By Colin D. A. MacDonald
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that third parties named in class action counterclaims in a state court action cannot remove that action to federal court. The ruling leaves open an avenue for consumers who are sued in a state court debt collection action to sue third parties about the underlying transaction without facing removal to federal court.
In 2016, Citibank sued George Jackson in North Carolina state court for sums it claimed he owed on a Citibank-issued credit card account that Jackson had with Home Depot. Jackson, in turn, filed third-party counterclaims against Home Depot and a local seller of water treatment systems under the state’s unfair and deceptive trade practices law. Jackson sought class certification for these claims and damages in excess of $5 million on behalf of the class. Citibank then dropped its underlying action, leaving only the third-party counterclaim before the court. At that point, Home Depot removed the case to federal court and Jackson challenged the removal.
In a 5-4 vote, the high court concluded that neither the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), nor the general federal court removal statute provided a basis for removal of the case. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the clear text of the statutes address the ability of defendants in “civil actions” to remove cases, not defendants to “claims.” As a result, although a party might be defending against a claim, that party is not a “defendant” with power to remove the case. Justice Thomas, though generally known for his conservative judicial leaning, was joined by the court’s four traditionally liberal justices in his opinion.
CAFA permits defendants in many large class action suits to remove the case to federal court, even if the case raises only state law claims and regardless of whether the defendant is based in the state where it is sued. The 2005 law was based on a view among its supporters that state courts were likely to favor classes of individuals over large corporations and that federal courts could more fairly adjudicate the dispute.
Justice Alito penned a sharp dissent, arguing that Home Depot was clearly a “defendant” in any ordinary meaning of the term. Indeed, he noted that by the time the retailer sought removal, the only claims before the court were those that Jackson brought against Home Depot. Alito’s dissent contended that the majority would permit use of third party counterclaims as a “tactic” to keep a class action in state court that CAFA would otherwise allow to be removed.
The opinion builds upon decades-old precedent holding that an original plaintiff defending against counterclaims may not remove the case, even if a federal court would have had jurisdiction had the counterclaim been filed first. In that case, however, a party could ostensibly avoid facing counterclaims in state court by not filing the initial action. The dissent argued that Home Depot had no such option, and thus Congress could not possibly have intended for CAFA to close the doors of federal courts to those defending against counterclaims only in this unique posture.
To that, Thomas’s majority opinion responded: “that result is a consequence of the statute Congress wrote.” If Congress dislikes what the law says, the majority concludes, the solution is for Congress – not the courts – to change it.
The case now returns to North Carolina state courts for further proceedings on the merits of Jackson’s claims against Home Depot.
Case citation: Home Depot U. S. A., Inc. v. Jackson, 587 U.S. ____ (2019).
Colin D. A. MacDonald is a Seattle-based consumer protection attorney for the Federal Trade Commission. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commission or of any individual Commissioner.