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Whole Foods Market Group, Inc. v. Molock

A class of workers at Whole Foods stores in a number of states and the District of Columbia filed suit in federal district court in DC alleging that Whole Foods had manipulated a performance bonus program to deny workers bonuses that should have been paid them. Whole Foods invoked the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California to argue that the federal court in DC lacked personal jurisdiction over it with respect to the claims of class members whose claims arose outside DC, though it did not contest that the class representatives whose claims had a nexus to DC could bring it into court there to pursue their own claims. The district court rejected the argument on the ground that the Bristol-Myers decision, which concerned claims brought by individual plaintiffs in forums unrelated to their claims, does not apply to class actions. Whole Foods appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Public Citizen filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of the workers. The brief explained that Bristol-Myers concerned due process limits on the powers of state courts that do not apply directly to federal courts. Although the provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure dealing with service of process incorporate some of the limits the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause places on state courts’ exercise of personal jurisdiction, in this case it was uncontested that individual named plaintiffs who worked or lived in DC had properly effected service on Whole Foods. And once the plaintiffs had properly haled Whole Foods into court, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure entitled them to pursue their claims on behalf of a class, without regard to any due-process limits that might apply to a state court’s assertion of personal jurisdiction over the defendant with respect to the claims of out-of-state class members.

In an opinion issued in March 2020, the court of appeals affirmed the district court, but on a different ground. Without addressing the jurisdictional question, the court held that, until class certification, unnamed class members are not parties before the court and, therefore, Whole Foods’ motion to dismiss was premature.