Does it belong to the estate?

The Cantus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and after their case was converted to Chapter 7, sued their bankruptcy attorney for malpractice.  That suit settled for roughly $300,000, leading to a dispute between the Cantus and the Chapter 7 Trustee as to who should receive the proceeds.  The Fifth Circuit found that the estate suffered pre-conversion injury as a result of the alleged misconduct, including diversion of assets, time wasted with an unconfirmable Chapter 11 plan, and additional attorneys fees.  Therefore, the causes of action against the attorney “accrued prior to conversion and belong to the estate.”  Cantu v. Schmidt, No. 14-40597 (April 17, 2015).

Public policy challenge to arbitration award sinks at sea

rickmers_dailanLito Asignacion, a Filipino seaman, worked aboard the M/V RICKMERS DALIAN (right, en route to Antwerp at the time of this post) – a “superflex heavy” container ship owned by a German company and flying the flag of the Marshall Islands.  Severely burned in an onboard accident, he went to arbitration in the Phillippines under Filipino law, and received an award of $1,700 — significantly less than U.S. maritime law would afford.  The district court refused to enforce the award on public policy grounds, and the Fifth Circuit reversed.  Asignacion v. Rickmers Genoa, No. 14-30132 (April 16, 2015).  Acknowledging the strong U.S. policy that gives “special solicitude to seamen” and treats them as “wards of admiralty,” the Court found it outweighed by the policy in favor of arbitration, coupled with unique considerations about the legal arrangements under which Filipino citizens find employment at sea.  It also rejected a challenge based on the “prospective waiver” doctrine, finding that the Supreme Court had not extended it beyond purely statutory rights.

How to waive a jury demand

seventh-amendment-est-1791-sticker-p217898255011801286b2o35-400Two principles – somewhat inconsistent – govern whether a court should accept an untimely request for jury trial.  First, “‘because the seventh amendment confers a fundamental right,'” a court “typically ‘should grant a motion for jury trial . . . in the absence of strong and compelling reasons to the contrary.'”  Second, “it is not an abuse of discretion to deny an untimely motion for a jury trial ‘when the failure to make a timely jury demand results form mere inadvertence on the part of the moving party.'”  In BPRE, LP v. RML Waxahachie Dodge, LLC, under the operative scheduling order, the plaintiff had to make a request for a pretrial conference by January 31, 2010.  It did not do so until February 16, and did not file a separate brief about the right to jury trial until April 12.  The Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s conclusion that this was “mere inadvertence,” and affirmed the finding of waiver.  No. 14-50339 (April 7, 2015, unpublished).

Error in arbitrator appointment = vacated award

BWIFLAGSeveral insurance-related businesses had a dispute. The businesses were not all parties to all relevant agreements, leading to confusion about whether arbitration should proceed with the AAA or ICC, and about how to select an arbitrator. The district court found that the arbitrator was not appointed correctly, vacated the award, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed: “Arbitration is simply a matter of contract between the parties; it is a way to resolve those disputes — but only those disputes — that the parties have agreed to submit to arbitration.”  Poolre Ins. Corp. v. Organizational Strategies, Inc., No. 14-20433 (April 7, 2015).   Interestingly, the relevant contract required arbitrator selection “by the Anguilla, [British West Indies] Director of Insurance” — a nonexistent position.  This error did not moot that provision, however, but simply implicated the section 5 of the FAA, which lets a district judge appoint an arbitrator if “a lapse in the naming of an arbitrator” arises.

Immigration panel announced — UPDATED

The panel has been announced for Friday’s arguments in “the immigration case,” Texas v. United States:  Judges Smith, Elrod, and Higginson.  Like the recent panel in Crane v. Johnson (No.14-10049, April 2, 2015), this panel draws from the major “wings” of the Court – a senior Reagan appointee, a recent Bush appointee (both from Texas) and the second-newest appointee by Obama.

The similarity of panel makeup suggests the potential for a similar result.  Interestingly, while Judge Smith is a strong separation-of-powers conservative (consider his dissent in the en banc False Claims Act case of Riley v. St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, 252 F.3d 749 (5th Cir. 2001)) he is also a strong voice for judicial action when there is jurisdiction; for example, he has led the Court toward expanded pretrial oversight of district courts in opinions such as In re: Radmax.  Judge Higginson, while new, has a record of thorough opinions that comport with the majority view of legal issues (consider his recent opinion in the False Claims Act case of United States ex rel. Shupe v. Cisco Systems, Inc., 759 F.3d 379 (5th Cir. 2014)).  The panel will give the plaintiffs a full hearing but may well find problems with their standing theories.

At the risk of reading one tea leaf too many, it is worth noting that Judge Elrod dissented from the denial of en banc rehearing in Radmax, as well as a recent panel opinion that granted mandamus relief on a forum issue, In re Lloyd’s Register North America, Inc., No. 14-20554 (Feb. 24, 2015).  The analogy between the Court’s mandamus jurisdiction and the justiciability issues in Texas v. United States is not powerful – and indeed, Judge Smith was on the opposite side of both matters from Judge Elrod – but it does suggest a healthy concern for judicial constraint.

