Defining the Court's Role as Faithful Agent in Statutory Interpretation: Exxon Mobil Corp. V. Allapattah Services, Inc

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court has long failed to provide guidance to lower courts as they seek to interpret the meaning of ambiguous congressional enactments. Thus it was no surprise that after Congress passed the Judicial Improvements Act of 1990, (1) courts began to split over language in 28 U.S.C. [section] 1367, (2) a supplemental jurisdiction statute that appeared to grant courts sitting in diversity supplemental jurisdiction over claims brought by parties who did not meet the amount-in-controversy requirement of 28 U.S.C. [section] 1332. (3) Last Term, in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Services, Inc., (4) the Supreme Court held that when the other elements of jurisdiction are satisfied and at least one plaintiff satisfies the amount-in-controversy requirement, section 1367 permits federal courts to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the claims of additional plaintiffs in the same case or controversy, even when those claims are "for less than the jurisdictional amount specified in the statute setting forth the requirements for diversity jurisdiction." (5) Disregarding the arguments advanced by the four dissenting Justices, the majority not only held that section 1367 "by its plain text" compelled this result, but also declared that the absence of ambiguity in section 1367 rendered reference to the legislative history unnecessary. (6) Allapattah thus clarified that when the Court interprets statutes it considers unambiguous, it will consult only the statutory text to discern Congress's intent. This strong endorsement of textualism, combined with the majority's refusal to articulate a definition of "ambiguity" sufficient to justify consultation of extratextual sources, suggests that the Court considers textualism (7) the theory of statutory interpretation that best comports with the Court's role as Congress's faithful agent. (8)

Allapattah involved two consolidated cases. In the first, gas station owners, not all of whom met the $50,000 amount-incontroversy amount required at the time, won a judgment against Exxon for intentional and systematic overcharging for fuel. (9) The trial court certified the case for interlocutory review to the Eleventh Circuit to decide the section 1367 question. (10)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the new section 1367(a) intended "a general grant of supplemental jurisdiction, which is then narrowed for diversity cases by [section] 1367(b)." (11) None of the exceptions in subsection (b), however, precluded a grant of federal jurisdiction over members of a class action, and so the court approved the exercise of supplemental jurisdiction, the rule of Zahn v. International Paper Co. (12) notwithstanding. (13)

Allapattah's second case involved a fourteen-year-old girl, Beatriz Blanco-Ortega, who had severely injured her finger on a can of Star-Kist tuna. (14) Blanco-Ortega and her family filed separate products liability actions in federal court against StarKist Foods, Inc., asserting diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. [section] 1332. (15) Blanco-Ortega's suit alleged physical damages and pain and suffering; suits filed by her relatives alleged associated emotional distress. (16) In response, Star-Kist argued, and the district court agreed, that none of the plaintiffs' claims met the $75,000 amount-in-controversy requirement; (17) the court dismissed the cases for lack of jurisdiction. (18)

The First Circuit affirmed as to Blanco-Ortega's family members, but found her own claim sufficient to satisfy section 1332's $75,000 requirement. (19) The court then examined whether, on the basis of Blanco-Ortega's reinstated claim, section 1367's grant of supplemental jurisdiction permitted the family members' claims to proceed in federal court, (20) holding that Congress's use of the terms "civil action" and "original jurisdiction" signified Congressional intent to "incorporate[] into [section] 1367 the longstanding, judicially developed doctrines that determined whether . …

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