424 (N.D.W. Va. Sept. 3, 2009), where the court found that the plaintiff, who fell off a treadmill, couldn't combine product claims against the treadmill manufacturer with malpractice claims against the emergency room physician who misdiagnosed her injuries. "[The emergency room doctor] had no control over the allegedly defective product." Id. at *5.

In the case before the court, there was no basis for a persuasive argument that the medical malpractice and products liability claims arose out of the same transaction or occurrence. Moreover, "the evidence supporting these claims will be markedly different." Id. McDowell County's claims were more like Hughes than Wyatt, since:

In this case, the connection, if any, between the actions of the corporate defendants, who allegedly flooded the market with opioids, and the doctor, who prescribed some of them, is far more attenuated than any connection between the manufacturers and seller of the treadmill in Hughes and the subsequent misdiagnosis by the treating physician.

Id.

Thus, the McDowell opinion concluded,

Since there is no possibility of recovery against [the doctor] in this case, he has been fraudulently joined. Additionally, the court finds no common questions of law or fact in plaintiff's claims against the corporate defendants and the claims against [the doctor]. The cases against each are separate and distinct. Accordingly, [the doctor] has also been fraudulently misjoined. The Motion to Remand is therefore DENIED. Since the court lacks jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims against [the doctor] this action, insofar as it relates to [him], is dismissed without prejudice.

Id.

This remand ruling eliminates one possible jurisdictional ploy to defeat diversity. There are, however, others, and we will have to see what happens next.

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

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