Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts
472 U.S. 797 (1985)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797 (1985)

Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts

No. 84-233

Argued February 25, 1985

Decided June 26, 1985

472 U.S. 797

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF KANSAS

Syllabus

During the 1970's, petitioner produced or purchased natural gas from leased land located in 11 States. Respondents, royalty owners possessing rights to leases from which petitioner produced the gas, brought a class action against petitioner in a Kansas state court, seeking to recover interest on royalty payments that had been delayed by petitioner. The trial court certified a class consisting of 33,000 royalty owners. Respondents provided each class member with a notice by first-class mail describing the action and informing each member that he could appear in person or by counsel, that otherwise he would be represented by respondents, and that class members would be included in the class and bound by the judgment unless they "opted out" of the action by returning a "request for exclusion." The final class consisted of some 28,000 members, who reside in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and several foreign countries. Notwithstanding that over 99% of the gas leases in question and some 97% of the plaintiff class members had no apparent connection to Kansas except for the lawsuit, the trial court applied Kansas contract and equity law to every claim, and found petitioner liable for interest on the suspended royalties to all class members. The Kansas Supreme Court affirmed over petitioner's contentions that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevented Kansas from adjudicating the claims of all the class members, and that that Clause and the Full Faith and Credit Clause prohibited application of Kansas law to all of the transactions between petitioner and the class members.

Held:

1. Petitioner has standing to assert the claim that Kansas did not have jurisdiction over the class members who were not Kansas residents and had no connection to Kansas. Whether it wins or loses on the merits, petitioner has a distinct and personal interest in seeing the entire plaintiff class bound by res judicata just as petitioner is bound. The only way petitioner can assure itself of this binding effect is to ascertain that the forum court has jurisdiction over every plaintiff whose claim it seeks to adjudicate, sufficient to support a res judicata defense in a later suit by class members. The alleged injury petitioner would incur if the class action judgment against it became final without binding the plaintiff class is sufficient to give petitioner standing on its own right to raise the jurisdiction claim in this Court. Pp. 472 U. S. 803-806.

Page 472 U. S. 798

2. The Kansas trial court properly asserted personal jurisdiction over the absent plaintiff class members and their claims against petitioner. The Due Process Clause requires notice, an opportunity to appear in person or by counsel, an opportunity to "opt out," and adequate representation. It does not require that absent class members affirmatively "opt in" to the class, rather than be deemed members of the class if they did not "opt out." The procedure followed by Kansas, where a fully descriptive notice is sent by first-class mail to each class member, with an explanation of the right to "opt out," satisfies due process. The interests of the absent plaintiff class members are sufficiently protected by the forum State when those plaintiffs are provided with a request for exclusion that can be returned within a reasonable time to the trial court. Pp. 472 U. S. 806-814.

3. The Kansas Supreme Court erred in deciding that the application of Kansas law to all claims would be constitutional. Kansas must have a "significant contact or aggregation of contacts" to the claims asserted by each plaintiff class member in order to ensure that the choice of Kansas law was not arbitrary or unfair. Given Kansas' lack of "interest" in claims unrelated to that State, and the substantive conflict between Kansas law and the law of other States, such as Texas, where some of the leased land in question is located, application of Kansas law to every claim in this case was sufficiently arbitrary and unfair as to exceed constitutional limits. Pp. 472 U. S. 814-823.

235 Kan.195, 679 P.2d 1159, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and II of which STEVENS, J., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 472 U. S. 823. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

Page 472 U. S. 799

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner is a Delaware corporation which has its principal place of business in Oklahoma. During the 1970's it produced or purchased natural gas from leased land located in 11 different States, and sold most of the gas in interstate commerce. Respondents are some 28,000 of the royalty owners possessing rights to the leases from which petitioner produced the gas; they reside in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and several foreign countries. Respondents brought a class action against petitioner in the Kansas state court, seeking to recover interest on royalty payments which had been delayed by petitioner. They recovered judgment in the trial court, and the Supreme Court of Kansas affirmed the judgment over petitioner's contentions that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevented Kansas from adjudicating the claims of all the respondents, and that the Due Process Clause and the Full Faith and Credit Clause of Article IV of the Constitution prohibited the application of Kansas law to all of the transactions between petitioner and respondents. 235 Kan.195, 679 P.2d 1159 (1984). We granted certiorari to consider these claims. 469 U.S. 879 (1984). We reject petitioner's jurisdictional claim, but sustain its claim regarding the choice of law.

