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Litigants who decided to “opt out” of the $1.7 billion settlement of a federal class action suit against Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. won a significant victory last week when a federal appeals court cleared the way for discovery to begin. In Drelles v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that since the opt-out plaintiffs brought their own individual cases in state court, they cannot be barred by the federal court from pursuing discovery of their claims — even if they are identical to the original federal action — because such conduct cannot be considered a “relitigation” of the federal case. In a 10-page unpublished decision, a unanimous three-judge panel upheld a lower court’s decision that rejected MetLife’s request for a federal injunction to stop the state court discovery. “MetLife cannot point to any caselaw authorizing an injunction against opt-out plaintiffs … who consciously and purposefully refused to join a class action settlement,” 3rd Circuit Judge Julio M. Fuentes wrote. Lawyers for the opt-out plaintiffs hailed the decision as a victory for consumers. “This is a major victory for consumers’ rights,” said lead counsel Leslie Brueckner of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, who argued the appeal on behalf of the opt-out litigants. “This ruling ensures the right of consumers to exclude themselves from a class action lawsuit and still have their own day in court.” Co-plaintiffs’ counsel Kenneth R. Behrend of Behrend & Ernsberger in Pittsburgh said, “our clients opted all of their claims out of the nationwide settlement in order to pursue their own cases. If the court had accepted MetLife’s arguments, the right to opt out would have been rendered meaningless.” Lawyers for MetLife argued that the complaint filed in state court by the opt-out plaintiffs was mostly a copycat of complaint filed in the federal case. The injunction should have issued, MetLife argued, because the federal courts should consider the goal of protecting defendants in class action from having to repeatedly defend against allegations relating to claims they have already settled. But Fuentes found that, under the Anti-Injunction Act, the proper forum for litigating any dispute over the scope of the state court discovery was in the state courts. “To the extent that [the opt-out plaintiffs] may try to bring in evidence of nationwide practices that are irrelevant to their individual claims … MetLife is free to object to such evidence before the appropriate state courts, who are the proper authorities to make such evidentiary rulings,” Fuentes wrote. As a result, Fuentes concluded that the federal court had properly rejected the injunction request. “Allowing the pre-emptive approach espoused by MetLife here would essentially nullify [the] decision to opt out,” Fuentes wrote in an opinion joined by circuit judges Thomas L. Ambro and Leonard I. Garth. The federal lawsuits against MetLife began in 1996 and were consolidated before U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose in the Western District of Pennsylvania. The suits accused MetLife of engaging in improper sales practices involving individual life insurance policies and annuity contracts and certificates. In August 1999, the federal case settled for $1.7 billion, but the litigation continued because a group of Pennsylvania plaintiffs had opted out of the federal case to pursue their own cases in state court. Like the federal suits, the Pennsylvania opt-out plaintiffs accused MetLife of engaging in a series of improper sales practices, including:

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