A recent opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reminds practitioners that federal jurisdiction is born from the substance of the claims made and relief sought, not by the titles given to each cause of action. In Wullschleger v. Royal Canin U.S.A., Inc., 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 8038 (8th Cir., March 13, 2020), the plaintiffs sought to represent a class of Missouri plaintiffs who purchased prescription pet foods at premium prices from defendants Royal Canin and Purina PetCare. Plaintiffs alleged they were deceived into believing the products were approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri remanded the case to the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court, finding it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The Eighth Circuit granted defendants’ petition for review of the order of remand, limiting its review to the issue of federal question jurisdiction. Upon review of the plaintiff’s Petition, the court concluded federal question jurisdiction in fact did exist and vacated the district court’s remand order.
The case involved the defendants’ “prescription” pet foods, which require the purchaser to consult with a veterinarian and obtain a prescription before purchase. The defendants represented that the pet foods are therapeutic formulas for specific health issues and may not be tolerated by all pets. Defendants did not, however submit these pet foods for evaluation by the FDA and, as such, a prescription is not required by law. Plaintiffs’ Jackson County Petition alleged only state law claims, including violations of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, Missouri antitrust laws, and Missouri unjust enrichment law.
On review, the Eighth Circuit noted that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of a plaintiff’s properly pleaded complaint. In this way, a plaintiff controls whether federal jurisdiction exists, and he may avoid federal question jurisdiction by relying exclusively on state law. Plaintiffs here argued they merely asserted claimed violations of federal law as elements of their state causes of action, which the United States Supreme Court in Merrell Dow Pharm. Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 814 (1986), has held insufficient on its own to confer federal question jurisdiction.
The appellate court disagreed with plaintiffs. While the Merchandising Practices Act claim, as alleged, could likely be resolved without depending on federal law, plaintiffs chose to premise their Missouri antitrust and unjust enrichment claims on violations and interpretations of federal law. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants violated the Federal Drug and Cosmetics Act and were non-compliant with FDA guidance. The antitrust and unjust enrichment claims, therefore, cannot be adjudicated without reliance on and explication of federal law. The court also noted that plaintiffs’ prayer for relief requires the interpretation and application of federal law. Specifically, plaintiffs prayed for judgment finding defendants violated both state and federal law and compelling them to comply with all federal and Missouri provisions applicable to pet food as a “drug.” In this way, according to the court, the face of the plaintiffs’ Petition gave rise to federal question jurisdiction, and plaintiffs’ isolated focus on their state law claims was nothing more than an apparent attempt to avoid federal jurisdiction.
The opinion underscores a plaintiff’s power to avoid federal question jurisdiction through his or her own pleadings. It also serves to remind defendants seeking removal of the importance of looking beyond the presence of purely state law claims to find allegations which might support federal question jurisdiction.