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Darcy v. Pfizer, Inc., Nos. 12-2188, et al.

Decided: July 12, 2013

The Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal of Pfizer Inc., Roerig, and Greenstone, LLC (“Appellants”), finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to review the district court’s decision to remand the case to state trial court in West Virginia.

Nineteen families (“Families”) brought products liability and negligence claims against Appellants alleging that the prescription anti-depressant “Zoloft” caused birth defects when the mother ingested Zoloft during pregnancy. Pursuant to West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 3(a), the clerk of court docketed each family separately, resulting in nineteen distinct actions. Although they did not share a civil action number, the Families were allowed to file a single complaint. Believing that nineteen separate actions existed, Appellants removed eighteen of the Families into federal court on the basis of diversity of citizenship, leaving one non-diverse Family at the state court level. The Families challenged the removal, arguing that they were part of a single case, and that the Appellants could not split the claims for diversity jurisdiction purposes. The district court examined the purpose of Rule 3(a) and held that the Rule was not intended to create multiple distinct cases for the purposes of determining diversity of citizenship. The district court then disposed of Appellants’ alternative argument that the non-diverse Family was fraudulently joined. The court found that at the claims were “logically related” to those of the other Families and that the claims shared “common questions of law or fact.” The district court then granted the Families’ motion to remand the case to the state court of West Virginia. Appellants appealed the court’s decision to remand.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first established the narrow circumstances when a court may review a district court’s decision to remand. The court explained that review of a remand order is barred if it falls within the scope of 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c), which gives the district court authority to remand on the basis of lack of subject matter jurisdiction or any “other defect” in removal. Appellants argued that the district court’s decision to consider the citizenship of “nonparties” fell beyond the scope of § 1447(c), giving the Fourth Circuit the ability to hear the case. The court disagreed, finding that the district court’s decision to remand the case was firmly based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court stated that it could not review rulings that “are simply the necessary legal underpinning to the court’s determination that the case was not properly removed.” Moreover, the court dismissed Appellants’ alternative argument that an exception applied that allowed the court to review a “collateral decision that is severable from the remand order.” The court found that the district court’s determination that the non-diverse Family was actually a party was not a “collateral decision” that was severable from the determination of a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court said that a review in this case would “overstrain” the exception and “open up for review any legal or factual analysis that a district court takes to determine whether to remand an action.” Therefore, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert