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In re Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 6, 2019

IN RE CHINESE-MANUFACTURED DRYWALL PRODUCTS LIABILITY LITIGATION THIS DOCUMENT RELATES TO: ALL BROOKE CASES

         SECTION L (5)

          ORDER & REASONS

          ELDON E. FALLON U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is the BNBM Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Brooke omnibus complaint, filed January 15, 2016. R. Doc. 19984. On September 12, 2018, the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee (“PSC”) filed its opposition. R. Doc. 21779. The BNBM Defendants filed a reply on October 3, 2018. R. Doc. 21818. On November 13, 2018, after reviewing the parties' submissions, the Court ordered additional briefing on the issue of tolling. R. Doc. 21914. On December 14, 2018, the PSC filed its supplemental brief. R. Doc. 21963. On January 18, 2019, Taishan and the BNBM entities filed their memoranda in further support of BNBM's motion to dismiss, R. Docs. 22071, 22072, to which the PSC filed a supplemental reply, R. Doc. 22083. The Court heard oral argument on the motion on February 21, 2019. R. Doc. 22114. Having considered the parties' arguments, briefing, and the applicable law, the Court is ready to rule.

         I. BACKGROUND

         From 2004 through 2006, a housing boom in parts of the United States and rebuilding efforts necessitated by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in the Gulf South led to a shortage of construction materials, including drywall. As a result, drywall manufactured in China was brought into the United States and used to construct and refurbish homes in coastal areas of the country, notably the Gulf and East Coasts. Sometime after the Chinese drywall was installed, homeowners began to complain of foul-smelling odors, the corrosion and blackening of metal wiring, surfaces, and objects, and the breaking down of appliances and electrical devices in their homes. See In re Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Prods. Liab. Litig., 894 F.Supp.2d 819, 829-30 (E.D. La. 2012), aff'd, 742 F.3d 576 (5th Cir. 2014). Many of these homeowners also began to complain of various physical afflictions believed to have been caused by the Chinese drywall.

         These homeowners then began to file suit in various state and federal courts against homebuilders, developers, installers, realtors, brokers, suppliers, importers, exporters, distributors, and manufacturers who were involved with the Chinese drywall. Because of the commonality of facts in the various cases, this litigation was designated as a multidistrict litigation. Pursuant to a Transfer Order from the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) on June 15, 2009, all federal cases involving Chinese drywall were consolidated for pretrial proceedings in MDL 09-2047 before this Court.

         The Chinese drywall at issue was largely manufactured by two groups of defendants: (1) the Knauf Entities and (2) the Taishan Entities. The litigation has focused on these two entities and their downstream associates and has proceeded on strikingly different tracks for the claims against each group.[1] Relevant to this Order are the Chinese Defendants. These Defendants include the principal Chinese-based Defendant, Taishan, namely, Taishan Gypsum Co. Ltd. (“TG”) and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co., Ltd. (“TTP”) (collectively “Taishan” or “Taishan Entities”). Other Chinese-based Defendants include China New Building Materials Group (“CNBM Group”), China New Building Materials Co. (“CNBM”), CNBMIT Co. Ltd. (“CNBMIT”), CNBM USA Corp. (“CNBM USA”), and United Suntech Craft, Inc. (“United Suntech”) (collectively the “CNBM Entities”), as well as the Beijing New Building Materials Public Limited Company (“BNBM”) and Beijing New Building Material Group (“BNBMG”) (collectively the “BNBM Entities”).

         The Court's initial inquiry regarding Taishan involved four cases in this MDL: (1) Germano v. Taishan Gypsum Co. (No. 09-6687); (2) The Mitchell Co. v. Knauf Gips KG (No. 09-4115); (3) Gross v. Knauf Gips KG (No. 09-6690); and (4) Wiltz v. Beijing New Building Materials Public Ltd. (No. 10-361).

         The first issues involving Taishan arose when Taishan failed to timely answer or otherwise enter an appearance in Mitchell and Germano, despite the fact that it had been properly served in each case. Thus, after an extended period of time, the Court entered preliminary defaults against Taishan in both cases. Thereafter, the Court moved forward with an evidentiary hearing in furtherance of the preliminary default in Germano on Plaintiffs' claimed damages. At the hearing, the PSC presented evidence specific to seven individual properties, which served as bellwether cases. Thereafter, on February 19 and 20, 2010, the Court issued detailed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. On May 11, 2010, the Court issued a Default Judgment against Taishan in Germano and in favor of Plaintiffs.

