Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Williams v. Costco Wholesale Corp. (9th Cir. - Dec. 6, 2006)

Three points about this case.

First, it proves how even fairly intelligent judges can make simple -- but critical -- mistakes even on largely straightforward civil procedure issues. Here, Williams files a state court class action against Costco, which removes based upon federal question jurisdiction. Williams then amends to drop the federal claims (and adds some additional state claims), but the amended complaint also makes clear that diversity jurisdiction exists. Williams moves to remand, and Judge Jones does so. Which, as the Ninth Circuit per curiam opinion rightly holds, constitutes error. You can't do that if there's diversity jurisdiction, even if the presence of such jurisdiction only became clear post-removal (i.e., as a result of the amended complaint). You don't make the defendant file two removals, including one when the case is already in federal court. The first removal is good enough, and the district court can't remand even after the federal claims are dropped because there's original (diversity) jurisdiction.

Exactly right.

Second, the case also proves (1) how long even easy federal civil appeals take in the Ninth Circuit, and (2) as a result of (1), how important it is for both judges and lawyers to get these things right in the first place. The suit here (judging from its state docket number) was filed in state court way back in 2002. The appeal was filed in 2003. It's now the very end of 2006. And only now is the case even getting back to federal court. So it will be 2007 before the lawsuit returns to the district court. And so even five years after the lawsuit was filed, we're essentially back to the first 30 days of the case as far as the federal system is concerned. For a totally simple appeal in which the panel basically writes: "This is easy. Totally wrong. Duh. Reversed."

Five years of delay based upon a simple procedural mistake. Which highlights (1) how long civil appeals take in the Ninth Circuit (even easy ones), as well as (2) the substantial benefit to lawyers -- and their clients -- of taking the time to think about and understand civil procedure issues at the outset of the litigation. The five-year delay here could almost certainly have been avoided had plaintiff either (1) gone ahead and figured out he was stuck in federal court to begin with, and been happy there, or, if possible, (2) left out the federal claims (and made sure that diversity jurisdiction didn't exist, perhaps by finding a different class representatives) at the outset. But that didn't happen. Hence the five years of wasted time, as well as lots of lost effort and money. A telling tale.

Finally, with all due respect to my friends on the Ninth Circuit, can we perhaps speed things up a bit? Sure, I know we're currently blaming the Clerk/workload/Congress/whatever for the three-year delay between filing the appeal and the oral argument. But what about the delay here post-oral argument? The appeal was, after all, totally easy; indeed, the panel not only wrote a per curiam opinion, but also (harshly) called the district court's interpretation "nonsensical". With such an easy case, should it really take four months -- from August 16 to December 6 -- to crank out the four paragraph opinion here? I mean, a month a paragraph: should it really take that long?

Sure, they were fine paragraphs. But I think that we could have probably finished this one a little faster.

Just trying to help.