Tuesday, July 17, 2018
The return of Skelly Oil and the Well Pleaded Complaint
MGM Resorts and affiliated companies, owner of the Mandalay Bay Resort and the adjacent fairgrounds at which Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured 500 others in 2017, has filed two federal declaratory judgment actions (one in California, one in Nevada), arguing that they are not liable to the victims of the shooting. The basis for the D/J action is the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act (SAFETY Act) of 2002, a post-9/11 law designed to protect businesses from liability for acts of terrorism. Hundreds of injured or dead are named as individual defendants (the list of parties takes up the bulk of both complaints). The Nevada action is against Nevada citizens and asserts federal-question jurisdiction; the California action is against California citizens and asserts federal-question and diversity jurisdiction (MGM and its affiliates are Nevada and Delaware citizens). One lawyer for many victims was typically calm and measured in describing this tactic as a "blatant display of judge shopping," verging on unethical, outrageous, and "really sad."
My thoughts, naturally, turned to federal jurisdiction. The news reports read as if MGM sought a declaration of non-liability based on federal law as against state negligence claims. If so, there would not have been federal-question jurisdiction under Skelly Oil, which provides that an anticipatory D/J action does not arise under when the underlying enforcement action would be a state-law claim with a federal defense that would not satisfy the Well Pleaded Complaint Rule. A D/J action arises under only if the hypothetical enforcement action would arise under, because the well-pleaded complaint asserts a claim in which the right of action and rule of decision are created by federal law. This means the California action could go forward based only on diversity jurisdiction but not federal-question jurisdiction, and the Nevada action must be dismissed..
Looking at the pleadings and the SAFETY Act, however, I think there is jurisdiction. MGM's argument seems to be as follows. Section 442 provides a federal cause action, with exclusive federal jurisdiction, "for claims arising out of, relating to, or resulting from an act of terrorism when qualified anti-terrorism technologies have been deployed in defense against or response or recovery from such act." The law of the state in which the acts occurred provides the rule of decision, unless inconsistent or preempted by federal law. MGM's argument, based on the statute and implementing regulations, is that this was an act of terrorism and because MGM hired a vendor to provide security services, any claim based on failure of those security efforts can be brought only under federal law and in federal court, and can only be brought against the seller of services and not against it as the buyer. I think that solves the jurisdictional problem. The enforcement action would arise under federal law in federal court because federal law provides the right of action in § 442(a)(1) and federalized state law as rule of decision, so the mirror D/J action also arises under. I do not know whether the argument works under the statute, but that is a matter of merits, not jurisdiction.
One more jurisdictional puzzle in the California complaint. The pleading asserts supplemental jurisdiction with respect to claims against any victim/defendants whose claims would be for less than the jurisdictional minimum. But § 1367(b) should preclude supplemental jurisdiction over claims between multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants, because the first clause of (b) precludes supplemental jurisdiction over claims by plaintiffs against persons made party under Rule 20. Even accounting for the upside-down posture of the case, the D/J action involves claims against multiple defendants, all joined under Rule 20, which should prohibit aggregating amount in controversy this way.
I don't know enough about the statute's history, although I doubt it. But I am not sure it matters for jurisdictional purposes (although perhaps it will for purposes of the merits of the D/J action).
Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 19, 2018 9:26:10 AM
Are you saying Section 442 is a "complete pre-emption" statute? That is, under your view of Section 442, would a claim filed in state court against MGM seeking relief only under state law be a claim arising under federal law, and thus removable?
Posted by: Slippery Slope | Jul 18, 2018 6:53:21 PM