Followers of this blog have probably noted (and probably with some chagrin) that I rarely discuss just-released cases, because I’m more interested in what we can learn about the strategies in a case than breaking the latest legal news. This case, though, is different, because last week the Eleventh Circuit released an opinion on jurisdiction under the Class Acton Fairness Act (CAFA) that is baffling in large part because it ignores the ways in which parties actually litigate a class action.

In the recently-decided Cappuccitti v. DirecTV (11th Cir. Jul. 19, 2010), the Eleventh Circuit dismissed a class action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under CAFA.

As part of its reasoning, it held that at least one plaintiff must allege more than $75,000 in damages:

While § 1332(d) may have altered § 1332(a) to require only minimal diversity in CAFA actions, there is no evidence of congressional intent in § 1332(d) to obviate § 1332(a)’s $75,000 requirement as to at least one plaintiff.

(Citation omitted.) 

How did the court reach that conclusion?  Plaintiffs Renato Cappuccitti and David Ward sued DirecTV, Inc., claiming that DirecTV wrongfully charged its subscribers fees for cancelling their subscriptions prior to the subscriptions’ expiration. They brought suit in federal court under CAFA (both plaintiffs were Georgia residents, DirecTV is a California corporation, and the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million). DirecTV moved to dimiss and to compel arbitration. The district court refused to compel arbitration, and partially dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims. DirecTV appealed the denial of arbitration.

The Eleventh Circuit never reached the arbitration question. Instead, it held that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the case because neither of the plaintiffs had alleged a claim worth more than $75,000. As the opinion puts it:

in a CAFA action originally filed in federal court, at least one of the plaintiffs must allege an amount in controversy that satisfies the current congressional requirement for diversity jurisdiction provided in 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Such a conclusion is compelled by the language of § 1332 as well as the general principle that federal courts are tribunals of limited jurisdiction whose power to hear cases must be authorized by the Constitution and by Congress.

The Eleventh Circuit based its holding on a reading of several cases interpreting the "mass action" provisions of CAFA.  But it also worked from the assumption that its job is to reduce the number of class actions filed in federal court:

If we held that § 1332(a)’s $75,000 requirement for an individual defendant did not apply to § 1332(d)(2) cases, we would be expanding federal court jurisdiction beyond Congress’s authorization. We would essentially transform federal courts hearing originally-filed CAFA cases into small claims courts, where plaintiffs could bring five-dollar claims by alleging gargantuan class sizes to meet the $5,000,000 aggregate amount requirement. While Congress intended to expand federal jurisdiction over class actions when it enacted CAFA, surely this could not have been the result it intended.

This reasoning is puzzling, because the vast majority of federal class actions aggregate smaller claims. In fact, much of the federal court’s Rule 23 jurisprudence is based on the benefits that derive from allowing plaintiffs to aggregate small-dollar claims. (It also ignores footnote 12 of the Supreme Court’s Allapattah opinion, and its own opinion in Evans v. Walter Industries, Inc., each of which accept that the $5 million aggregate requirement replaced the $75,000 individual requirement.)

With the issuance of the Cappuccitti opinion, the Eleventh Circuit has made itself an outlier on CAFA jurisdiction.  (Placing it in opposition to the SecondThird, Fifth, SixthSeventh, Eighth, and Tenth, Circuits)  Given the odd result of the Cappuccitti opinion, it is likely that plaintiffs who wish to keep cases out of federal court will file them in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.  Defendants should prepare themselves accordingly.  

UPDATE, 15 OCTOBER 2010 – The three-judge panel that decided this case subsequently reversed itself in a per curiam opinion.