         On June 10, 2010, the last day to timely appeal the Default Judgment against them, Taishan filed a Notice of Appeal in Germano and entered its appearance in Germano and Mitchell. After Taishan entered its appearance in the MDL, it quickly sought to have the Default Judgment in Germano and the Preliminary Default in Mitchell vacated for lack of personal jurisdiction. Because this was the first time Defendants raised jurisdictional issues, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case to this Court to determine whether this Court indeed has jurisdiction over Taishan.

         In the fall of 2010, the Court directed the parties to commence the personal jurisdiction discovery necessary to resolve Taishan's motions to vacate. Sometime after the initial discovery, the parties agreed to expand the discovery beyond the Germano and Mitchell cases to other cases in which Taishan had been served, including Gross and Wiltz.

         Formal personal jurisdiction discovery of Taishan began in October 2010. Discovery included the production of both written and electronic documents as well as depositions of Taishan's corporate representatives, with each type of discovery proceeding in a parallel fashion. This discovery was highly contentious, requiring close supervision by the Court. The Court presided over regularly-scheduled status conferences, conducted hearings, and issued rulings to resolve numerous discovery-related disputes.

         In June 2011, the PSC filed identical complaints in Federal district courts in Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana (the “Amorin complaints”). The Amorin complaints include all Plaintiffs named in the Wiltz, Gross, Abel, and Haya actions. The Florida and Virginia actions were transferred by the JPML to the MDL; the PSC filed the Louisiana omnibus complaint directly into the MDL. It is undisputed that the allegations and Plaintiffs named in the Amoin complaints are identical. According to the PSC, these identical complaints were filed “out of an abundance of caution, ” because “there existed a colorable question regarding the application of the jurisdictional tests known as the ‘stream-of commerce' test and the ‘stream-of-commerce-plus' test reflected in the plurality opinions in McIntyre and Asahi, as well as Justice Brennan's concurring opinion in Asahi.”

         In April 2012, Taishan filed various motions, including motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. On June 29, 2012, over three years since the creation of this MDL and after a year-and-a-half of personal jurisdiction discovery on Taishan, the Court presided over a hearing on Taishan's motions. The Court coordinated its hearing with the Honorable Joseph Farina of the Florida state court, who had a similar motion involving Taishan's challenge to personal jurisdiction.

         On September 4, 2012, this Court issued a 142-page Order regarding Taishan's motions in Germano, Mitchell, Gross, and Wiltz, in which the Court denied the motions to dismiss and held that it maintained personal jurisdiction over Taishan. In re Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Prods. Liab. Litig., 894 F.Supp.2d 819 (E.D. La. 2012). The Court also ruled that Taishan was operating as the alter ego of TG and TTP. The Court certified an interlocutory appeal, and the Fifth Circuit granted permission to appeal. In January and May of 2014, two different panels of the Fifth Circuit affirmed this Court's ruling and held that this Court maintained personal jurisdiction over Taishan, TG, and TTP. In re Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Prods. Liab. Litig., 753 F.3d 521 (5th Cir. 2014); In re Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Prods. Liab. Litig., 742 F.3d 576 (5th Cir. 2014). The time for writ of certiorari passed, and the issue of personal jurisdiction over Taishan became firmly and finally settled. Nevertheless, Taishan refused to voluntarily participate in this suit.

         On June 20, 2014, the Court ordered Taishan to appear in open court on July 17, 2014 to be examined as a judgment debtor. Taishan failed to appear for the July 17, 2014 Judgment Debtor Examination, and the Court held Taishan in contempt, ordering that Taishan pay $15, 000.00 in attorneys' fees to Plaintiffs' counsel and $40, 000.00 as a penalty for contempt; Taishan and any of its affiliates or subsidiaries be enjoined from conducting any business in the United States until or unless it participates in this judicial process; and if Taishan violates the injunction, it must pay a further penalty of twenty-five percent of the profits earned by the Company or its affiliate who violate the Order for the year of the violation.

         On July 23, 2014, the PSC filed their Omnibus Motion for Class Certification pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3). Taishan did not appear and, on September 26, 2014, this Court certified a class of all owners of real properties in the United States, who are named Plaintiffs on the complaints in Amorin, Germano, Gross, and/or Wiltz (i.e., not an absent class member), asserting claims for remediated damages arising from, or otherwise related to Chinese Drywall manufactured, sold, distributed, supplied, marketed, inspected, imported or delivered by the Taishan Defendants. R. Doc. 18028.

