ERISA resurrection

After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP’s share price declined and several employee benefits sustained major losses. An ERISA lawsuit on behalf of the beneficiaries was dismissed, noting that an ERISA fiduciary’s to maintain an investment in company stock receives a “presumption of prudence,” sometimes referred to as the Moench presumption. Whitley v. BP, P.L.C., No. 12-20670 (July 15, 2014, unpublished).  In June 2014, the Supreme Court eliminated that presumption and held that ERISA fiduciaries managing a plan invested in company stock are subject to the same duty of  prudence as any other ERISA fiduciary, “except that they need not diversify the fund’s assets.” Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, No. 12-751 (U.S. June 25, 2014).   Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal and remanded the appeal for reconsideration in light of that opinion.

Wrong kind of negligence

The coverage dispute in Wiszia Co. v. General Star Indemnity Co. involved a lawsuit in which “Jefferson Parish essentially asserted Wisznia improperly designed a building and did not adequately coordinate with the builders during its construction.” No. 13-31125 (July 16, 2014).  Reviewing the allegations under Louisiana’s eight-corners rule, and summarizing the extensive Louisiana jurisprudence on the topic, the Fifth Circuit found that the claim fell within the policy’s professional services exclusion.   Under those authorities, mere use of the word “‘negligence’ is insufficient to obligate a professional liability insurer to defend the insured,” and “the factual allegations in the Jefferson Parish petition here do not give rise to an ordinary claim for negligence—such as an unreasonably dangerous work site.”

Expensive royalties

Chesapeake’s lease obliged it to pay the Warrens a royalty based on “the amount realized by Lessee, computer at the mouth of the well.”  A lease addendum said the royalty “shall be free of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production, and marketing . . . including, but not limited to, costs of compression, dehydration, treatment and transportation.”  Warren v. Chesapeake Exploration LLC, No. 13-10619 (July 16, 2014).

The addendum went on to say that “Lessor will, however, bear a proportionate part of all those expenses imposed upon Lessee by its gas sales contract to the extent incurred subsequent to those that are obligations of Lessee.”  The Warrens contended that this sentence defined certain shared expenses which should not have been deducted from the royalty.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the Rule 12 dismissal of their complaint, finding that the sentence only referred to “the cost of delivering marketable gas to a sales point other than the mouth of the well.”  (distinguishing Heritage Resources, Inc. v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996)).

The Court reversed, however, as to another pair of plaintiffs with a different lease addendum.  Noting simply that it was different, the Court found that their claim should not have been dismissed, as “[i]t is not apparent from the face of the complaint or its attachments that they could not conceivably state a cause of action.”

Hindsight is 330.

A law firm appealed the partial denial of its bankruptcy fee application.  The bankrupty court said “its ruling was informed by the bad conduct of the Debtors themselves, which should have lead [the firm] to withdraw from the case sooner than it ultimately did.”  The district court said the record showed that “this bankruptcy proceeding was doomed at the outset, and arguably could not have been filed in good faith under Chapter 11.”   Barron & Newburger, P.C. v. Texas Skyline, Ltd., No. 13-50075 (July 15, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, noting that its earlier opinion of  In re: Pro-Snax Distributors, Inc., 157 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. 1998) rejected a “reasonableness” test in the application of Bankruptcy Code § 330 — which would have asked “whether the services were objectively beneficial toward the completion of the case at the time they were performed” — in favor of a “hindsight” approach, asking whether the professionals’ work “resulted in an identifiable, tangible, and material benefit to the bankruptcy estate.”  That said, all three panel members joined a special concurrence asking the full Court to reconsider Pro-Snax en banc, observing that its outright rejection of forward-looking reasonableness “appears to conflict with the language and legislative history of § 330, diverges from the decisions of other circuits, and has sown confusion in our circuit.”

