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Flint water quality class action rightly kicked back to Michigan court

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A split panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s decision to remand a proposed class action lawsuit asserting negligence causing the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to state court. 

In April 2014, the city of Flint switched from purchasing treated water from Detroit Water and Sewerage to sourcing and treating its water supply from the Flint River, according to an October report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Flint’s treatment of the new drinking water source did not include a process for reducing the corrosion of lead-containing pipes and connections, which allowed lead to leach into the drinking water.

In January of this year, eight Flint residents filed a proposed class action lawsuit in state court in Ann Arbor, Michigan, alleging one count of professional negligence against Houston-based civil engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. and its Michigan division as well as its Omaha, Nebraska-based parent company Leo A. Daly Co., according to court documents. The lawsuit contended the firm knew the water treatment plant servicing the community required upgrades for lead contamination treatment, but failed to ensure such safeguards were implemented. 

The defendants tried to move the case to federal court, but U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara in Ann Arbor, Michigan, remanded the case to state court because he determined that more than two-thirds of the putative class members were likely Michigan citizens who, over a relatively limited period of time, experienced a continuing injury localized in Flint, according to court documents. 

The engineering firm appealed to the 6th Circuit in September to decide if the plaintiffs had to litigate their claim in federal or state court, per the Class Action Fairness Act passed by Congress in 2005, which allows federal courts to preside over certain class actions. The legislation made it easier to remove class actions to federal court, but at the same time provided an exception for cases that are “truly local in nature,” commonly called the “local controversy” exception, according to court documents. 

“Though the Flint water crisis captured the attention of the nation, its infamy does not make it any less local,” a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit said in its 2-1 ruling last week. “Because plaintiffs’ suit consists of a proposed class of more than two-thirds Michigan citizens, a significant local defendant, and injuries limited to the reach of Flint’s water system, it satisfies the statutory requirements of the local controversy exception. We therefore affirm the district court’s decision to remand this case to state court.”

However, the dissenting judge found that the plaintiffs did not meet the burden of proof against federal court jurisdiction in the case. 

“We have nothing like a clear justification for abstention here,” Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge said in his dissent. “The federal courts undisputedly have jurisdiction over this case under the Class Action Fairness Act.”