Dekker et al v. Vivint Solar, Inc. et al, No. 3:2019cv07918 - Document 121 (N.D. Cal. 2021)

Court Description: ORDER GRANTING 112 MOTION TO AMEND. SIGNED BY JUDGE ALSUP. (whalc2, COURT STAFF) (Filed on 3/3/2021)
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1 2 3 4 5 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 6 7 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 8 9 10 GERRIE DEKKER, et al., Plaintiffs, United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 13 14 No. C 19-07918 WHA v. VIVINT SOLAR, INC., et al., Defendants. ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO AMEND 15 16 INTRODUCTION 17 This unfair business practices case returns upon the court of appeals’ determination 18 without explanation that we lack subject-matter jurisdiction. Plaintiffs timely move to amend 19 to expressly allege jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act. The motion is GRANTED. 20 STATEMENT 21 This case presents a unique posture, so it’s worth starting at the beginning. Defendant 22 Vivint Solar, Inc., in its various corporate forms, installs residential solar systems and sells 23 homeowners the electricity produced for a twenty year term. Plaintiffs’ complaint, however, 24 illuminates alleged liquidated damages clauses in Vivint’s agreements, provisions which 25 impose harsh and unlawful penalties onto dissatisfied customers. 26 An order dated March 24, 2020 (Dkt. No. 47), reluctantly compelled all but two plaintiffs 27 to arbitrate, finding that though plaintiffs could not, in fact, be compelled to arbitrate their 28 claims for public relief under McGill v. Citibank, N.A., the agreements had ineluctably 1 delegated that question to the arbitrator. 2 Cal. 5th 945, 393 P.3d 85 (2017); see also, Blair v. 2 Rent-A-Center, 928 F.3d 819 (9th Cir. 2019); Henry Schein, Inc. v. Archer & White Sales, Inc., 3 586 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 524, 527 (2019). But as the agreements had not clearly delegated 4 formation defects to the arbitrator, the same order found that plaintiff Juan Bautista had not 5 agreed to arbitrate, given Vivint had the native Spanish speaker, with virtually no English 6 proficiency, sign an English-form contract after conducting negotiations in Spanish. Cal. Civ. 7 Code § 1632(b); Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1175 (9th Cir. 2014). The 8 March 24 order also found plaintiff Gerrie Dekker, whose agreement contained no arbitration 9 clause, traversed the statute of limitations, at least on the pleadings. United States District Court Northern District of California 10 Vivint timely appealed the denial of arbitration and plaintiff Bautista moved to amend his 11 complaint. A May 11 order denied Vivint’s motion to stay pending appeal, and a May 24 12 order granted leave to amend in part. In brief, plaintiffs proceeded to discovery on two 13 theories, seeking injunctive relief both from Vivint’s unlawful liquidated damages provisions 14 and from those agreements never actually formed due to the language barrier (Dkt. No. 63). 15 If the language snafu wasn’t enough, though, Vivint walked into another snag. Those 16 plaintiffs compelled to arbitrate did so. But Vivint missed JAMS’s fee deadline, a material 17 breach of the arbitration agreements under California’s recently enacted Code of Civil 18 Procedure Section 1281.97. So an August 14 order vacated the March 24 order as far as it 19 compelled select plaintiffs to arbitrate and invited those plaintiffs back into this forum. 479 F. 20 Supp. 3d 834 (N.D. Cal. 2020). True to form, Vivint timely appealed and a September 15 21 order denied its motion to stay. 22 So then, this is how things stood. Some named plaintiffs were at JAMS. Many, 23 including Bautista and Dekker, remained here. Vivint’s parallel appeals pended. And, 24 discovery plodded along, though we vacated the remaining deadlines because COVID-19 25 foiled the planned February 2021 trial. 