Because petitioner sold the gas to its customers in interstate commerce, it was required to secure approval for price increases from what was then the Federal Power Commission, and is now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Under its regulations, the Federal Power Commission permitted petitioner to propose and collect tentative higher gas prices, subject to final approval by the Commission. If the Commission eventually denied petitioner's proposed price increase or reduced the proposed increase, petitioner would

Page 472 U. S. 800

have to refund to its customers the difference between the approved price and the higher price charged, plus interest at a rate set by statute. See 18 CFR § 154.102 (1984).

Although petitioner received higher gas prices pending review by the Commission, petitioner suspended any increase in royalties paid to the royalty owners because the higher price could be subject to recoupment by petitioner's customers. Petitioner agreed to pay the higher royalty only if the royalty owners would provide petitioner with a bond or indemnity for the increase, plus interest, in case the price increase was not ultimately approved and a refund was due to the customers. Petitioner set the interest rate on the indemnity agreements at the same interest rate the Commission would have required petitioner to refund to its customers. A small percentage of the royalty owners provided this indemnity and received royalties immediately from the interim price increases; these royalty owners are unimportant to this case.

The remaining royalty owners received no royalty on the unapproved portion of the prices until the Federal Power Commission approval of those prices became final. Royalties on the unapproved portion of the gas price were suspended three times by petitioner, corresponding to its three proposed price increases in the mid-1970's. In three written opinions, the Commission approved all of petitioner's tentative price increases, so petitioner paid to its royalty owners the suspended royalties of $3.7 million in 1976, $4.7 million in 1977, and $2.9 million in 1978. Petitioner paid no interest to the royalty owners although it had the use of the suspended royalty money for a number of years.

Respondents Irl Shutts, Robert Anderson, and Betty Anderson filed suit against petitioner in Kansas state court, seeking interest payments on their suspended royalties which petitioner had possessed pending the Commission's approval of the price increases. Shutts is a resident of Kansas, and the Andersons live in Oklahoma. Shutts and the Andersons

Page 472 U. S. 801

own gas leases in Oklahoma and Texas. Over petitioner's objection the Kansas trial court granted respondents' motion to certify the suit as a class action under Kansas law. Kan.Stat.Ann. § 60-223 et seq. (1983). The class as certified was comprised of 33,000 royalty owners who had royalties suspended by petitioner. The average claim of each royalty owner for interest on the suspended royalties was $100.

After the class was certified respondents provided each class member with notice through first-class mail. The notice described the action and informed each class member that he could appear in person or by counsel; otherwise each member would be represented by Shutts and the Andersons, the named plaintiffs. The notices also stated that class members would be included in the class and bound by the judgment unless they "opted out" of the lawsuit by executing and returning a "request for exclusion" that was included with the notice. The final class as certified contained 28, 100 members; 3,400 had "opted out" of the class by returning the request for exclusion, and notice could not be delivered to another 1,500 members, who were also excluded. Less than 1,000 of the class members resided in Kansas. Only a minuscule amount, approximately one quarter of one percent, of the gas leases involved in the lawsuit were on Kansas land.

After petitioner's mandamus petition to decertify the class was denied, Phillips Petroleum v. Duckworth, No. 82-54608 (Kan. June 28, 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1103 (1983), the case was tried to the court. The court found petitioner liable under Kansas law for interest on the suspended royalties to all class members. The trial court relied heavily on an earlier, unrelated class action involving the same nominal plaintiff and the same defendant, Shutts, Executor v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 222 Kan. 527, 567 P.2d 1292 (1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1068 (1978). The Kansas Supreme Court had held in Shutts, Executor that a gas company owed interest to royalty owners for royalties suspended pending final Commission approval of a price increase. No federal statutes

Page 472 U. S. 802

touched on the liability for suspended royalties, and the court in Shutts, Executor held as a matter of Kansas equity law that the applicable interest rates for computation of interest on suspended royalties were the interest rates at which the gas company would have had to reimburse its customers had its interim price increase been rejected by the Commission. The court in Shutts, Executor viewed these as the fairest interest rates because they were also the rates that petitioner required the royalty owners to meet in their indemnity agreements in order to avoid suspended royalties.