         Taishan finally entered an appearance with the Court in February 2015, and, to satisfy the contempt, Taishan paid both the sum of $15, 000.00 in attorneys' fees to Plaintiffs' counsel and the contempt penalty of $40, 000.00 in March 2015. On March 17, 2015, the Court ordered Taishan and the BNBM and CNBM Entities to participate in expedited discovery related to “the relationship between Taishan and BNBM/CNBM, including whether affiliate and/or alter ego status exists.”

         On March 10, 2016, this Court granted CNBM Group's motion to dismiss, finding it was an “agent or instrumentality of a foreign state” within the meaning of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), and therefore outside the jurisdiction of this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1603(b). R. Doc. 20150. The Court determined the tortious activity exception did not apply because the alleged tortious conduct did not occur within the United States under 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(5). Further, the Court found the commercial activity exception did not apply, as CNBM Group did not directly manufacture, inspect, sell, or market drywall in the United States. Because the PSC failed to present evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption that CNBM Group was entitled to independent status for purposes of the FSIA, the Court granted the motion and dismissed CNBM Group from the present litigation.

         After concluding it lacked personal jurisdiction over CNBM Group, on April 21, 2017, the Court issued a 100-page opinion related to jurisdictional challenges being raised with respect to CNBM, BNBM Group, and BNBM. The Court found Taishan was an agent of BNBM under Florida and Virginia law, such that Taishan's contacts in Florida and Virginia are imputed to BNBM. This Court further found that CNBM, BNBM Group, and BNBM were part of a single business enterprise with Taishan under Louisiana law, such that Taishan's contacts in Louisiana may be imputed to them, and that the Court has jurisdiction over CNBM, BNBM Group, and BNBM in relation to Plaintiffs' claims based on Louisiana law. Also on April 21, 2017, the Court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law related to the June 9, 2015 damages hearing and adopted the PSC's damage calculations methodology related to remediation of properties.

         On May 22, 2017, Defendants filed a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) to certify an interlocutory appeal from this Court's April 21, 2017 jurisdiction order. Because the Court found the April 21, 2017 Order & Reasons involved a controlling question of law as to which there was substantial ground for difference of opinion, and because the Court further found that an interlocutory appeal might materially advance the ultimate termination of this MDL, on August 4, 2017, the Court certified an interlocutory appeal to the Fifth Circuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b).

         On August 1, 2017, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction following the recent U.S. Supreme Court case of Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California (“Bristol-Myers”), 137 S.Ct. 1773 (2017). Based on Bristol-Myers, Defendants contested this Court's findings of personal jurisdiction, class certification, and agency relationship. On August 14, 2017, Defendants filed a petition for permission to appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) in the Fifth Circuit, in which they argued Bristol-Myers impacted questions raised on appeal. On August 24, 2017, this Court vacated its 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) certification order to avoid piecemeal litigations, noting its duty to address the effect of Bristol-Myers on the jurisdictional issue before certifying the matter to the Fifth Circuit. Subsequently, on November 30, 2017, the Court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss, holding Bristol-Myers did not change this Court's jurisdictional findings and class certification.

         On January 2, 2018, the Court denied Defendants CNBM, BNBM Group, and BNBM's motion to vacate the default judgments against them. On March 5, 2018, the Court reinstated its order certifying the interlocutory appeal of its April 21, 2017 order. This issue remains with the Fifth Circuit.

         II. PENDING MOTION

         The motion presently before the Court involves the Brooke omnibus complaint filed by the PSC on September 4, 2015. No. 15-4127, R. Doc. 1. On January 15, 2016, the BNBM Defendants moved to dismiss the Brooke complaint. R. Doc. 19984. On September 12, 2018, the PSC filed its opposition. R. Doc. 21779. The BNBM Defendants filed a reply on October 3, 2018. R. Doc. 21818. On November 13, 2018, after reviewing the parties' submissions, the Court ordered additional briefing on the issue of tolling. R. Doc. 21914. On December 14, 2018, the PSC filed its supplemental brief. R. Doc. 21963. On January 18, 2019, Taishan and the BNBM entities filed their memoranda in further support of BNBM's motion to dismiss, R. Docs. 22071, 22072, to which the PSC filed a supplemental reply, R. Doc. 22083. The Court heard oral argument on the motion on February 21, 2019. R. Doc. 22114.

