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Chaverri v. Dole Food Co., Inc.

Superior Court of Delaware

November 8, 2019

EDUARDO ALVARADO CHAVERRI, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DOLE FOOD COMPANY, INC., et al., Defendants.

          Submitted: September 25, 2019

         Upon Plaintiffs' Motion to Vacate Judgment Under Rule 60(b)(6) DENIED

          Andrew C. Dalton, Esquire, Dalton & Associates, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Scott M. Hendler, Esquire, Hendler Flores, PLLC, Austin, Texas, Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

          Somers S. Price, Jr., Esquire, Potter, Anderson & Corroon LLP, Wilmington, Delaware; Andrea Neuman, Esquire, Thomas Manakides, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, New York, New York, Attorneys for Defendants Dole Food Company, Inc., Dole Fresh Fruit Company, Standard Fruit Company, and Standard Fruit and Steamship Company.

          Adam Orlacchio, Esquire, Brandon McCune, Esquire, Blank Rome LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Defendants Chiquita Brands International, Inc., Chiquita Brands, LLC, and Chiquita Fresh North America, LLC.

          Donald E. Reid, Esquire, Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Michael L. Brem, Esquire, Shirrmeister, Diaz-Arrastia, Brem, LLP, Houston, Texas, Attorneys for Defendant Dow Chemical Company.

          Timothy Jay Houseal, Esquire, Jennifer M. Kinkus, Esquire, William E. Gamgort, Esquire, Young, Conaway, Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Occidental Chemical Corporation.

          John C. Phillips, Esquire, Phillips, Goldman, McLaughlin & Hall, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendant AMVAC Chemical Corporation.

          Kelly E. Farnan, Esquire, Katharine L. Mowery, Esquire, Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Craig Stanfield, King & Spalding, LLP, Houston, Texas, Attorneys for Defendant Shell Oil Company.

          James Semple, Esquire, Cooch & Taylor, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendant Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THE HONORABLE ANDREA L. ROCANELLI JUDGE.

         Six years ago today, this Court dismissed this case on grounds of forum non conveniens under Delaware's McWane Doctrine[1] ("November 2013 Dismissal Order").[2] The basis for dismissal of this action was that the claims made in this Court had already been filed in in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ("Louisiana District Court"). By the time this Court granted the motion to dismiss at issue here, the Louisiana District Court had already dismissed Plaintiffs' claims on statute of limitations grounds and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had already affirmed the Louisiana District Court's dismissal on those grounds. The Delaware Supreme Court, sitting en banc, adopted this Court's reasoning and affirmed the November 2013 Dismissal Order on October 20, 2014.[3] Accordingly, this lawsuit was dismissed because Plaintiffs had first pursued their claims in another court even though the claims in that other court had already been dismissed.

         Now Plaintiffs have moved to vacate the November 2013 Dismissal Order pursuant to Superior Court Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) on the basis that "[t]hree groundbreaking rulings" issued since the November 2013 Dismissal Order have so radically disrupted the legal foundations of this Court's November 2013 Dismissal Order that the dismissal can no longer stand. Defendants oppose Plaintiffs' Motion.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plainitffs' claims arise from alleged exposure to the pesticide 1, 2, dibromo 3, chloropropane ("DBCP") by persons employed on various banana farms throughout Central America, including Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama.

         I. Litigation in Texas and Various "Home" Countries

         In 1993, Plaintiffs' Texas counsel filed a class action lawsuit in Texas state court ("Texas State Action") on behalf of all persons allegedly exposed to DBCP between 1965 and 1990 as a result of actions taken by Defendants.[4] In 1994, Defendants removed the Texas State Action to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas ("Texas District Court"), where the case was consolidated with other DBCP cases ("Texas Federal Action").[5]

         In 1995, the Texas District Court dismissed the Texas Federal Action for forum non conveniens, finding the courts of Plaintiffs' home countries better suited to resolve Plaintiffs' claims ("Dismissal Order").[6] However, the Dismissal Order permitted Plaintiffs to return to the Texas District Court to resume the Texas Federal Action "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."[7]

         After the foreign courts declined jurisdiction, in 2004, the Texas Federal Action was reinstated and the claims remanded to the Texas state court[8] where the parties litigated Plaintiffs' claims until 2010 when the Texas state court denied Plaintiffs' motion for class certification.[9]