26 Our court of appeals then issued an unexpected order on January 25: 27 We dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction. Oral argument scheduled for February 2, 2021 is vacated. We remand to the 28 2 1 2 As it were, our parties had submitted supplemental briefing regarding subject-matter 3 jurisdiction on appeal, suspecting that the court of appeals questioned whether plaintiffs’ 4 complaint and amended complaint had adequately alleged jurisdiction under the Class Action 5 Fairness Act (Case No. 20-15572, Dtk. Nos. 40, 41, 43). But our court of appeals’ delphic 6 prescription leaves us, for the most part, to speculate. Indeed, the parallel appeal still appears 7 to pend before the court (Case No. 20-16584). 8 9 United States District Court Northern District of California district court for it to determine if Plaintiffs should be granted leave to amend the complaint. Undaunted, however, plaintiffs have promptly moved to amend (Dkt. No. 112). The proposed complaint adds little new matter. Rather it formalizes, which the prior complaints 10 had not done, plaintiffs’ reliance on CAFA jurisdiction, alleging the putative class size, 11 minimal diversity, and amount in controversy. Defendants oppose. This motion is appropriate 12 for disposition on the papers. ANALYSIS 13 14 Given the prior vacatur of all deadlines, defendants concede that Rule 15’s lenient, and 15 not Rule 16’s elevated, standard governs here (Dkt. No. 95). Rule 15 dictates that leave to 16 amend shall be freely given “when justice so requires.” Absent undue delay, bad faith, 17 repeated failure to cure deficiencies, undue prejudice, or futility, leave should be granted. 18 Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). Vivint does not seriously dispute that plaintiffs 19 timely amend in good faith. Nor could it — Vivint acknowledged subject-matter jurisdiction 20 in the joint case-management statement (Dkt. No. 39), the undersigned labored with the 21 understanding that CAFA conferred jurisdiction here, and Vivint relied on that jurisdiction to 22 compel arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act. Capitalizing on the turn of events, 23 however, Vivint challenges the proposed amendments as futile. 24 The Class Action Fairness Act confers subject-matter jurisdiction over a proposed class 25 action of more than one hundred members putting more than five million dollars in controversy 26 with any plaintiff diverse from any defendant. Fritsch v. Swift Transp. Co. of Ariz., 899 F.3d 27 785, 788 (9th Cir. 2018). We interpret CAFA “expansively.” Ibarra v. Manheim Invests., 775 28 F.3d 1193, 1197 (9th Cir. 2014). 3 United States District Court Northern District of California 1 Vivint contests our putative class size and amount in controversy but no one disputes the 2 minimal diversity between our California plaintiffs and Utah defendants. As detailed below, 3 the proposed amendments establish an adequate putative class and sufficient amount in 4 controversy. 5 1. 6 Before diving in, however, we must assure ourselves that amendment may, in fact, 7 remedy plaintiffs’ deficient allegations of subject-matter jurisdiction. It may. Although Rule 8 8 requires “a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction,” 28 U.S.C. 9 Section 1653 provides that “[d]efective allegations of jurisdiction may be amended, upon 10 terms, in the trial or appellate courts.” And recall, Rule 15 bestows leave to amend freely 11 “when justice so requires.” Thus our court of appeals has held that defective allegations of 12 jurisdiction may be remedied via amendment, even on appeal. Snell v. Cleveland, Inc., 316 13 F.3d 822, 828 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Molnar v. NBC, 231 F.2d 684, 686 (9th Cir. 1956)); see 14 also 5 WRIGHT & MILLER, FED. PRACT. & PROC. CIV. § 1214 (3d ed. 2004). AMENDMENT AN ADEQUATE REMEDY. PLAINTIFFS’ BURDEN. 15 2. 16 Though a viable path, we next must discern plaintiffs’ burden if they are to establish 17 jurisdiction by amendment. Vivint contests the new allegations of jurisdiction with brief 18 evidence and contends that plaintiffs must respond to a preponderance. This dispute requires 19 some unpacking. 20 To begin, Vivint is incorrect that plaintiffs must go beyond their amended complaint. 