Last week we posted about the need to consider the level of detail and specificity you include in any filing. We happened to stumble across another case that prompted a word to the wise – proofread, proofread, proofread. Today’s case is a defense victory in the battle between state and federal forums, but perhaps more importantly it is a reminder that in the age of “cut and paste,” proofreading is more important than ever.
Grant v. Johnson & Johnson, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 214078 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 2017), is not a drug or medical device case. But it involves an attempt by plaintiffs to use local pharmacies to defeat federal diversity jurisdiction and that is something drug and device defense lawyers face on a regular basis. Plaintiff filed a complaint in state court alleging that defendants, including a local New York pharmacy, sold and distributed products containing asbestos which caused plaintiff to develop mesothelioma. Id. at *3. Defendants then removed the case to federal court arguing that the local pharmacy was fraudulently joined. Id. at *3-4. Defendants alleged that plaintiff had not pleaded any facts to support a claim that the pharmacy had ever sold or that plaintiff had ever purchased from it any products containing asbestos. Id. at *4n1.
About a month later, plaintiff filed an amended complaint dismissing the originally named pharmacy and adding five new pharmacy, non-diverse entities as parties. Id. at *4. Plaintiff admitted that the original pharmacy never should have been named. It was an “inadvertent mistake.” In the rush to meet a filing deadline, plaintiff’s counsel copied the allegations from another client’s complaint. Id. at *4-5. Talk about a flub, a botch, a bungle. And it took plaintiff almost a month after removal to fix it. Nobody’s perfect. But naming the wrong defendant – not because of inaccurate, incomplete, or unknown information – but because you didn’t bother to proofread your complaint, is something that should have been caught and remedied immediately.
Once plaintiff “fixed” the complaint, she moved to remand. But sloppiness didn’t win her any points with the court, and more importantly, it revealed plaintiff’s real motive in naming the non-diverse defendants. Which also didn’t help plaintiff’s cause.
First, the procedural posture in this case is slightly different than what we are used to seeing when talking about fraudulent joinder. Because plaintiff admitted that the original pharmacy was improperly joined, its citizenship is discounted for purposes of determining diversity. So, complete diversity existed when the case was removed. Id. at *7n3. The question before the court was whether to allow plaintiff, post-removal, to join the new non-diverse pharmacies. If joinder were permitted, the case would have to be remanded to state court. However, “[w]hen joinder after removal would destroy subject matter jurisdiction, a plaintiff must do more than satisfy the permissive joinder requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 20 to succeed on a motion to remand the case.” Id. at *6. That is why, in addition to the permissive joinder rules which would be satisfied in this case, the court considers three additional factors in determining whether to allow a joinder that defeats diversity: (1) whether there was a delay and the reason for it; (2) whether there is any prejudice to the defendant; and (3) plaintiff’s motivation for the amendment. Id. So, why this case doesn’t, strictly speaking, deal with fraudulent joinder, the analysis is quite similar. Id. at *9. The court must examine the “relationship of the non-diverse defendants to the controversy . . . as an independent consideration under the joinder analysis.” Id.
Now for that analysis. The court did not believe there was either a significant delay or prejudice to defendant. Id. at *7. The court recognized the possibility of multiple litigation if joinder was denied based on plaintiff’s stated intention of filing the claims against the new pharmacies in state court. But the court was unpersuaded because “none of these non-diverse Defendants were originally sued . . . even though their existence was known to Plaintiff.” Id. at *8.
But what really drove the court’s decision was the combination of plaintiff’s counsel’s sloppiness and motive for joinder. Needing to make a deadline did not excuse counsel’s inattention:
Plaintiff’s counsel, as he admits, was essentially “copying and pasting” parts of one complaint into that of another—merely lifting a defendant from one complaint and inserting it into another—even though there was no factual or legal basis to do so.
Id. at *9. This is not a trivial thing. Naming the wrong defendant in a complaint may be compared to mistakenly inviting someone to a party. The invitee is now on the hook for a gift, possibly new attire, transportation, a sitter, etc. In other words, it isn’t no harm, no foul. And that’s a modest analogy at best. Once named, a defendant at a minimum has to retain counsel and likely will have to take some affirmative action to get itself extricated from the suit. Certainly more expensive than a bottle of wine and a new tie. Moreover, being named in a lawsuit is a public event that carries with it a certain stigma. To borrow from criminal law – innocent until proven guilty. While that may be true in the courtroom, it’s not necessarily the case in the court of public opinion. One lawsuit may not mean much to a large pharmacy chain, but it can be very unsettling and disruptive to a mom-and-pop shop, or an individually named pharmacist or sales representative, or a small town doctor. So, “oops,” doesn’t cut it.
Adding insult to injury, the amended complaint naming the “correct” pharmacy defendants contained only “boilerplate allegations and is devoid of any specific allegations” about these pharmacies. Id. at *10. Plaintiff lumps all defendants together in almost every allegation with no attempt to “explain what each Defendant’s respective role was.” Id. This also means plaintiff wrongly attributes things like manufacturing and design to the pharmacy defendants. Id. Finally, while plaintiff identifies these new defendants as the locations where she purchased the products over a span of 27 years, the complaint doesn’t allege when these transactions occurred or in what quantity the products were sold. Id.
Taking all of this into consideration, the court concluded:
[W]hile it is certainly plausible that Plaintiffs motive in now seeking to join the Pharmacy Defendants may not be solely to destroy diversity, based on plaintiff’s litigation behavior to this point and the course [s]he has selected to arrive at the current motion, Plaintiff’s motives for joinder are improper and violate the principles of fundamental fairness.
Id. at *11(quotation marks and citation omitted). Joinder was denied so as not to deprive the properly named defendants of their entitlement to litigate in federal court.
We don’t know how the court would have ruled on the remand motion if plaintiff had named the correct defendants the first time around. Given the comments on the boilerplate allegations, we’d like to be optimistic that the result would be the same and the pharmacies would have been found fraudulently joined. We’ll never know because of plaintiff’s carelessness which clearly inured to the benefit of defendants. But we all copy and paste. So, another word of caution – proofread and proofread again.