District Court Erred in Remanding Class Action to State Court because Decertification Order and Dismissal of Co-Defendants Substantially Increased Remaining Defendant’s Liability such that Amended Class Action Complaint did not “Relate Back” to Original Class Action Complaint, Rendering Class Action Removable under Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) Seventh Circuit Holds
Plaintiff filed a putative class action in Illinois state court against various H & R Block companies alleging violations of the state’s Consumer Fraud Act; the class action complaint alleged that defendants “had used deceptive practices to sell ‘Peace of Mind’ insurance against mistakes by H & R Block that increased customers’ tax liabilities.” Marshall v. H & R Block Tax Services, Inc., 564 F.3d 826, 827 (7th Cir. 2009). The state court granted plaintiff’s motion to certify the litigation as a nationwide class action, identifying three classes and defining the defendant class (which it also certified) as “any entity with the names ‘H & R Block’ or ‘HRB’ in its name, or otherwise affiliated or associated with [TSI], and which sold or sells the [Peace of Mind] product.” Id. Eventually all of the defendants were dismissed from the class action except H & R Block Tax Services (TSI), id. “Subsequently, however, the court decertified the defendant class at TSI’s request, leaving TSI, which already was the only defendant, with no class-representative status since there was no longer a defendant class. TSI had asked the court to decertify the plaintiff classes as well, and while the court refused to do so, it did narrow the classes to residents of 13 states.” Id. Defense attorneys removed the class action to federal court under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act of 2005), id. TSI argued that “decertification of the defendant class had made the case removable under the Class Action Fairness Act because the decertification occurred after the Act’s effective date, and had increased TSI’s potential liability notwithstanding the elimination of claims by residents of 37 states.” Id., at 828. Plaintiff argued that TSI’s liability had not increased because it had been jointly and severally liable for the misconduct of the other H & R Block defendants, id. The district court found that CAFA did not apply and remanded the class action to state court. Id. TSI sought and received leave to appeal the remand order, and the Seventh Circuit reversed.
The Seventh Circuit explained that TSI is the franchisor of the H & R Block retail tax offices – it does not operate them. Marshall, at 828. TSI claimed that, based on the decertification order, its potential liability has increased by $60 million, and argued that “a ruling that increases a defendant’s potential liability may make a case originally filed before the effective date of the Class Action Fairness Act removable if the ruling comes after that date, unless the alteration in the scope of the plaintiff’s claim ‘relates back’ to the original claim.” Id. (citations omitted). The district court remanded the class action to state court because it believed that “only a formal amendment of the complaint could commence a new action for CAFA purposes”; the Circuit Court disagreed, noting that such an interpretation would elevate form over substance. Id. Turning to whether the class action complaint adequately alleged joint and several liability, the Circuit Court concluded that the class action did not meet this test and that plaintiff now sought to “pin the entire liability of all the former members of the defendant class on TSI.” Id., at 829. The Seventh Circuit concluded at page 829, “They may, for all we know, be able to do so, but that will, so far as appears, enlarge TSI’s liability; the plaintiffs have presented no evidence to the contrary.” This significant change in potential liability did not “relate back” to the original class action complaint – “the expansion of potential liability was a surprise.” Id. Accordingly, the district court erred in remanding the class action to state court, id.