21 True, the party invoking federal jurisdiction must establish it. Lewis v. Verizon Commc’ns, 627 22 F.3d 395, 399 (9th Cir. 2010). But allegations can support jurisdiction. After all, jurisdiction 23 generally begins on the face of the well-pleaded complaint. See, e.g., Exxon Mobil Corp. v. 24 Allapattah Servs., 545 U.S. 546, 559 (2005). A notice of removal requires only “a short and 25 plain statement” of its grounds. Sufficient allegations in the notice will support jurisdiction 26 unless contested. And, Rule 8 requires no more of a complaint. For that reason the United 27 States Supreme Court has long held that “[w]hen a plaintiff invokes federal-court jurisdiction, 28 the plaintiff’s amount-in-controversy allegation is accepted if made in good faith.” See Dart 4 1 Cherokee Basin Op. Co. v. Owens, 574 U.S. 81, 87 (2014) (citing St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co. 2 v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 288–89 (1938)). 3 4 a defendant must establish jurisdiction by a preponderance. See Fritch, 899 F.3d at 793; 5 Ibarra, 775 F.3d at 1198; Rodriguez v. AT&T Mob. Servs., 728 F.3d 975, 980–81 (9th Cir. 6 2013); Sanchez v. Monumental Life Ins. Co., 102 F.3d 398, 404 (9th Cir. 1996). 7 United States District Court Northern District of California That said, a contested removal will require evidence. Ibid. On a motion to remand, then, So too, defendant’s contest of original jurisdiction will require a showing by plaintiff. 8 The limited nature of federal jurisdiction “precludes the idea that jurisdiction may be 9 maintained by mere averment or that the party asserting jurisdiction may be relieved of his 10 burden by any formal procedure.” Allegations of jurisdiction, when challenged, must be 11 supported by competent proof to a preponderance of the evidence. McNutt v. G.M. Acceptance 12 Corp. of Indiana, 298 U.S. 178, 189 (1936). All allegations except for the amount in 13 controversy it seems. “[W]here the amount in controversy is in doubt, the Supreme Court has 14 drawn a sharp distinction between original jurisdiction and removal jurisdiction.” Gaus v. 15 Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 566 (9th Cir. 1992), overruled on other grounds, Dart, 574 U.S. at 16 87–89. To refute original jurisdiction, “[i]t must appear to a legal certainty that the claim is 17 really for less than the jurisdictional amount . . . .” St. Paul, 303 U.S. at 288–89. 18 In short, our proposed amended complaint alone may support subject-matter jurisdiction, 19 though that may be contested with competent evidence. In such event, the preponderance 20 carries us forward, except that allegations for the amount in controversy will stand unless 21 refuted to a legal certainty. 22 3. 23 The amended complaint proposes a primary class of all Californians who entered into a A SUFFICIENT PUTATIVE CLASS. 24 residential solar agreement with Vivint and a sub-class of those Californians who signed an 25 English agreement after conducting the negotiations in another language. In support, the 26 amended complaint alleges (as had the prior two complaints) that Vivint had installed solar 27 systems in more than one hundred fifty thousand homes nationwide by the end of 2018, with 28 about one third of Vivint’s cumulative power production located in California. From this, the 5 1 amendments allege a primary class of over fifty thousand members and a thirteen hundred 2 member subclass. The amended complaint further alleges that Vivint has held two thousand 3 Californians in default and that six thousand have sought to cancel their agreements (Prop. 4 Amend. Compl. at ¶¶ 13, 77–78, 81). Suffice it to say, we will have more than one hundred 5 putative class members. United States District Court Northern District of California 6 Vivint protests that few putative class members have accrued claims yet. This 7 misapprehends the March 24 order and ignores the May 20 order, and it helps to begin with the 8 substance of plaintiffs’ claims. The amended complaint (as did the prior complaints) primarily 9 seeks relief from Vivint’s alleged liquidated damages provisions, a slew of fees and costs 10 thrust on customers who seek early termination of the twenty-year agreement term, including 11 the sum of the remaining monthly payment (minus a de minimis discount), any other amounts 12 due, and system removal fees (Prop. Amend. Compl. at ¶ 48). 