“Unsupported . . . irrelevant . . ., and legalistic gibberish”

Appellant did not fare well in Bell v. Bell Family Trust, where the Fifth Circuit observed: “The inadequacy of her briefing on appeal does not fall far from her pleadings below, upon which the magistrate judge reflected: ‘The undersigned spent a significant amount of time parsing through the morass of Bell’s voluminous, rambling, and unintelligible pleadings, which proved to be a substantial waste of time and resources. They contain a “hodgepodge of unsupported assertions, irrelevant platitudes, and legalistic gibberish.” As succinctly stated by the late Judge Alvin B. Rubin: “[t]he ability to fill more than 36 pages with no more than legal spun sugar does not make an argument substantial.”’  Construing liberally Bell’s continued hodgepodge of assertions, we discern only one issue for review . . . . .”  No. 13-31219 (July 8, 2014, unpublished)

A double-header win for bankruptcy creditors

1.  Creditors get the money.  Debtor filed for Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy.  He made payments to the Trustee for some time.  He then converted to Chapter 7, leaving the Trustee holding money paid under the Chapter 13 plan.  “[W]ages paid to the trustee pursuant to the Chapter 13 plan should be distinguished from the debtor’s other property acquired after the date of filing.”  Viegelahn v. Harris, No. 13-50374 (July 7, 2014)

2.  Creditors get the money.  The stay lifted.  Secured Creditor foreclosed.  Under federal law, its attorneys fees were subject to the customary review under the Bankruptcy Code.  Under state law, its attorneys fees were fixed by contract.  Held: federal law controls, and the case was remanded for review under federal standards.  In re 804 Congress LLC, No. 12-50382 (June 23, 2014)

Race is a difficult issue.

On Monday the 14th, a 2-1 Fifth Circuit opinion affirmed the free speech rights of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  On Tuesday the 15th, a 2-1 Fifth Circuit opinion rejected a constitutional challenge to the “top ten percent” admissions policy of the University of Texas: “[T]he backdrop of our efforts here includes the reality that accepting as permissible policies whose purpose is to achieve a desired racial effect taxes the line between quotas and holistic use of race towards a critical mass. We have hewed this line here, persuaded by UT Austin from this record of its necessary use of race in a holistic process and the want of workable alternatives that would not require even greater use of race, faithful to the content given to it by the Supreme Court.”  Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 09-50822.  Both opinions — and the dissents — offer thoughtful analyses of the institutional, historical, and precedential structure of the law governing highly sensitive issues of race, in the geographic area that was once the western portion of the Confederacy. Ideological sound bites will fly about both cases, as the First Amendment allows and encourages, but their reasoning deserves respect and study.

A corporation, by any other name, would be as diverse.

While resolved on other grounds, a part of the diversity-of citizenship question in Tewari De-Ox Systems, Inc. v. Mountain States-Rosen, LLC was whether a business entity — charted as a corporation in Wyoming — should nevertheless be treated as an unincorporated association because it called itself a “cooperative.”  No. 13-50956 (July 9, 2014).  On that point, the Court noted: “Other circuits have rejected similar arguents: ‘For purposes of diversity jurisdiction, the Cooperative is to be treated as a corporation simply because it has been incorporated under [state] law, regardless of the Cooperative’s individual structure, purpose, operations, or name.”  (quoting Kuntz v. Lamar Corp., 385 F.3d 1177, 1183 (9th Cir. 2004), and also citing Pastor v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 487 F.3d 1042, 1048 (7th Cir. 2007)).

To license plate in Dixie . . .

“We understand that some members of the public find the Confederate  flag offensive. But that fact does not justify the Board’s decision; this is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect against.”  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit found that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board violated the free speech rights of the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans when the Board denied the group’s application for a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag.  Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. v. Vandergriff, No. 13-50411 (July 14, 2014).  The Court rejected a jurisdictional challenge under the Tax Injunction Act, finding that the plaintiff organization was not a taxpayer raising taxation issues.  A dissent found the matter controlled by a Supreme Court case about public monuments.  Initial coverage of the case has appeared in the Dallas Morning News and Times-Picayune.

How taxing is it to enter the Ritz?

The unfortunate taxpayer in Whitehouse Hotel Limited Partnership v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue lost a multi-million dollar dispute about the value of an easement, related to the spectacular Ritz-Carlton on Canal Street in New Orleans, and as a result faced a substantial penalty.  No. 13-60131 (June 11, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the Tax Court on the merits but reversed as to the penalty, noting: “We are particularly persuaded by [Taxpayer's] argument that the Commissioner, the Commissioner’s expert, and the tax court all reached different conclusions” on the core valuation issue.  Acknowledging that this area is fact-specific, the Court held as to the taxpayer’s conduct: “Obtaining a qualified appraisal, analyzing that appraisal, commissioning another appraisal, and submitting a professionally-prepared tax return is sufficient to show a good faith investigation as required by law.”

