Controversy amount; controversy about

Defendants removed, averring: “The real property at issue has a current fair market value of $87,500.”  The district court denied remand.  Plaintiffs appealed, and the Fifth Circuit entertained her argument because it went to the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. Taking judicial notice of county appraisal records that valued the property at $62,392, the Court remanded for the gathering of more evidence about the amount in controversy. Statin v. Deutsche Bank, No. 14-20200 (Dec. 19, 2014, unpublished).  The Court noted the recent Supreme Court case of Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Williams, No. 13-719 (U.S. Dec. 15, 2014), which confirmed that while “defendants to not need to attach evidence supporting the alleged amount in controversy to the notice of removal,” “once the notice of removal’s asserted amount is ‘challenged,’ the parties ‘must submit proof and the court decides, by a preponderance of the evidence, whether the amount-in-controversy requirement has been satisfied.'”

Whoomp! Extrinisic evidence.

The same week as whoompthe en banc vote in the whooping crane litigation, the Fifth Circuit analyzed “Whoomp! (There It Is).”  The unfortunate song has been mired in copyright infringement litigation for a decade; the district court entered judgment for the plaintiff for over $2 million, and it was affirmed in Isbell v. DM Records, Inc., Nos. 13-40787 and 14-40545 (Dec. 18, 2014).  [The opinion notes: “The word “‘Whoomp!’ appears to be a neologism, perhaps a variant of ‘Whoop!,’ as in a cry of excitement.”]

The main appellate issue was a variant of a frequently-litigated topic — the role of extrinsic evidence in contract interpretation.  The assignment in question was governed by California law, which the Court found to “employ[] a liberal parol evidence rule” with respect to consideration of extrinsic evidence.  The appellant argued that the district image court erred “in interpreting the Recording Agreement without asking the jury to make any findings on the extrinsic evidence.”  The Court disagreed, finding that the record did not present “a question of the credibility of conflicting extrinsic evidence” (emphasis in original): “The only dispute is over the meaning of the Recording Agreement and the inferences that should be drawn from the numerous undisputed pieces of extrinsic evidence.  This is a question of law for the court, not for a jury.”

Findings of fact, conclusions of law, and whooping cranes

whoopingcraneThe Fifth Circuit revised its earlier opinion in Aransas Project v. Shaw, No. 13-40317 (Dec. 15, 2014) and also denied en banc review over a dissent joined by three judges (with a fourth also voting for review).  The Court continues to hold that the plaintiff failed to establish proximate cause in an environmental case about the environment for whooping cranes.  The points of division are whether the panel “independently weighs facts to render judgment in violation of fundamental principles of federal law,” or simply finds that “the record permits only one resolution of the factual issue after the correct law is applied”; a related issue is whether rendition or remand is the appropriate appellate remedy for fact findings premised on an error of law.

Waive goodbye in federal court too

As chronicled in the sister blog 600Commerce (following business cases in the Dallas Court of Appeals), the issue of whether a guarantor can waive the “fair market value” offset right provided by the Texas Property Code — a problem that arises frequently after foreclosure sales — was hotly-litigated until the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter in Moyaedi v. Interstate 35/Chisam Road, L.P,  438 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. 2014), finding that the right was waivable.

The Fifth Circuit acknowledged and applied that holding in Hometown 2006-1 1925 Valley View, LLC v. Prime Income Asset Management LLC, finding that the waiver there was even clearer than in Moyaedi.  In Moyaedi, the guarantor waived “every . . . defense”; here, the guarantor waived “any . . . offset, claim or defense,” and the guaranty also had a provision saying: “Guarantor WAIVES each and every right to which it may be entitled by virtue of any suretyship law, including any rights it may have pursuant to . . . Section
51.005 of the Texas Property Code.”  No. 14-10182 (Dec. 11, 2014, unpublished).

“Enforce” settlement does not mean “change” settlement.

