As Master of Class Action Complaint Plaintiffs Successfully Limited Amount in Controversy so as to Preclude Removal Jurisdiction on Diversity Grounds or under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act) Necessitating Remand of Class Action to State Court, but South Carolina Federal Court Expressly Limits Plaintiffs’ Individual and Class Action Recovery to Limits Pleaded in Class Action Complaint
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action lawsuit in South Carolina state court against GAF Materials “alleging claims for negligence, negligent representation, breach of warranty, breach of implied warranties, fraud, a violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act (‘SCUPTA’), and unjust enrichment.” Brooks v. GAF Materials Corp., 532 F.Supp.2d 779, 780 (D.S.C. 2008). The class action complaint alleges the class “suffered property damage as a result of the Defendant’s defective roofing materials” and seeks compensatory and punitive damages, but in order to avoid removal jurisdiction the class action complaint expressly states that the “amount in controversy for the entire proposed Class does not exceed five million dollars” and that “[t]he Plaintiffs’ individual recovery, as well as any putative Class Members individual recovery, exclusive of interest and costs, is not to exceed $74,999.00.” Id. Defense attorneys removed the suit to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), and plaintiffs’ moved to remand the action to state court. Id. Defense attorneys originally removed the class action in May 2006, but the district court granted plaintiffs’ motion to remand “because the amount in controversy does not exceed $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs, for diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332.” Id., at 780. After plaintiffs amended their class action complaint, defense attorneys again removed the action to federal court but the district court remanded the action “for lack of jurisdiction based on the one-year cap on removal set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1446(b),” id., at 780-81, but the court subsequently rescinded its remand order and requested briefing on whether the amount in controversy exceeded $5 million for purposes of CAFA removal jurisdiction, id., at 781.The district court granted the motion.
In analyzing whether the Class Action Fairness Act authorized removal of this lawsuit, the district court stressed that “Plaintiffs have placed a clear limitation on damages in their complaint.” Brooks, at 782. The Court held at page 782, “the court declines to ‘adopt any approach under which the court will be required to undertake its own independent review of the amount in controversy despite a specific limitation on damages in the plaintiff’s complaint.’” As the master of their complaint, plaintiffs are entitled to limit damages sought therein in order to avoid removal jurisdiction, and they effectively did so here. Id. Accordingly, the district court granted plaintiffs’ motion to remand the class action to state court, finding that the amount in controversy requirement had not been met. Id., at 782-83. However, the federal court expressly barred plaintiffs from playing games with removal. The court’s remand order expressly states, “with respect to all claims, the Plaintiffs are barred from recovering a total amount of damages, including actual damages, punitive damages, treble damages, and statutory attorney’s fees, exceeding five million dollars ($5,000,000), exclusive of interest and costs for the putative class action, and the Plaintiffs are barred from recovering a total amount of damages, including actual damages, punitive damages, treble damages, and statutory attorney’s fees, exceeding seventy-four thousand nine hundred ninety-nine dollars ($74,999.00), exclusive of interest and costs, for any individual claims.” Id., at 783.
NOTE: The district court refused to award plaintiffs attorney fees or costs finding that defense attorneys “had an ‘objectively reasonable basis for seeking removal.’” Brooks, at 783 (citation omitted).