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United States Supreme Court Holds Counterclaim Defendants May Not Remove Diverse Lawsuits

July 25, 2019 | Lisa Larkin and Jessica Cozart

In Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. v. Jackson, 139 S.Ct. 1743 (May 28, 2019), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Thomas that neither the general removal provision (28 U.S.C. §1441(a)) nor the removal provision in the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (28 U.S. C. §1453(b)) permits a third-party counterclaim defendant to remove a class-action from state to federal court.

Citibank filed a debt-collection action against George Jackson alleging he was liable for charges he incurred on a Home Depot credit card. In response, Jackson filed a counterclaim against Citibank and third-party class-action claims against Home Depot U.S.A. and Carolina Water Systems. Jackson alleged that Home Depot and Carolina Water induced homeowners to buy water treatment systems at inflated prices and engaged in unlawful referral sales and deceptive and unfair trade practices. Jackson also alleged that Citibank was jointly and severally liable for the conduct of Home Depot and Carolina Water and that his obligations under the sale were null and void. After Citibank dismissed its claims against Jackson, Home Depot removed the case to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”). Jackson moved to remand, arguing that precedent barred removal by a third-party/additional counter-defendant like Home Depot.

The District Court remanded and the Fourth Circuit affirmed, relying on some almost-80 year old precedent that the general removal provision (§1441(a)) did not allow Home Depot as a third-party defendant to remove the class-action claims; and concluding that CAFA’s removal provision (§1453(b)) likewise did not allow removal. The Supreme Court affirmed.

The general removal statute, 28 U.S.C. §1441(a), provides that “any civil action” over which a federal court would have original jurisdiction may be removed to federal court by “the defendant or the defendants.” Similarly, CAFA provides that a “class action” may be removed to federal court by “any defendant without the consent of all defendants.” 28 U.S.C. §1453(b).

Home Depot argued that because a third-party counterclaim defendant is a “defendant” to the claim against it, it may remove pursuant to §1441(a). The Supreme Court disagreed based on the structure of the statute and precedent. When determining whether a district court has original jurisdiction over a civil action, it must evaluate whether that action could have been brought originally in federal court, either because it raises claims arising under federal law or because it falls within the court’s diversity jurisdiction. The Court noted that the presence of a counterclaim is irrelevant to whether the district court has “original jurisdiction” over the civil action because the “civil action” of which the district court must have original jurisdiction is the action as defined by the plaintiff’s complaint and the “defendant” to that action is the defendant to that complaint, not a party named in a counterclaim. Further, the Court noted that Congress did not intend for the phrase “the defendant or the defendants” in §1441(a) to include third-party counterclaim defendants because the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure differentiate between third-party defendants, counterclaim defendants, and defendants. Additionally, in other removal provisions, Congress clearly extended the reach of the statute to include parties other than the original defendant (See §1452(a) and §§1454(a) and (b)), whereas §1441(a) does not so clearly extend its reach. Section 1441(a) limits removal to “the defendant or the defendants” in a civil action over which the district courts have original jurisdiction. Section 1441(a), therefore, does not permit removal by any counterclaim defendant, including parties brought into the suit for the first time by a counterclaim.

Home Depot also argued that it could remove under §1453(b) because of the different wording of that statute. It argued that although §1441(a) permits removal only by “the defendant or the defendants” in a “civil action,” §1453(b) permits removal by “any defendant” to a “class action.” The Court disagreed, holding that there was no indication that this language does anything more than alter the general rule that a civil action may not be removed on the basis of diversity jurisdiction “if any of the … defendants is a citizen of the State in which such action is brought.” The Court found that the two clauses in §1453(b) that use the term “any defendant” simply clarify that certain limitations on removal do not limit removal under that section. The Court specifically found held that neither alters the limitation on who can remove, which suggests that Congress intended to leave that limit in place.

The Court also referenced and reaffirmed its holding in Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100 (1941), which held that an original plaintiff may not remove a counterclaim against it. The Court found that this decades-old holding applies equally to third-party counterclaim defendants.

Justice Alito wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion (joined by Justices Roberts, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh), arguing that a “defendant” is a ‘person sued in a civil proceeding’ and that the majority’s decision leaves third-party defendants unprotected under §1441 and CAFA. He thus asserted that the majority opinion reads an irrational distinction into the removal statutes.

As noted by the dissent, this inability of a third-party defendant to remove raises concerns about out-of-state bias, the inability to take advantage of federal procedure rules, and the inability to use multidistrict litigation procedure.

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About Product Liability Law Blog

The BSCR Product Liability Blog examines significant developments, trends, and topics in product liability law of interest to individuals and product manufacturers, distributors and sellers. Learn more about the editor, David E. Eisenberg,  and our Product Liability practice.

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