Sundown Energy could access its oil and gas production facility via the Mississippi River, but had to cross Haller’s land to access it from the highway.  They litigated about Sundown’s rights and reached a settlement, which their counsel read into the record on the day set for trial.  The Fifth Circuit found that the parties had reached a settlement, which the district court had the authority to enforce pursuant to their agreement.  The Court reversed, though, as to the district court’s resolution of several logistical issues: “Here, the district court erred by imposing several terms which either conflicted with or added to the agreement read into the record by the parties. Although the parties gave the district court the authority to enforce and interpret the settlement agreement, the district court did not have the power to change the terms of the settlement agreed to by the parties.”  Sundown Energy L.P. v. Haller, No. 13-30294 et al. (Dec. 8, 2014).

How to sign documents

300px-JohnHancocksSignature.svgCan a note be endorsed with a photocopied signature?  Yes. Whittier v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No. 13-20639 (Dec. 3, 2014, unpublished) (citing Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 1.201(b)(37)) (“Signed” includes using any symbol executed or adopted with present intention to adopt or accept a writing.”)

Can a “deed of trust . . . upon a homestead exempted from execution,” which “shall not be valid or binding unless signed by the spouse of the owner,” be signed in separate but identical documents?  Yes.  Avakian v. Citibank, N.A., No. 14-60175 (Dec. 9, 2014) (citing Duncan v. Moore, 7 So. 221, 221-22 (Miss. 1890)) (“There is much force in the imageargument of defendant’s counsel that the statute does not require a joint deed of husband and wife for the conveyance of the husband’s homestead . . . that the substantial thing is the written evidence of such consent; and that this may be as certainly shown by a separate instrument as by signing the deed of the husband.”)

No controversy, about the amount in controversy

molehillThe borrowers’ complaint in a wrongful foreclosure case sought: “‘an order canceling the Mortgage’ on property that is worth more than $200,000 while also stipulating that they will not recover more than $75,000.”  Accordingly: “Given our established rule that the amount in controversy in cases like this is determined by the value of the property, it is irrelevant whether the stipulation is binding. A party cannot sue over a mountain but stipulate that it is a molehill.”  Solis v. HSBC Bank USA, No. 14-40489 (Nov. 17, 2014, unpublished).

Bank has coverage despite “fee dispute exclusion”

Class action suits alleged that First Community Bank mismanaged its customers’ bank accounts.  The bank’s insurer admitted that there would be coverage under the professional liability policy, but for the “fee dispute exclusion” [excluding claims “based upon, arising out of or attributable to any dispute involving fees or charges for an Insured’s services”]. While the collection of excessive overdraft fees was a major part of the pleadings, “at least some” of their allegations dealt with “First Community’s providing misleading information on its account practices and customers’ account balances . . . that do not have a causal connection to a disagreement that necessarily includes fees.”  Accordingly, under Texas’s “eight corners” rule, the Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for the insured as to the duty to defend.  First Community Bancshares v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., No. 13-50657 (Nov. 14, 2014, unpublished).

SCOTUS and CTA5 — recent review decisions

The Supreme Court has granted review of the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Vandegriff, a First Amendment case about Texas’s denial of a request for a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag.

The Supreme Court has denied review of BP’s challenges to the Deepwater Horizon settlement, resolved by the Fifth Circuit earlier this year in a complicated series of panel opinions and denials of rehearing.

Class claims not credited

Plaintiffs, alleging that the defendant wrongfully printed the expiration dates of credit cards on its store receipts, sought to certify a class of “[a]ll persons who made in-store purchases from the Defendant using a debit or credit card, in a transaction occurring from May 8, 2010, through May 10, 2012, at one of the [specified] stores . . . .” Ticknor v. Rouse’s Enterprises, LLC, No. _____.  Noting a split in authority about similar class actions, and applying Mims v. Stewart Title, 590 F.3d 298 (5th Cir. 2009), the Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in denying certification: “The district court determined that the plaintiffs needed to prove that they: (1) were not using someone else’s card to make their purchases, (2) were consumers rather than business purchasers, and (3) took their receipts.  Rouse’s argued that these factors differed among the putative class members. First, it noted one instance in which an individual had used his mother’s credit card to make a purchase, suggesting there would be many similar situations. Second, Rouse’s observed that it markets to professional chefs and other business customers who shop at its stores. These customers are not “consumers” protected under [the federal statute]. Finally, Rouse’s showed that numerous customers leave its stores without their receipts.”