The trial court in the present case applied the rule from Shutts, Executor, and held petitioner liable for prejudgment and postjudgment interest on the suspended royalties, computed at the Commission rates governing petitioner's three price increases. See 18 CFR § 154.102 (1984). The applicable interest rates were: 7% for royalties retained until October 1974; 9% for royalties retained between October 1974 and September 1979; and thereafter at the average prime rate. The trial court did not determine whether any difference existed between the laws of Kansas and other States, or whether another State's laws should be applied to non-Kansas plaintiffs or to royalties from leases in States other than Kansas. 235 Kan. at 221, 679 P.2d at 1180.

Petitioner raised two principal claims in its appeal to the Supreme Court of Kansas. It first asserted that the Kansas trial court did not possess personal jurisdiction over absent plaintiff class members as required by International Shoe Co. v. Washington,326 U. S. 310 (1945), and similar cases. Related to this first claim was petitioner's contention that the "opt-out" notice to absent class members, which forced them to return the request for exclusion in order to avoid the suit, was insufficient to bind class members who were not residents of Kansas or who did not possess "minimum contacts" with Kansas. Second, petitioner claimed that Kansas courts could not apply Kansas law to every claim in the dispute. The trial court should have looked to the laws of each State

Page 472 U. S. 803

where the leases were located to determine, on the basis of conflict of laws principles, whether interest on the suspended royalties was recoverable, and at what rate.

The Supreme Court of Kansas held that the entire cause of action was maintainable under the Kansas class action statute, and the court rejected both of petitioner's claims. 235 Kan.195, 679 P.2d 1159 (1984). First, it held that the absent class members were plaintiffs, not defendants, and thus the traditional minimum contacts test of International Shoe did not apply. The court held that nonresident class action plaintiffs were only entitled to adequate notice, an opportunity to be heard, an opportunity to opt out of the case, and adequate representation by the named plaintiffs. If these procedural due process minima were met, according to the court, Kansas could assert jurisdiction over the plaintiff class and bind each class member with a judgment on his claim. The court surveyed the course of the litigation and concluded that all of these minima had been met.

The court also rejected petitioner's contention that Kansas law could not be applied to plaintiffs and royalty arrangements having no connection with Kansas. The court stated that generally the law of the forum controlled all claims unless "compelling reasons" existed to apply a different law. The court found no compelling reasons, and noted that "[t]he plaintiff class members have indicated their desire to have this action determined under the laws of Kansas." 235 Kan. at 222, 679 P.2d at 1181. The court affirmed as a matter of Kansas equity law the award of interest on the suspended royalties, at the rates imposed by the trial court. The court set the postjudgment interest rate on all claims at the Kansas statutory rate of 15%. Id. at 224, 679 P.2d at 1183.

I

As a threshold matter we must determine whether petitioner has standing to assert the claim that Kansas did not possess proper jurisdiction over the many plaintiffs in the

Page 472 U. S. 804

class who were not Kansas residents and had no connection to Kansas. Respondents claim that a party generally may assert only his own rights, and that petitioner has no standing to assert the rights of its adversary, the plaintiff class, in order to defeat the judgment in favor of the class.

Standing to sue in any Article III court is, of course, a federal question which does not depend on the party's prior standing in state court. Doremus v. Board of Education,342 U. S. 429, 342 U. S. 434 (1952); Baker v. Carr,369 U. S. 186, 369 U. S. 204 (1962). Generally stated, federal standing requires an allegation of a present or immediate injury in fact, where the party requesting standing has "alleged such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to assure that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues." Ibid. There must be some causal connection between the asserted injury and the challenged action, and the injury must be of the type "likely to be redressed by a favorable decision." Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc.,454 U. S. 464, 454 U. S. 472 (1982). See Simon v. Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org.,426 U. S. 26, 426 U. S. 41-42 (1976); Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp.,429 U. S. 252, 429 U. S. 261 (1977).