         II. Plaintiffs Pursue Claims in Louisiana

         The class certification denial did not conclude the litigation. Instead, members of the putative class struck out on their own to seek relief through individual actions. Between May 31, 2011 and June 2, 2011, members of the putative class began filing actions in the Louisiana District Court, resulting in seven actions with 291 plaintiffs, all of which the Louisiana District Court consolidated into a single action proceeding under a caption resembling the caption in this case: Chaverri v. Dole Food Co. ("Louisiana Action").[10]

         Over the next year, Plaintiffs' counsel made a number of strategic decisions which involved distributing the risk to the putative class by dividing up the plaintiffs from the Texas litigation into a series of lawsuits filed in the federal and state courts of Delaware. First, a single plaintiff filed an action in the Delaware Superior Court on July 21, 2011 ("Blanco").[11] On May 31, 2012, this Court issued a letter notifying counsel that Blanco may proceed because, in part, Delaware law recognized the concept of cross-jurisdictional tolling.[12] Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, and while the Louisiana Action was still pending, Plaintiffs' counsel filed three additional actions in Delaware: two in federal court ("Marquinez" and "Chavez") and the instant action. The plaintiffs in all three actions were also plaintiffs in the Louisiana Action, and all three actions involved the same defendants and nearly identical claims as those involved in the Louisiana Action.

         On August 2, 2012, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the instant action. Defendants argued that this case should be dismissed based on forum non conveniens because the Complaint in this action mirrored the complaint in the first-filed Louisiana Action. Plaintiffs opposed the Motion to Dismiss on the basis that the Louisiana Action might be time-barred. Plaintiffs' concerns materialized on September 17, 2012, when the Louisiana District Court dismissed the Louisiana Action with prejudice under the Louisiana prescription statute.[13]

         One day after the Louisiana Action's dismissal, this Court granted Defendants' application for interlocutory appeal in the Blanco matter.[14] The Court in the instant action stayed Defendants' Motion to Dismiss pending the Delaware Supreme Court's decision in Blanco. This Court lifted the stay in the instant action after the Delaware Supreme Court issued its opinion in Blanco (the "Blanco Decision"), [15] and a hearing was scheduled on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Before the hearing took place, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the Louisiana District Court's dismissal of Plaintiffs' claims in the Louisiana Action on statute of limitations grounds.[16]

         On November 8, 2013, this Court issued its November 2013 Dismissal Order, [17] finding that the McWane Doctrine permits Delaware courts to freely exercise discretion in favor of staying or dismissing a second-filed Delaware action when "(1) there is a prior action pending elsewhere (2) in a court capable of doing prompt and complete justice, and (3) involving the same parties and the same issues."[18] The animating principle behind this preference, this Court explained, is the policy that favors strong deference to a plaintiff's initial choice of forum.[19] "This policy is meant to discourage forum shopping and promote the orderly administration of justice 'by recognizing the value of confining litigation to one jurisdiction, whenever that is both possible and practical.'"[20] Finding the instant action met the three prongs of the McWane Doctrine, this Court granted Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.[21] On October 20, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court, sitting en banc, adopted this Court's reasoning and affirmed the November 2013 Dismissal Order.[22] In the meantime, the sole plaintiff in Blanco voluntarily dismissed his claims against Defendants on October 7, 2014, after Defendants moved for summary judgment on grounds including the statute of limitations and the plaintiff's "inability to demonstrate any exposure [to DBCP] or causation."[23]

         III. Developments in the Federal Litigation

         While the Delaware state-court litigation ended in 2014 in the Blanco and Chaverri cases, the parties to the two actions filed in the United State District Court for the District of Delaware ("Delaware District Court") continue to litigate their claims to this day. Plaintiffs now argue that "three pivotal and precedential decisions" issued in those federal cases warrant reopening this matter.[24]

         A. The Third Circuit's Decision in Chavez v. Dole

         The first decision Plaintiffs cite was issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in the Chavez case more than two years before Plaintiffs filed the instant Motion to Vacate. In Chavez, the Delaware District Court had dismissed the plaintiffs' claims under the federal first-filed rule.[25] The District Court observed that the federal first-filed rule provides that "when two federal district courts have the same case, the court which has the first case is the one that should decide the case."[26] In light of this observation, the District Court concluded that because the plaintiffs had filed the Louisiana Action first, the Delaware District Court case should be dismissed with prejudice.[27]