         III. LAW & ANALYSIS

         In its motion, the BNBM Defendants seek dismissal of the Brooke omnibus complaint, arguing that: (1) they were not properly served; (2) they are not subject to jurisdiction in Louisiana, as Taishan's contacts with the forum cannot be imputed to them; (3) the Brooke complaint is barred by the applicable statutes of limitation; and (4) the Brooke complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim. This memorandum considers each argument in turn.

         A. Whether the BNBM Defendants were properly served

         BNBM first argues it was not properly served, requiring dismissal of the Brooke action.

         Defendants' motion to dismiss was filed in January 2016. Since that time, the Court has made several jurisdictional rulings, including orders regarding the sufficiency of service. On April 21, 2017, the Court rejected the BNBM Defendants' argument that they had not been properly served. It held:

Based on the extensive procedural history of this case, the Court is convinced service on these entities has satisfied due process. Even without considering the agency and alter-ego relationships that exist between many of these related corporations, the evidence demonstrates the entities received adequate notice of this action and sufficient time to present their defenses.

R. Doc. 20739 at 55.

         Moreover, in their motion currently before the Court, Defendants “incorporate by reference and adopt in full the arguments they raised in their previously filed Opposition to the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee's Motion to Approve Alternative Service of Process.” R. Doc. 19984-1 at 29 n.32. Notably, the Court granted the PSC's motion to approve alternative service on November 9, 2015, stating “In this case, the Court is confident that service upon domestic counsel of the Entities satisfies the requirements of due process and is reasonably calculated to apprise the Chinese Defendants of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.” R. Doc. 19713 at 14.

         Despite these prior orders, in their recent reply in support of their motion to dismiss, filed October 3, 2018, the BNBM Defendants maintain their argument that service was improper. R. Doc. 21818 at 14-15. They contend the Court's prior orders addressing service are “not controlling as to the facts and circumstances at hand, ” id. at 14, and again point to their opposition to the PSC's motion to approve alternative service of process, an argument the Court has previously rejected. Given the Court's prior orders addressing these issues, and notwithstanding Defendants' assertion to the contrary, this issue is foreclosed by the Court's prior orders, and the Court will not grant Defendants' motion to dismiss on this basis.

         B. Whether the BNBM Defendants are subject to this Court's jurisdiction

         Next, Defendants argue they are not subject to personal jurisdiction in Louisiana. They argue “neither BNBM PLC nor BNBM Group has purposefully directed activities toward residents of the forum, and further that exercise of jurisdiction over these Defendants would violate constitutional due process.” R. Doc. 21818 at 13. In opposition, the PSC points to this Court's jurisdictional order and reasons, in which the Court concluded the Chinese Defendants operate as a single business enterprise, such that Taishan's contacts with Louisiana may be imputed to BNBM PLC and BNBM Group for purposes of establishing personal jurisdiction. R. Doc. 21779 at 10-11. In reply, Defendants take issue with the PSC's reliance on the Court's April 21, 2016 jurisdictional order, stating it “respectfully disagrees with the Court's conclusion that BNBM was a part of a SBE with Taishan or its alter ego, such that Taishan's contacts should be imputed to BNBM under Louisiana law.” R. Doc. 21818 at 14.

         In its April 21, 2016 jurisdictional order, following a lengthy analysis, this Court concluded that, “viewing ‘[a]ll the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the operations of the[se] parent[s] and subsidiary[ies]' in the light more favorable to Plaintiffs, . . . Taishan is an alter ego of BNBM under Louisiana law.” R. Doc. 20739 at 75. The Court further held the Chinese Defendants must be considered a single business enterprise, as

the entities within the CNBM Group corporate umbrella have integrated their resources to ensure their success as an international building materials company. Thus, each business within the larger corporate family-including BNBM, BNBM Group, and CNBM-may be held liable for the wrongful acts done in pursuit of that purpose.

Id. at 79. Ultimately, the Court found that, “Under the Louisiana single-enterprise doctrine, . . . Taishan, BNBM, BNBM Group, and CNBM constitute a single business enterprise, ” and “therefore [must be] considered one entity for the purposes of ...


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