United States: U.S. Supreme Court Holds Limitations Period On Class Claims Runs

Seyfarth Synopsis: At the start of this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh, No. 17-432 (U.S. June 11, 2018), which has important implications for employers because it will limit their exposure to successive class actions.  Specifically, the Supreme Court held that, while the individual claims of putative class members are tolled during pending class actions, their class claims are not. 

Case Background

The China Agritech case was the third putative shareholder class action brought against China Agritech alleging fraud and misleading business practices.  The first such action was brought by Theodore Dean on February 11, 2011. On May 3, 2012, the court in Dean denied class certification, and Theodore Dean then settled his individual claim.

On October 4, 2012, a new set of plaintiffs brought the second putative class action, the Smyth action, against China Agritech. The district court again denied class certification, after which the Smyth plaintiffs settled with China Agritech.

On June 30, 2014, Michael Resh filed a third putative class action against China Agritech. China Agritech argued that Resh's class claims expired on February 3, 2013 under the applicable two-year statute of limitations.  Resh argued that his class claims were tolled during the Dean and Smyth actions under the principles of American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974), in which the Supreme Court held that the filing of a class action tolls the applicable statute of limitations for all putative class members.

The district court found that American Pipe tolling did not apply to class claims, and thus dismissed Resh's class claims as untimely.  The Ninth Circuit reversed.  To resolve a circuit split, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court's Decision

In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court began by considering the rationale behind its decision in American Pipe.  Specifically, the Supreme Court observed that the purpose of American Pipe tolling is to avoid putative class members filing motions to intervene or separate, individual suits to protect their claims in the event class certification was denied.  China Agritech, No. 14-432 at *5-6.  The Supreme Court further noted that the efficiency and economy purposes of Rule 23 would be undermined if putative class members needed to file motions to intervene and individual actions to preserve their individual claims while putative class actions were pending.  Id. at *6-*7.

The Supreme Court observed that Rule 23 favors early resolution of class certification questions, in that it Rule 23 states that class certification should be decided at "'an early practicable time.'" Id. at *7 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)).

The Supreme Court also considered the basis for allowing equitable tolling. Specifically, the Supreme Court pointed out that, to receive equitable tolling, plaintiffs must demonstrate that they have "been diligent in the pursuit of their claims." China Agritech, No. 14-432 at *9. The Supreme Court found that "[a] would-be class representative who commences suit after expiration of the limitation period . . . can hardly qualify as diligent in asserting claims and pursuing relief." Id.

Finally, the Supreme Court found that the problem with allowing American Pipe tolling to apply to class claims is that "the time for filing successive class suits . . . could be limitless." Id. at *10. It held that "[e]ndless tolling of a statute of limitations is not a result envisioned by American Pipe." Id. at *11. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that "[t]ime to file a class action falls outside the bounds of American Pipe." Id. at *15.

Implications For Employers

While China Agritech is not an employment case, it nonetheless represents an important win for employers because it limits the ability of employees to bring successive class actions on the same claims. If the Supreme Court had ruled that American Pipe tolling applied to class claims, employers who won on class certification in one case could then face successive putative class actions asserting the same claims for an indefinite period of time. Since the Supreme Court ruled that American Pipe tolling does not apply to class claims, employers can now have the certainty of knowing the date on which particular class claims expire.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Authors
Gerald L. Maatman Jr.
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