Supreme Court Report

Court limits where plaintiffs can bring claims in three rulings

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Curbing Mass Actions

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority in the Supreme Court. He said the court’s settled principles on specific jurisdiction that go back to International Shoe Co. v. Washington in 1945 determined the case.

In International Shoe, the justices held that a state court may exercise specific jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant only where the defendant has certain minimum contacts with the state such that the suit does not offend “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”

Alito said the California high court had found specific jurisdiction “without identifying any adequate link between the state and the nonresidents’ claims.”

“The nonresidents were not prescribed Plavix in California, did not purchase Plavix in California, did not ingest Plavix in California, and were not injured by Plavix in California,” Alito said. “The mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed, obtained and ingested Plavix in California—and allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the nonresidents—does not allow the state to assert specific jurisdiction over the nonresidents’ claims.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote as the lone dissenter and said she feared the consequences of the majority’s ruling “will be substantial.”

“The majority’s rule will make it difficult to aggregate the claims of plaintiffs across the country whose claims may be worth little alone,” she wrote. “It will make it impossible to bring a nationwide mass action in state court against defendants who are ‘at home’ in different states. … And there is nothing unfair about subjecting a massive corporation to suit in a state for a nationwide course of conduct that injures both forum residents and nonresidents alike.”

Robert S. Peck, president of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, wrote an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs for the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). He agreed with Sotomayor about the likely impact on similar litigation.

“This will make a significant number of mass actions difficult to bring against a single defendant in a single state court,” he says.

Peck essentially agreed with an observation by Alito that a relatively large number of plaintiffs could band together in larger states, such as Texas or Ohio, to sue a corporate defendant in their home states.

“But in a small state like New Hampshire, that’s something else,” Peck says.

Pincus of Mayer Brown says the court’s decision places “some guard rails” on where such suits may be filed. “I think it’s a good thing to promote some fairness for the system,” he adds.

spotting the patterns

Soon after the Supreme Court decision, a Missouri state judge in St. Louis declared a mistrial in a suit against Johnson & Johnson regarding allegations that the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company’s talcum powder could cause ovarian cancer. Two of the three women in that suit were from outside Missouri. Johnson & Johnson has faced other Missouri suits about the same issue.

Peck finds it ironic that the Supreme Court recognized as long ago as 1957 that modern transportation and communications were making it much less burdensome for a corporate defendant to defend itself in a state where it engages in economic activity. Yet its most recent jurisdiction decisions have made it harder on plaintiffs to sue across the country. “It does seem out of kilter,” Peck says.

Some legal analysts viewed the decisions on jurisdiction as part of a pro-business pattern under the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

“One thing we’re seeing from the Roberts court in general, especially with respect to procedure issues, is a formalist perspective that is territorial, that restricts the availability of places to bring suit,” says Rhodes of South Texas College of Law.

But Pincus notes that decisions such as Daimler, TC Heartland and Bristol-Myers Squibb were not 5-4 rulings with the conservative bloc in the majority. They were nearly unanimous.

“It’s hard to say this is an agenda item of one faction of the court,” Pincus says.

This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “Making It Personal: Court limits where plaintiffs can bring claims in 3 rulings"

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