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Aguilar Marquinez v. The Dow Chemical Co.

Supreme Court of Delaware

March 15, 2018

LUIS ANTONIO AGUILAR MARQUINEZ et al., Plaintiffs Below, Appellant,
v.
THE DOW CHEMICAL COMPANY et al., Defendants Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: January 30, 2018

         On Acceptance of Petition for Certification by The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (No. 14-4245)

         There on appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware (Nos. 12-CV-695, 12-CV-696)

         Upon appeal from The United States Court of Appeals from the Third Circuit. CERTIFIED QUESTION ANSWERED

          Barbara H. Stratton, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, Jonathan S. Massey, Esquire, (argued), Washington, D.C., and Scott M. Hendler, Esquire, Austin, Texas, for Appellants.

          Donald E. Reid, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, Michael L. Brem, Houston, Texas, (argued), James W. Semple, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, Boaz S. Morag, Esquire, New York, New York, Timothy Jay Houseal, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, D. Ferguson McNeil, Esquire, Houston, Texas, Lisa C. McLaughlin, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, Adam V. Orlacchio, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, and Kelly E. Farnan, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellees.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices.

          VAUGHN, Justice

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified the following question of law to this Court in accordance with the Delaware Constitution, Article IV, § 11(8)(a) and Delaware Supreme Court Rule 41:

Does class action tolling end when a federal district court dismisses a matter for forum non conveniens and, consequently, denies as moot "all pending motions, " which include the motion for class certification, even where the dismissal incorporated a return jurisdiction clause stating that "the court will resume jurisdiction over the action as if the case had never been dismissed for f.n.c., " Delgado v. Shell Oil Co., 890 F.Supp. 1324, 1375 (S.D. Tex. 1995)? If it did not end at that time, when did it end based on the procedural history set forth above?

         By order dated June 16, 2017, this Court accepted the certified question. For the reasons that follow, we answer the certified question as follows: No, the federal district court dismissal in 1995 on grounds of forum non conveniens and consequent denial as moot of "all pending motions, " including the motion for class certification, did not end class action tolling. Class action tolling ended when class action certification was denied in Texas state court on June 3, 2010.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         The plaintiff-appellants ("the plaintiffs") worked on banana plantations in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama at various times in the 1970s and 1980s. The defendants-appellees ("the defendants") include United States corporations that manufactured and distributed a pesticide called dibromochloropropane ("DBCP"), and other United States corporations that owned and operated the banana plantations. The plaintiffs allege that they suffered adverse health consequences from exposure to DBCP while working on the banana plantations.

         In 1993, a putative class action lawsuit was filed in state court in Texas as Jorge Carcamo v. Shell Oil Co., No. 93-C-2290 (Brazoria County, Texas). The plaintiffs here were members of the putative class. The putative class included "[a]ll persons exposed to DBCP or DBCP containing products, designed, manufactured, marketed, distributed or used by [defendants] between 1965 and 1990" in 25 countries (including Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama).

         Before a decision was made on class certification, defendants impleaded a company partially owned by the State of Israel, and used its joinder as a basis to remove the case to federal court under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1330. The FSIA was the only basis for federal jurisdiction.

         After removal, Carcamo was consolidated with other DBCP-related class actions in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The cases were consolidated as Delgado v. Shell Oil Co., Civil Action No. H-94-1337. Defendants moved to dismiss the consolidated cases for forum non conveniens.

         On July 11, 1995, the Texas District Court granted defendants' motion and dismissed the putative class action for forum non conveniens ("Delgado I").[2] The opinion and order included a "return jurisdiction" clause:

Notwithstanding the dismissals that may result from this Memorandum and Order, in the event that the highest court of any foreign country finally affirms the dismissal for lack of jurisdiction of any action commenced by a plaintiff in these actions in his home country or the country in which he was injured, that plaintiff may return to this court and, upon proper motion, the court will resume jurisdiction over the action as if the case had never been dismissed for f.n.c.[3]

         The opinion and order also denied other motions, which arguably included plaintiffs' request for class certification:

In addition to defendants' motion to dismiss for f.n.c. a number of other motions are pending. . . . [A]ll pending motions . . . not otherwise expressly addressed in this Memorandum and Order are DENIED as MOOT.[4]

         The Delgado I court entered a final judgment on October 27, 1995, which included an injunction enjoining plaintiffs and anyone acting in concert with them from commencing new DBCP-related litigation in any court in the United States ("Delgado I Final Judgment"). The plaintiffs appealed the Delgado I Final Judgment, challenging only the court's subject matter jurisdiction under the FSIA.