         While a Third Circuit panel initially affirmed the District Court's decision, the en banc Third Circuit vacated the District Court's order on September 2, 2016.[28]The Third Circuit concluded that federal courts exercising discretion under the federal first-filed rule, "in the vast majority of cases, . . . should stay or transfer a second-filed suit."[29] The Third Circuit therefore held that, based on the facts of the Chavez case and the federal law governing the federal first-filed rule, the District Court abused its discretion by dismissing the case with prejudice.[30]

         B. The Two Decisions in Marquinez v. Dole Food Co.

         The next two decisions Plaintiffs cite in support of their Motion to Vacate arose in the federal Marquinez case in which the Delaware District Court issued two separate orders. In the first order, the District Court dismissed fourteen plaintiffs' claims under the federal first-filed rule based on their identical claims in the Louisiana Action ("First-Filed Decision").[31] In the second order, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding Delaware's statute of limitations barred the remaining plaintiffs' claims ("Tolling Decision").[32]Specifically, the District Court found that the statute of limitations stopped tolling in 1995 when the Texas District Court dismissed the Texas Federal Action on the grounds of forum non conveniens.[33]

         The Marquinez plaintiffs appealed both orders, and the Third Circuit certified to the Delaware Supreme Court the question of whether class action tolling ended when the Texas District Court dismissed the Texas Federal Action based on forum non conveniens.[34] Plaintiffs cite the Delaware Supreme Court's answer and accompanying opinion as the second groundbreaking legal development supporting the Motion to Vacate.

         1. The Delaware Supreme Court's Tolling Decision

         On March 15, 2018, the Delaware Supreme Court issued its answer to the Third Circuit's certified question, finding Delaware's statute of limitations continued to toll after the Texas District Court dismissed the Texas Federal Action in 1995.[35] In reaching this conclusion, the Court adopted the rule that "cross-jurisdictional class action tolling ends only when a sister trial court has clearly, unambiguously, and finally denied class action status."[36] The Court observed that this approach "is consistent with [the Blanco Decision's] rationale of avoiding 'wasteful and duplicative litigation.'"[37]

         2. The Third Circuit Adopts the Delaware Supreme Court's Opinion

         The Third Circuit issued the Plaintiffs' final so-called groundbreaking decision on May 29, 2018-seven months before Plaintiffs filed the Motion to Vacate.[38] First, the court adopted the Delaware Supreme Court's answer to the Third Circuit's certified question and vacated the Delaware District Court's Tolling Decision.[39] Next, the court vacated the Delaware District Court's First-Filed Decision, citing its decision in Chavez and noting that the circumstances in Chavez were "materially identical" to those in the lower court's First-Filed Decision.[40]

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Superior Court Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) controls motions to vacate and provides, in relevant part: "On motion and upon such terms as are just, the Court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for . . . any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment."[41]

         A motion to vacate a judgment or order "pursuant to . . . Superior Court Civil Rule 60(b) is addressed to the sound discretion of the Court."[42] "Delaware courts receive such motions with favor because they promote Delaware's strong judicial policy of deciding cases on the merits and giving parties to litigation their day in court." [43] As such, all doubts should be resolved in favor of the movant.[44]

         Rule 60(b) implicates two important values: (1) "ensuring the integrity of the judicial process" and (2) "the finality of judgments."[45] "Because of the significant interest in preserving the finality of judgments, Rule 60(b) motions are not to be taken lightly or easily granted."[46]

         DISCUSSION

         The "significant interest in preserving the finality of judgments" is an important consideration for this Court, [47] and several issues arising from Plaintiffs' Motion to Vacate would undermine that policy if the Court granted their Motion. As a preliminary matter, the timeliness of Plaintiffs' filing precludes the Court from reaching the merits of their Motion. The Court need not reach the merits of a Rule 60(b) motion if the Court determines that the motion was untimely.[48] Moreover, even if the Court did not find Plaintiffs' Motion untimely, Plaintiffs' Motion fails on the merits because it presents no extraordinary circumstances. Thus, in the interest of upholding the integrity of the judicial process, the Motion to Vacate shall be denied for the reasons set forth in the following discussion.

         I.The Motion to Vacate Is ...


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