13 In practical effect, these provisions place a dissatisfied customer in a quandary: keep the 14 solar system and make twenty years of payments, or forfeit the solar system and the electricity, 15 yet still pay just about the remaining twenty-year sum. That is, the agreements extract all 16 twenty years of payment by foreclosing any rational alternative. This, the May 20 order 17 explained, is exactly what California prohibits. See Blank v. Borden, 11 Cal. 3d 963, 969–72, 18 524 P.2d 127 (1974). 19 Because such liquidated damages provisions would coerce monthly payments from the 20 beginning, it makes sense that a customer’s claim for relief would accrue at formation. Cf. 21 Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison v. Telex Corp., 602 F.2d 866, 875 (9th Cir. 1979). So the March 22 24 and May 20 orders addressed the statutes of limitations and observed that California’s 23 common law claim accrual carries a battery of equitable exceptions, including continuing 24 accrual. Rather than concluding, as Vivint now reads, that plaintiffs’ claims only accrued upon 25 Vivint’s later enforcement, the prior orders instead held that those later efforts restarted the 26 clock, keeping this suit timely (at least on the pleadings) (Dkt. Nos. 47, 63). Aryeh v. Canon 27 Bus. Sols., Inc., 55 Cal. 4th 1185, 1191–93, 292 P.3d 871 (2013) (quotation omitted); Howard 28 Jarvis Taxpayers Ass’n v. City of La Habra, 25 Cal. 4th 809, 818–22, 23 P.3d 601 (2001). 6 1 2 accrued claims for relief from the alleged liquidated damages clauses and that the statute of 3 limitations does not (at this stage at least) bar them. Invalidation of Vivint’s liquidated 4 damages provisions would relieve all fifty three thousand alleged putative primary-class 5 members and invalidation of Vivint’s “contracts” would release all thirteen hundred members 6 of the translation subclass. Regardless, the proposed complaint also alleges six thousand 7 putative class members who have requested cancellation of their agreements and two thousand 8 who have been held in default. Even under Vivint’s narrowed construction, these several 9 thousand claims have accrued and the putative class meets CAFA’s floor. 10 United States District Court Northern District of California For our present purposes, this means that Vivint’s California customers have already Vivint nevertheless persists that its arbitration agreements will cut our class size to fewer 11 than one hundred members. Off the cuff this objection fails as illogical. If the anticipated 12 compulsion to arbitrate divested us of subject-matter jurisdiction, then we too would lack 13 jurisdiction to compel arbitration in the first place. Vivint can’t have it both ways. 14 Unsurprisingly, this argument also fails on the law. Even more established than the principle 15 that a defense does not grant subject-matter jurisdiction is the tenet that “if [federal] 16 jurisdiction exists at the time an action is commenced, such jurisdiction may not be divested by 17 subsequent events.” Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. v. K N Energy, Inc., 498 U.S. 426, 428 (1991) 18 (per curiam) (citing, among others, Mollan v. Torrance, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 537 (1824)); see 19 Louisville & Nashville Ry. Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149 (1908). 20 Vivint’s declaration of class size relies on this errant arbitration argument and so is not 21 probative of our operative class size, though it also seems to admit that about eight hundred 22 customers have requested cancellation. This alone would satisfy CAFA’s class size (Dkt. No. 23 116-5). Regardless, even excluding arbitration-bound class members, the thirteen hundred 24 who did not agree to arbitrate due to the language barrier will remain in this forum. Under any 25 of the frameworks presented, our putative class will exceed one hundred members. 26 4. 27 CAFA’s requisite five million dollar amount in controversy isn’t just an estimate of 28 liability. Lewis, 627 F.3d at 400. It “is the amount at stake in the underlying litigation.” This AN ADEQUATE AMOUNT IN CONTROVERSY. 