Additional prudential limitations on standing may exist even though the Article III requirements are met because

"the judiciary seeks to avoid deciding questions of broad social import where no individual rights would be vindicated and to limit access to the federal courts to those litigants best suited to assert a particular claim."

Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood,441 U. S. 91, 441 U. S. 99-100 (1979). One of these prudential limits on standing is that a litigant must normally assert his own legal interests rather than those of third parties. See Singleton v. Wulff,428 U. S. 106 (1976); Craig v. Boren,429 U. S. 190 (1976).

Respondents claim that petitioner is barred by the rule requiring that a party assert only his own rights; they point out that respondents and petitioner are adversaries and do

Page 472 U. S. 805

not have allied interests such that petitioner would be a good proponent of class members' interests. They further urge that petitioner's interference is unneeded because the class members have had opportunity to complain about Kansas' assertion of jurisdiction over their claim, but none have done so. See Singleton, supra, at 428 U. S. 113-114.

Respondents may be correct that petitioner does not possess standing jus tertii, but this is not the issue. Petitioner seeks to vindicate its own interests. As a class action defendant petitioner is in a unique predicament. If Kansas does not possess jurisdiction over this plaintiff class, petitioner will be bound to 28,100 judgment holders scattered across the globe, but none of these will be bound by the Kansas decree. Petitioner could be subject to numerous later individual suits by these class members because a judgment issued without proper personal jurisdiction over an absent party is not entitled to full faith and credit elsewhere and thus has no res judicata effect as to that party. Whether it wins or loses on the merits, petitioner has a distinct and personal interest in seeing the entire plaintiff class bound by res judicata just as petitioner is bound. The only way a class action defendant like petitioner can assure itself of this binding effect of the judgment is to ascertain that the forum court has jurisdiction over every plaintiff whose claim it seeks to adjudicate, sufficient to support a defense of res judicata in a later suit for damages by class members.

While it is true that a court adjudicating a dispute may not be able to predetermine the res judicata effect of its own judgment, petitioner has alleged that it would be obviously and immediately injured if this class action judgment against it became final without binding the plaintiff class. We think that such an injury is sufficient to give petitioner standing on its own right to raise the jurisdiction claim in this Court.

Petitioner's posture is somewhat similar to the trust settlor defendant in Hanson v. Denckla,357 U. S. 235 (1958), who we found to have standing to challenge the forum's personal

Page 472 U. S. 806

jurisdiction over an out-of-state trust company which was an indispensable party under the forum State's law. Because the court could not proceed with the action without jurisdiction over the trust company, we observed that

"any defendant affected by the court's judgment ha[d] that 'direct and substantial personal interest in the outcome' that is necessary to challenge whether that jurisdiction was in fact acquired."

Id. at 357 U. S. 245, quoting Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S. F. R. Co., 357 U. S. 77 (1958).

II

Reduced to its essentials, petitioner's argument is that unless out-of-state plaintiffs affirmatively consent, the Kansas courts may not exert jurisdiction over their claims. Petitioner claims that failure to execute and return the "request for exclusion" provided with the class notice cannot constitute consent of the out-of-state plaintiffs; thus Kansas courts may exercise jurisdiction over these plaintiffs only if the plaintiffs possess the sufficient "minimum contacts" with Kansas as that term is used in cases involving personal jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. E.g., International Shoe Co. v. Washington,326 U. S. 310 (1945); Shaffer v. Heitner,433 U. S. 186 (1977); World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson,444 U. S. 286 (1980). Since Kansas had no pre-litigation contact with many of the plaintiffs and leases involved, petitioner claims that Kansas has exceeded its jurisdictional reach and thereby violated the due process rights of the absent plaintiffs.

In International Shoe we were faced with an out-of-state corporation which sought to avoid the exercise of personal jurisdiction over it as a defendant by a Washington state court. We held that the extent of the defendant's due process protection would depend "upon the quality and nature of the activity in relation to the fair and orderly administration of the laws. . . ." 326 U.S. at 326 U. S. 319. We noted that the Due Process Clause did not permit a State to make a binding judgment against a person with whom the State had no contacts,

Page 472 U. S. 807

ties, or relations. Ibid. If the defendant possessed certain minimum contacts with the State, so that it was "reasonable and just, according to our traditional conception of fair play and substantial justice" for a State to exercise personal jurisdiction, the State could force the defendant to defend himself in the forum, upon pain of default, and could bind him to a judgment. Id. at 326 U. S. 320.