What is an objectively reasonable removal?

The issue in Omega Hospital LLC v. Louisiana Health Service & Indemnity was whether the defendant (also known as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana), had an objectively reasonable basis for removal.  No. 13-31085 (Nov. 18, 2014, unpublished).  Some of the Blue Cross insureds at issue were federal employees covered by a plan overseen by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  The Fifth Circuit reversed an award of attorneys fees against Blue Cross, noting “case law arguably supporting Blue Cross, and the absence of a ruling from this court,” and thus concluding: “We cannot say that Blue Cross lacked a reasonable belief in the propriety of removal” under the “federal officer” statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1).

No final order, no appeal.

In Southwestern Elec. Power Co. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyds, No. 13-31130 (Nov. 24, 2014), the trial court entered this order on September 25, 2013:

“IT IS ORDERED that the Motion to Compel Arbitration and Stay Proceedings (Doc. 16) is granted and the parties are ordered to resolve the claim presented in an arbitration conducted in accordance with the terms of their insurance policy.  IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this civil action is stayed, and the Clerk of Court is directed to close the case for administrative purposes given the unlikelihood that further proceedings in this action will be necessary.”

Several months later, the trial court further ordered:

“This court finds that pursuant to Freudensprung and American Heritage Ins. Co. v. Orr, 294 F.3d 702 (5th Cir. 2002), the September 25, 2013 order compelling arbitration and staying the underlying proceeding operates as a final, appealable decision within the statutory framework of the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1-16.”

The Fifth Circuit gave little weight to that further order:

”In a later ruling on SWEPCO’s Rule 58(d) motion for a separate judgment, the district court carefully construed its earlier ruling. Notably, the district court considered case law to construe the prior order ‘as a final, appealable decision within the statutory framework of the [FAA].’ It did not issue a clarification that its prior order was intended to be final and appealable, did not purport to grant SWEPCO’s motion, and did not issue a new order with the necessary trappings of finality.”

Accordingly, because the previous order only stayed and administratively closed the matter — as opposed to dismissing it — the order was interlocutory and the Court lacked appellate jurisdiction.

Lois civiles actuellement en force dans le territoire d’Orléans

napoleon lawmakerIn tour de force reviews of Louisiana’s Civil Code and civilian legal tradition, a plurality and dissent — both written by Louisiana-based judges — reviewed whether a 1923 deed created a “predial servitude” with respect to a right of access.  The deed at issue said: “It is understood and agreed that the said Texas & Pacific Railway Company shall fence said strip of ground and shall maintain said fence at its own expense and shall provide three crossings across said strip at the points indicated on said Blue Print hereto attached and made part hereof, and the said Texas and Pacific Railway hereby binds itself, its successors and assigns, to furnish proper drainage out-lets across the land hereinabove conveyed.”

The analysis involved citation to the Revised Civil Code of Louisiana of 1870 (the Code in effect at the time of conveyance), the 1899 treatise Traité de Droit Civil-Des Biens, and the 1893 work, Commentaire théorique & pratique du code civil.  Despite the arcane overlay, the opinions turn on practical observations.  The plurality notes that the deed uses “successors and assigns” language only with respect to drainage — not access — while the dissent observes that a “personal” access right, limited only to the parties to the conveyance and that does not run with the land, is impractical.  Franks Investment Co. v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., No. 13-30990 (Dec. 2, 2014).