In Scimone v. Carnival Corp., 720 F.3d 878 (11th Cir. 2013), the Eleventh Circuit held that a plaintiff is “master of the complaint,” even if being master means structuring a complaint to avoid federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”). The holding seems at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in The Standard Fire Insurance Company v. Knowles, 133 S. Ct. 1345 (2013), which read broadly, condemned such tactics by plaintiffs’ lawyers. (See my posts from January 7 and March 20, 2013.) In affirming the district court’s remand, the Eleventh Circuit confined Knowles to its facts.
The case arises from the shipwreck of a Carnival cruise ship off the coast of Italy in 2012. Rather than file a single action against Carnival, plaintiffs ultimately filed two separate, but identical actions in state court in Florida, each with less than the 100-person CAFA threshold for a “mass action” under CAFA. The court held that under the CAFA statute, unless plaintiffs proposed to try the cases jointly, the cases could not be considered a mass action under the statute. And because plaintiffs had made no such proposal, the cases could not be removed to federal court.
The court distinguished Knowles based on the fact that Knowles was not a mass action, but a class action, under CAFA, and the language at issue dealt with the statutory damages threshold. Knowles had met this threshold, but then tried to stipulate away a portion of damages in order to be under the $5 million CAFA threshold. Justice Breyer, writing for a unanimous Court, held that the named plaintiff in an uncertified class lacked authority to bind absent class members to a lower amount of damages. The Eleventh Circuit seized on this specific holding of the Knowles decision.
But certainly, in a broader sense, Knowles set a limit on the plaintiff as master of the complaint concept in the CAFA context, and put a stop to at least one form of plaintiffs’ tactics designed to elude federal jurisdiction. Placed in that perspective, it is difficult to see why one way in which plaintiffs try to escape CAFA jurisdiction (lowering the amount of damages sought) should be forbidden, while another form (dividing suits up to avoid the threshold number of people) should be permitted. It looks like this issue, like many others, will have to await further guidance from the Supreme Court.