The purpose of this test, of course, is to protect a defendant from the travail of defending in a distant forum, unless the defendant's contacts with the forum make it just to force him to defend there. As we explained in Woodson, supra, the defendant's contacts should be such that "he should reasonably anticipate being haled" into the forum. 444 U.S. at 444 U. S. 297. In Insurance Corp. of Ireland v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee,456 U. S. 694, 456 U. S. 702-703, and n. 10 (1982), we explained that the requirement that a court have personal jurisdiction comes from the Due Process Clause's protection of the defendant's personal liberty interest, and said that the requirement "represents a restriction on judicial power not as a matter of sovereignty, but as a matter of individual liberty." (Footnote omitted.)

Although the cases like Shaffer and Woodson which petitioner relies on for a minimum contacts requirement all dealt with out-of-state defendants or parties in the procedural posture of a defendant, cf. New York Life Ins. Co. v. Dunlevy,241 U. S. 518 (1916); Estin v. Estin,334 U. S. 541 (1948), petitioner claims that the same analysis must apply to absent class action plaintiffs. In this regard petitioner correctly points out that a chose in action is a constitutionally recognized property interest possessed by each of the plaintiffs. Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co.,339 U. S. 306 (1950). An adverse judgment by Kansas courts in this case may extinguish the chose in action forever through res judicata. Such an adverse judgment, petitioner claims, would be every bit as onerous to an absent plaintiff as an adverse judgment on the merits would be to a defendant.

Page 472 U. S. 808

Thus, the same due process protections should apply to absent plaintiffs: Kansas should not be able to exert jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' claims unless the plaintiffs have sufficient minimum contacts with Kansas.

We think petitioner's premise is in error. The burdens placed by a State upon an absent class action plaintiff are not of the same order or magnitude as those it places upon an absent defendant. An out-of-state defendant summoned by a plaintiff is faced with the full powers of the forum State to render judgment against it. The defendant must generally hire counsel and travel to the forum to defend itself from the plaintiff's claim, or suffer a default judgment. The defendant may be forced to participate in extended and often costly discovery, and will be forced to respond in damages or to comply with some other form of remedy imposed by the court should it lose the suit. The defendant may also face liability for court costs and attorney's fees. These burdens are substantial, and the minimum contacts requirement of the Due Process Clause prevents the forum State from unfairly imposing them upon the defendant.

A class action plaintiff, however, is in quite a different posture. The Court noted this difference in Hansberry v. Lee,311 U. S. 32, 311 U. S. 40-41 (1940), which explained that a "class" or "representative" suit was an exception to the rule that one could not be bound by judgment in personam unless one was made fully a party in the traditional sense. Ibid., citing Pennoyer v. Neff,95 U. S. 714 (1878). As the Court pointed out in Hansberry, the class action was an invention of equity to enable it to proceed to a decree in suits where the number of those interested in the litigation was too great to permit joinder. The absent parties would be bound by the decree so long as the named parties adequately represented the absent class and the prosecution of the litigation was within the common interest. [Footnote 1] 311 U.S. at 311 U. S. 41.

Page 472 U. S. 809

Modern plaintiff class actions follow the same goals, permitting litigation of a suit involving common questions when there are too many plaintiffs for proper joinder. Class actions also may permit the plaintiffs to pool claims which would be uneconomical to litigate individually. For example, this lawsuit involves claims averaging about $100 per plaintiff; most of the plaintiffs would have no realistic day in court if a class action were not available.

In sharp contrast to the predicament of a defendant haled into an out-of-state forum, the plaintiffs in this suit were not haled anywhere to defend themselves upon pain of a default judgment. As commentators have noted, from the plaintiffs' point of view a class action resembles a "quasi-administrative proceeding, conducted by the judge." 3B J. Moore & J. Kennedy, Moore's Federal Practice

Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.