Goodbye, Pro-Snax.

prosnaxA law firm sought $130,000 in fees for representing a bankruptcy debtor; the bankruptcy court awarded $20,000, noting the firm’s lack of success in delivering a measurable benefit to the estate.  While a Fifth Circuit panel affirmed, citing the test in In re: Pro-Snax Distributors, Inc., 157 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. 1998), all three judges called for en banc reconsideration of that opinion.  That request was granted unanimously in Barron & Newburger, P.C. v. Texas Skyline, Ltd., which recognized that the “retrospective, ‘material benefit’ standard enunciated in Pro–Snax conflicts with the language and legislative history of § 330, diverges from the decisions of other circuits, and has sown confusion in our circuit.”  Accordingly, the full Court overturned Pro–Snax’s attorney’s-fee rule to “adopt the prospective, ‘reasonably likely to benefit the estate’ standard endorsed by our sister circuits.”  While the division of some en banc votes can offer insight on subtle aspects of judges’ philosophies, this unanimous decision shows that sometimes, the full court will simply fix what it regards as an earlier mistake, if that mistake has sufficiently far-reaching consequences within the Circuit.

Every dog has its day.

Only in New Orleans.  During Mardi Gras, a form of folk art takes discarded beads and twists them into a dog shape, also known as a “bead dog.”  A seller of king cakes obtained a trademark for its mascot based on that image (below left), and sued a jewelrymaker who sold necklaces and earrings that also drew upon that image (below right).

haydel dog

The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the nola dogjewelrymaker, reasoning:

1.  The bakery’s “Mardi Gras Bead Dog” mark was descriptive of its products;

2.  The mark was not inherently distinctive, and thus may be protected only if it had acquired secondary meaning;

3.  Under the applicable seven-factor test, the bakery failed to establish that the mark had acquired secondary meaning; and .

4.  While a dog itself cannot be copyrighted, its distinctive collar could potentially be, but on this record the Court concluded that no reasonable juror could find the collars to be “substantially similar in protectable expression.”

Other related state law claims were also dismissed.  Nola Spice Designs, LLC v. Haydel Enterprises, Inc., No. 13-30918 (April 8, 2015).

Immigration showdown looms

highnoonThe district court has denied an interim stay of its injunction against the Obama Administration’s immigration policies; the Fifth Circuit has recently rejected, on standing grounds, a comparable case; and oral argument is set for April 17 before the Fifth Circuit on an appellate motion to stay the injunction.  I was recently interviewed by Law360 about the matter and anticipate announcement by the Court of the panel for the April 17 argument in the near future.

Arbitration award affirmed in attorneys fee dispute

A law firm and its client arbitrated a fee dispute.  While the arbitrators ruled for the firm, the district court vacated the award as to the contingent fee on the grounds that the fee was unconscionable.  The Fifth Circuit reinstated the arbitration award, noting the “extraordinarily narrow” standard of review and the arbitrators’ specific fact findings on the relevant considerations.  Campbell Harrison & Dagley LLP v. Hill, No. 14-10631 (April 2, 2015, unpublished).  The Court acknowledged, but concluded that it did not need to address, the question whether the ability to vacate an arbitration award on public policy grounds survived Hall Street Associates v. Mattel, 128 S. Ct. 1396 (2008).

Don’t “dismiss” to the bankruptcy court

In Wellness Wireless, Inc. v. Infopia America, LLC, the district court dismissed a suit on a note for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, noting the potential effect on the estate of a company in bankruptcy.  The Fifth Circuit faulted this reasoning as “plainly wrong,” noting that Article III courts have jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters and simply refer them to bankruptcy courts as a matter of course. The Court also disagreed as to an alternative ground for dismissal, based on the debtor being a necessary party under Fed. R. Civ. P. 19, noting that the debtor had disclaimed any interest in the funds at issue during the bankruptcy case.  No. 14-20024 (March 24, 2015, unpublished).

Bankruptcy “gotcha” on notice of appeal

Satterwhite appealed an adverse ruling from the bankruptcy court, and then to the district court.  In the district court, after judgment, he filed a motion for new trial, to modify the judgment, and for findings of fact and conclusions of law.  After the trial court denied those motions, he filed a notice of appeal that would have been timely in an “ordinary” appeal under Fed. R. App. P. 4.  Unfortunately, this bankruptcy appeal fell under Fed. R. App. P. 6, which only allows a motion for rehearing filed within 14 days of judgment to extend the appellate deadline.   Satterwhite v. Guin, No. 14-20430 (March 31, 2015, unpublished).

How to Interplead

tug-of-warIn a remarkably tangled construction dispute, the property owner interpleaded roughly $260,000, after a dispute arose between the general contractor and a sub.  One of the interpleaded parties argued that the owner “faces only separate obligations,” augmented by the fact that the Mississippi statute relied upon the subcontractor to freeze the funds was declared unconstitutional.  Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi, Inc. v. King Construction of imageHouston, No. 14-60217 (March 26, 2015).  The Fifth Circuit disagreed: “The first stage of interpleader only is concerned with whether multiple claims have been asserted, or may be asserted, against a disinterested stakeholder, not whether those claims have merit.”

Ghost of Lochner still not lurking about.

spectreIn St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a substantive due process challenge to a state law that stopped a group of monks from making funeral caskets. The Court explained the limits of that holding and noted: “Nor is the ghost of Lochner lurking about.”  712 F.3d 215, 227 (5th Cir. 2013). Confirming that such a phantom still does not haunt the Circuit, the Court rejected First Amendment and due process challenges to a Texas law that requires a veterinarian to physically examine an animal before treating it (and which thus prohibits “distance” treatment via the Internet.) The Court found a rational connection between the law and quality animal care, and noted: “The idea that content-neutral regulation of the professional-client relationship does not violate the First Amendment has deep roots, and has been embraced by many circuits.”  Hines v. Alldredge, No. 14-40403 (March 27, 2015).