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7th Circuit decides MDL appeal question

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeal wants each federal judge handling multi-district litigation to have the flexibility to choose between sending parts of unresolved cases back to the original courts or keep those in one jurisdiction, once a final district-level decision has been made and the time for appeal arrives.

In what it describes as an “important question concerning the management of appeals in multi-district litigation” under 28 U.S.C. § 1407, the federal appellate panel upheld a decision made initially by U.S. Judge Robert Miller in the Northern District of Indiana and affirmed by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

The appellate decision came in FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. v. United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, No.11-2438.

This appeal involves Miller’s handling of a line of cases involving FedEx drivers nationwide who were in a dispute with the worldwide shipping company about whether they were independent contractors or employees entitled to back pay and full benefits. More than 70 cases from federal courts nationwide were transferred to Miller’s jurisdiction in South Bend starting in 2005 and consolidated into one MDL case for pre-trial proceedings. Last year, the Indiana federal judge ruled in the company’s favor on most cases and found that the FedEx drivers were independent contractors, and he threw out the claims that FedEx had misidentified drivers’ employment status and owed them back pay, overtime and other damages.

Miller’s summary judgment decisions resolved all of the claims in 22 of the still-pending MDL cases at the time, and those final judgments are being appealed to the 7th Circuit. But other claims remained in 12 pending MDL cases that Miller presided over, and those cases didn’t have a final appealable judgment.

So, Miller faced a choice: issue partial final judgments in those unresolved 12 cases to allow those parties to file appeals in the 7th Circuit where the other claims are being addressed, or follow the usual course of action and send those cases back to the jurisdictions where they originated so that any final judgments and appeals would flow through those Circuits. Choosing one option meant the courts lose the advantages of the other option, and the parties in this FedEx case disagreed on their preferences.

The Indiana judge remanded the cases and recommended that the JPML – having final authority over the question – do the same. The national panel agreed with Miller, who has been a member of the JPML in the past.

FedEx disagreed and asked the 7th Circuit to review that decision and issue a writ of mandamus requiring the cases be consolidated for appeal in the 7th Circuit. The 7th Circuit decided to leave the decision up to the federal judge presiding over the MDL case.

“The choice between these two methods of case management is best left to the transferee court and JPML, without trying to impose a rigid rule for all cases and circumstances,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the panel that included Judges Daniel Manion and Diane Sykes. “The choice between these two methods of case management is an archetype for a discretionary judgment, and the transferee court and the JPML are in the best positions to make that judgment.”
 

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