By Lisa Milam-Perez, J.D.
For nearly 25 years, foreign agricultural workers have been trying to get a court to hear the merits of their claim they were made ill by the pesticides used at Dole Food Co farms. The Second Circuit, muddling through the "byzantine procedural developments" that have marked the workers’ journey through several different courts, breathed new life into the litigation in a lengthy en banc
decision. "As these cases come to us today, there is a serious possibility that no court will ever reach the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims," the appeals court wrote. "More than twenty years after this litigation began, we think that outcome is untenable—both as a matter of basic fairness and pursuant to the legal principles that govern this procedurally complex appeal." Chagrined that the plaintiffs here "have been knocking on courthouse doors all over the country and, indeed, the world, only for those doors to remain closed," the appeals court vacated an order by a federal district court in Delaware dismissing the claims, and remanded for further proceedings (Chavez v. Dole Food Co., Inc.
, September 2, 2016, Fuentes, J.).
In the underlying case, 200 workers alleged that they had been exposed to the pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP) over the course of their two decades on the job on banana plantations in Central and South America from the 1960s through the 1980s, and that they have since endured various health problems as a result. A putative class action against Dole (and related companies, also defendants here) was filed in 1993 in a Texas state court, and numerous other suits were filed in other jurisdictions around the country. No court has ever reviewed the merits of the claims; the litigation has unfolded on purely procedural matters. Here too: the appeals court addressed the procedural history of cases brought in Louisiana (in 2011) and in Delaware (in 2012), by the same plaintiffs, alleging negligence, strict liability, and breach of implied warranty, among other claims.
Looking for a forum.
The Delaware plaintiffs conceded that they filed duplicative suits that were "materially identical" to the actions they previously filed in Louisiana. The Louisiana suits, though, had been dismissed as untimely—a ruling that was pending on appeal before the Fifth Circuit at the time the Delaware court dismissed their suit; as such, they urged, concurrent jurisdiction no longer existed, and the first-filed rule, which applies when there is federal concurrent jurisdiction over the same issues and parties, did not apply.
Tackling the contours of the first-filed rule, and the scope of discretion afforded federal district courts under the rule, a divided Third Circuit panel, in an August 2015 decision
, affirmed the lower court’s application of the doctrine in dismissing a duplicative suit brought by the farm workers in a federal court in Delaware. The appeals court had rejected the workers’ plea that their second-filed lawsuit should have been transferred to the proper forum rather than dismissed outright. As for concurrent jurisdiction, the appeals court said what mattered was whether there was concurrent jurisdiction at the time the (duplicative) Delaware actions were filed
, not when the suit was dismissed.
En banc review.
Judge Fuentes filed a lengthy dissent from the Third Circuit’s earlier opinion lamenting that the court of appeals would offer the workers no recourse. Fuentes authored the about-face decision on rehearing: On further review, the appeals court found the Delaware court abused its discretion when it dismissed the workers’ claims with prejudice, and when it refused to transfer the claims against defendant Chiquita Brands International, Inc.—which challenged the court’s personal jurisdiction over the company—to another forum, where the company was incorporated.
Finally, as for the most "doctrinally complex issue" before it, the appeals court also held that the Louisiana court’s dismissal of workers’ claims on timeliness grounds had no res judicata effect on the workers’ Delaware suits. The court below had not addressed this issue; but the Third Circuit took it up nonetheless, in great detail. "If a case were ever in need of judicial acceleration, it is this one. We see little utility in remanding the res judicata question when that issue raises what is, at bottom, a pure question of law. We will therefore resolve the res judicata question now."
After a detailed discussion of the caselaw and reasoning that has framed first-filed rule jurisprudence in the circuit, the appeals court now held that, "in the vast majority of cases, a court exercising its discretion under the first-filed rule should stay or transfer a second-filed suit. Even a dismissal without prejudice
may create unanticipated problems. A dismissal with prejudice
will almost always be an abuse of discretion."
"Note that we say ‘almost always,’ not ‘always,’" the appeals court continued. "The factual circumstances giving rise to duplicative litigation are too variable to adopt a blanket, hard-and-fast rule, and there may well be circumstances in which a district court is correct to respond to a second-filed suit with a prejudice-based dismissal."
The crux of the issue in this case was the defendants’ contention that the plaintiffs were engaged in forum shopping. Dole and the other defendants argued that the workers should have researched the relevant timeliness rules in Louisiana and Delaware and filed accordingly, rather than have the courts entertain duplicative lawsuits. The appeals court bristled at the notion, noting it was "skeptical" of the defendants’ characterization of the facts at hand, and unconvinced that the plaintiffs had been negligent in failing to research the applicable timeliness rules, noting the law on this "was simply unclear."
"The assertion that the plaintiffs engaged in impermissible forum shopping depends on the proposition that the plaintiffs acted improperly by trying to preserve their right to litigate in two different jurisdictions. In view of the unusual circumstances surrounding these cases, we simply disagree," the court wrote. "While reasonable minds may differ about what constitutes forum shopping in any particular case, the term generally denotes some attempt to gain an unfair or unmerited advantage in the litigation process. But here, the plaintiffs were indifferent as to which court would hear their claims; they simply wanted a court to hear their claims."