7 1 naturally includes any payment by defendant, excluding interest and costs, such as damages 2 and attorney’s fees under any relevant fee-shifting statute or contract. Yet it also includes any 3 relief to which plaintiffs would be entitled if successful, such as the costs of complying with an 4 injunction. Fritsch, 899 F.3d at 793–94 (quotes omitted). With some basic arithmetic and 5 inferences, the proposed complaint alleges well beyond five million dollars in controversy. United States District Court Northern District of California 6 Recall again the underlying allegations. A Vivint customer can either make the twenty 7 years of payments and get the electricity, or terminate the agreement early, trigger the unlawful 8 liquidated damages provisions, receive no more electricity, and pay nearly the same amount. 9 The proposed complaint offers (as did the prior complaints) the examples of several plaintiffs 10 caught in this web. Vivint demanded around forty thousand dollars from plaintiff Dekker and 11 nearly twenty three thousand each from plaintiffs Rogers and Bautista. It actually extracted 12 twenty one thousand dollars from plaintiff Barajas and over seventeen thousand from plaintiff 13 Hilliard (Prop. Amend. Compl. at ¶¶ 17–26, 48). 14 This sample supports the ready inference that a cancellation request or default would 15 provoke at least a ten thousand dollar demand from Vivint. Plaintiffs’ attempt to invalidate the 16 basis for that demand, the liquidated damages provisions, would undercut Vivint’s right to 17 collect. Such financial relief may not make its way into plaintiffs’ pockets, but it would come 18 off Vivint’s books. That puts it in controversy. See ibid. 19 How many plaintiffs could expect relief from a ten thousand-dollar-plus demand? The 20 proposed complaint alleges Vivint foisted its invalid liquidated damages clauses onto fifty 21 three thousand putative class members. An injunction would relieve all from coercive 22 demands, potentially totaling five hundred thirty million dollars. But suppose we apply our 23 conservative estimate of Vivint’s demand to only those six thousand members who have 24 already requested cancellation. This still yields a sixty million dollar tab. And, what if we 25 further limit ourselves to just the two thousand Californians Vivint has already held in default? 26 A twenty million dollar amount in controversy remains. Cut the class even further to the 27 thirteen hundred plaintiffs who never agreed to Vivint’s terms, putting their entire financial 28 relationship in dispute, our low estimate of relief still places thirteen million dollars in 8 1 controversy. Or, perhaps look from the other direction. At ten thousand dollars per class 2 member, plaintiffs need only five hundred members to invoke CAFA. On the unrefuted 3 allegations of several to tens of thousands of class members, plaintiffs sail past the five million 4 dollar mark. United States District Court Northern District of California 5 But don’t just take plaintiffs’ word for it. Vivint acknowledges that its average customer 6 defaulted for thirty-thousand plus dollars, and that the average buyout fee for cancellation 7 came to sixteen thousand dollars. That average default bill by the two thousand defaulted 8 customers yields sixty million in controversy. And, the average buyout times the six thousand 9 cancellation requests yields a ninety six million dollar total. Even plaintiffs’ worst-case 10 scenario, Vivint’s assertion that only seven hundred ninety five Californians sought to cancel 11 their agreements (an undercount which does not appear to capture defaults or other disputes), 12 generates nearly thirteen million dollars in controversy (Dkt. No. 116-5). All this without yet 13 considering plaintiffs’ entitlement to attorney’s fees under California Code of Civil Procedure 14 Section 1021.5, which offers fees in successful suits to vindicate the public interest. In sum, 15 Vivint has not, to a legal certainty, cut the amount in controversy to below five million dollars. 16 St. Paul, 303 U.S. at 288–89. 17 5. 18 Plaintiffs submit in reply several hundred pages in support of the putative class size and REPLY EVIDENCE. 19 amount in controversy. Given our conclusions above, and given defendants have had no 20 opportunity to respond, this order does not rely on the new evidence. CONCLUSION 21 22 Leave to amend is GRANTED. The March 18 hearing is VACATED. Our subject-matter 23 jurisdiction under CAFA is confirmed. The parties shall please inform our court of appeals. 24 IT IS SO ORDERED. 25 26 Dated: March 3, 2021. 27 WILLIAM ALSUP UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 28 9