          On October 19, 2000, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the Texas District Court properly exercised subject matter jurisdiction over the consolidated cases.[5] The United States Supreme Court denied plaintiffs' petition for writ of certiorari on April 16, 2001.[6] On February 24, 2003, the United States Supreme Court denied plaintiffs' motion for leave to file a petition for rehearing.[7]

         After they were unable to prosecute their claims in other countries, several of the original plaintiffs in Delgado moved for reinstatement in the Texas District Court pursuant to the return jurisdiction clause of Delgado I. While that motion was pending, the United States Supreme Court held in Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, another DBCP action, that the FSIA does not create exclusive federal jurisdiction over a case involving a foreign corporate defendant unless "the foreign state itself owns a majority of the corporation's shares."[8] The Court's decision in Patrickson meant that the jurisdictional basis on which Carcamo had been removed to the Texas District Court was invalid.

         Following Patrickson, the Texas District Court remanded the cases to Texas state court to consider the plaintiffs' rights under the return jurisdiction provision of the Delgado I dismissal.[9] Back in Texas state court, defendants petitioned the Court of Appeals of Texas for a writ of mandamus to terminate the litigation, claiming the plaintiffs failed to comply with the return clause.[10] The petition was denied because, according to the Texas Court of Appeals, the Delgado I court's order dismissing the case for forum non conveniens was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[11]

         Following that decision, a subset of the original plaintiffs again moved in Texas state court for class certification under Texas law. The defendants again removed the matter to the Texas District Court, arguing that the motion for class certification in state court "commences a new action" and was therefore subject to the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA).[12] The Texas District Court remanded the matter to Texas state court, holding that the matter was not subject to CAFA because the class action "commenced with the filing of the state-court petition in 1993" and "ha[d] been pending in one forum or another since 1993."[13]On June 3, 2010, class certification was denied in Texas state court.

         Following denial of class certification in Texas state court, three different lawsuits, including this case, were filed in Delaware.

         On July 21, 2011, Jose Rufino Canales Blanco filed suit on behalf only of himself in the Superior Court of Delaware. The further procedural history of that case is discussed below.

         On June 1, 2012 Tobias Bermudez Chavez and others filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware. A year before filing that suit, however, the same plaintiffs had filed a nearly identical suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. As a result, the Delaware District Court dismissed the case under the "first-filed rule, " which defers jurisdiction of a case filed in two different district courts to the forum where the case was first filed.[14]Although a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal, [15] that decision was reversed by the full Court.[16] The Third Circuit held "that the Delaware District Court abused its discretion under the first-filed rule by dismissing the[] cases with prejudice."[17]

         On May 31, 2012, Luis Antonio Aguilar Marquinez and others filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware. Fourteen of the plaintiffs had previously filed identical lawsuits in either the Eastern District of Louisiana or in Louisiana state court. As in Chavez, the Delaware District Court dismissed the plaintiffs' claims under the first-filed rule. The District Court later granted summary judgment to defendants as against the remaining plaintiffs, holding that class action tolling stopped in July 1995 when the Delgado I court dismissed the case for forum non conveniens.[18] Plaintiffs appealed to the Third Circuit.

         In the appeal in the Third Circuit, the plaintiffs (one of the fourteen dismissed on first-filed grounds and 56 of the other plaintiffs) argue that the Delaware District Court erred by holding that the July 1995 Delgado I opinion and order ended class action tolling. In the alternative, defendants argue that, at the very latest, class action tolling ended with the October 1995 Delgado I Final Judgment.

         It is with this procedural background that we turn to the certified question.

         PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

         The plaintiffs contend that this Court should answer the certified question by holding that, under Delaware law, the tolling period initiated by the filing of a putative class action concludes only with a clear, specific, and unambiguous order ending the class claims. Under this standard, they contend class action tolling in this case was not terminated by the Texas District Court's July 1995 opinion and order or the October 1995 Delgado I Final Judgment. Instead, class action tolling terminated on June 3, 2010 when the Texas state court denied class certification. The 1995 Delgado I opinion and order and the Delgado I Final Judgment, they contend, did not specifically rule on a motion for class certification. The return jurisdiction clause in the Delgado I opinion and order provided that if a foreign forum did not prove adequate, the action would be reinstated "as if the case had never been dismissed." The Texas District Court, they contend, thus created a procedure for the plaintiffs' claims to return to the Texas District Court in the form in which they existed prior to being dismissed (i.e. as a putative class) in the event the foreign forums proved inadequate.

         The defendants contend that this Court should answer the certified question in the affirmative by holding that the tolling period initiated by the filing of a class action complaint ends once it is no longer objectively reasonable for absent class members to rely on the putative action to protect their individual rights. They contend that under that legal standard, the tolling provided by the Texas class action terminated at the latest in 1995 with the Delgado I Final Judgment dismissing the consolidated action in favor of litigation in plaintiffs' home countries. They reason that after entry of Delgado I Final Judgment, no putative class member could reasonably have believed his or her interests were still being protected by the putative class representatives. They further ...


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