A recent Eleventh Circuit decision on the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) caught my eye. It involves the kind of question legislators (and their staffs) probably never think about when drafting a statute. Law professors dream up these types of questions when trying to find a way to puzzle their students on an exam. It’s of interest only to nerds of the law.
In Ruhlen v. Holiday Haven Homeowners, Inc., No. 21-90022, — F.4th –, 2022 WL 701622 (11th Cir. Mar. 9, 2022), the question was whether the trial court’s order remanding the case to state court “sua sponte” — Latin for “of its own volition” — could be appealed. Under CAFA, federal appeals courts can hear appeals, in their discretion, “from an order of a district court granting or denying a motion to remand a class action to the State court from which it was removed.” 28 U.S.C. § 1453(c)(1) (emphasis added). This case was removed to federal court based on both the inclusion of a federal statutory claim in the complaint and under CAFA. The federal claim was withdrawn in an amended complaint, and the district court then remanded the case sua sponte, concluding that the particular type of state law claim brought under a Florida rule of civil procedure allowing a mobile homeowners’ association to sue on behalf of homeowners was not a “class action” within the meaning of CAFA. The defendants asked the Eleventh Circuit to hear an appeal from the remand order.
The Eleventh Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, concluded it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal because there was no “motion to remand” filed in the district court. The majority concluded that the plain language of CAFA requires a “motion” made by a party and does not apply to a remand ordered by the court without a motion being filed. Although Black’s Law Dictionary and some court opinions refer to “sua sponte” as meaning “on its own motion,” the majority held that a “motion” requires a party’s request, and when the court acts sua sponte, “the court … does not actually ‘request’ anything of itself, nor does it grant or deny anyone else’s request.” The majority acknowledged that Congress may have intended otherwise, and that this was an “odd” result, but felt it was bound by the plain meaning of the text, citing Justice Scalia and Brian Garner’s book Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. The majority suggested Congress would have to fix this if they intended otherwise.
Unless Congress fixes this or the Supreme Court takes the issue and reaches a different result, those defending class actions in the Eleventh Circuit better hope that if a jurisdictional issue arises, the plaintiff files a motion to remand. If the court questions its own jurisdiction, you might try suggesting that a briefing schedule be set on a motion to remand the plaintiff might wish to file. Otherwise you could have no chance to appeal.
Judge Rosenbaum dissented, finding the majority’s reading of CAFA “hypertechnical,” inconsistent with the surrounding statutory context and expressed Congressional purpose, and leading to an absurd result. “I can conceive of no logical reason,” she wrote, “why the same action should be exposed to two opposite results, depending on whether a party made a motion before the court issued its order.” Judge Rosenbaum identified a circuit split, citing a decision by the Ninth Circuit, holding that CAFA allowed an appeal of a sua sponte remand, and cases where the Seventh and Eighth Circuits had reviewed sua sponte remands without raising the jurisdictional issue.
Perhaps the Supreme Court will take this case, if a petition for certiorari is filed. It would not be heavy lifting for them. Assuming Judge Jackson is confirmed, this one could be a good candidate for her first opinion, which are traditionally “easy” ones that are of little interest to anyone other than lawyers in a particular practice area.