(CN) – The federal courts overstepped their authority in blocking a state court from considering a motion to certify a class action over the link betweeen Bayer’s cholesterol-reducing drug Baycol and a potentially fatal muscle disorder, the unanimous Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The District of Minnesota had made the bold move in blocking a West Virginia state court from granting class certification to Keith Smith and Shirley Sperlazza in their lawsuit against Bayer, finding that the parties were trying to relitigate a previously decided issue.
Though the federal court had not previously heard Smith and Sperlazza’s case, it had heard a similar case brought by different individuals against Bayer.
George McCollins had brought state-law breach-of-warranty claims against Bayer in the Circuit Court of Cabell County, W.Va., in August 2001.
That same month that McCollins filed suit over allegedly defective Baycol medication, Bayer withdrew that prescription drug from the market amid reports that it had caused 31 deaths.
Smith and Sperlazza sued over Baycol the following month in West Virginia’s Brooke County Circuit Court.
Eventually McCollins’ case was transferred to West Virginia’s Southern District Court and then to the District of Minnesota for multidistrict litigation proceedings since “tens of thousands” of cases had been brought over Baycol. Smith and Sperlazza’s case remained in Brooke County, however, because the lawsuit named several West Virginia defendants in addition to Bayer, which foreclosed complete diversity jurisdiction.
As the cases advanced with neither party knowing about the others suit, they presented motions for class certification in 2008. The federal judge tasked with McCollins’ case made his decision first, denying certification for West Virginia purchasers since each plaintiff would lack commonality over several issued and would have to prove Baycol use caused them “actual injury.”
McCollins also lost on the merits and did not appeal. Claiming that McCollins’ case was identical to that of Smith and Sperlazzza, Bayer asked the Minnesota federal judge to enjoin the West Virginia state court from hearing the pair’s motion for class certification.
The District Court agreed, and the 8th Circuit affirmed.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court said that the courts erred on two grounds with respect to the Anti-Injunction Act’s relitigation exception in granting such an order.
“First, the issue presented in the state court was not identical to the one decided in the federal tribunal,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. “And second, the plaintiff in the state court did not have the requisite connection to the federal suit to be bound by the District Court’s judgment.”
Justice Clarence Thomas joined in all but the majority’s second conclusion.
Though both the federal and state actions had sought to certify classes of Baycol purchasers in West Virginia, Kagan said a critical question still remained.
“The District Court ruled that the proposed class did not meet the requirements of Federal Rule 23 (because individualized issues would predominate over common ones),” Kagan wrote (parentheses in original. “But the state court was poised to consider whether the proposed class satisfied West Virginia Rule 23. If those two legal standards differ … – then the federal court resolved an issue not before the state court.”
Even though the statutes are identically worded, the federal court erred in ending its consideration there.
“Federal and state courts, after all, can and do apply identically worded procedural provisions in widely varying ways,” Kagan wrote. “If a State’s procedural provision tracks the language of a Federal Rule, but a state court interprets that provision in a manner federal courts have not, then the state court is using a different standard and thus deciding a different issue.”