Only consider parol evidence when you consider it.

In Bluebonnet Hotel Ventures, LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., the Fifth Circuit considered whether there had been an “[e]rror that vitiates consent” because of a “failure of cause” about an interest rate swap agreement, so as to allow its cancellation under Louisiana contract law.  No. 13-30827 (June 6, 2014).  In the course of affirming summary judgment for the bank, the Court declined to consider emails written around the time of contracting, noting: “Under Louisiana law, courts may only consider parol evidence when a contract is ambiguous.” To illustrate the sharp edge that separates holdings in the area of extrinsic evidence, cfFruge v. Amerisure663 F.3d 743 (5th Cir. 2011) ( applying Louisiana law and holding: “Parol evidence is admissible to show mutual error even though the express terms of the policy are not ambiguous.”) (citations omitted).

Insurance Twofer

1.  No conflict-of-interest.  In Graper v. Mid-Continent Casualty Co., No. 13-20099 (June 24, 2014), the Fifth Circuit revisited the potential conflict-of-interest issues relating to counsel selected by an insurance carrier, previously addressed in Downhole Navigator LLC v. Nautilus Insurance686 F.2d 325 (5th Cir. 2012).  Reminding that a problematic conflict would only arise if “the facts to be adjudicated in the underlying lawsuit are the same facts upon which coverage depends,” the Court found no disqualifying conflict in either: (a) the facts of when a claim accrued for limitations purposes, as opposed to when it occurred under the policy, or (b) the facts about an alleged willful copyright infringement occurs, as opposed to a “knowing” act for coverage purposes.  

2.  No exhaustion.  The excess carriers in Indemnity Ins. Co. of N. Am. v. W&T Offshore, Inc. contended that they had no coverage obligation when the underlying policies had been exhausted.  No. 13-20512 (June 23, 2014).  Distinguishing Westchester Fire Ins. Co. v. Stewart & Stevenson Services., Inc., 31 S.W.3d 654 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2000, pet. denied), the Court disagreed, finding that the policy “merely outlines what will happen if the underlying insurance is entirely exhausted by claims covered under the policy; it says nothing about what will happen if the Retained Limit is exhausted by non-covered claims.” A deftly-written footnote 5 explains how the excess carriers’ argument relies on the logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent.”

Does “based on the attached” mean “we agree to arbitration”?

The parties’ contract said: “Terms and conditions are based on the general conditions stated in the enclosed ORGALIME S200.”  The ORGALIME, in turn, had an arbitration clause.  The Fifth Circuit found that the above language incorporated the arbitration clause into the contract, acknowledging that “multiple interpretations of ‘based on’ might be possible in the abstract,” the length and scope of the ORGALIME compared to the contract showed the parties’ intent to incorporate its terms.  Rushaid v. National Oilwell Varco, Inc., No. 13-20159 (July 2, 2014).  The Court also rejected a waiver argument, finding that the acts of the party’s co-defendants could not be imputed to it absent a reason to pierce the corporate veil.  Here, “there is no evidence in the record that [the party] has abused its corporate form.  It merely declined to become a party to litigation without being formally served.”  The Court also rejected an argument, based on equitable estoppel, to stay the ongoing litigation until the conclusion of the arbitration.

Limitations for home equity loan claims in Texas — a wrinkle

The Fifth Circuit held in Priester v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013), that the Texas “residual” 4-year statute of limitations applied to claims based on the home equity loan provisions of the state Constitution, running from the time the loan closed.  Various requests to reconsider, certify, or otherwise retreat from that holding have been uniformly rejected.  Kramer v. JP Morgan Chase Bank presented a fresh attack on Priester, arguing that the discovery rule applied to a claim based on the Texas statute against the filing of false liens, and citing Vanderbilt Mortgage v. Flores, 692 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 2012).  No. 13-50920 (June 25, 2014, unpublished).  The Court sidestepped this argument by finding the issue moot because plaintiff did not seek damages based on this statute before the district court.

Out of the frying pan of Rule 12, into the fire of Rule 56

First case: Highland Capital sued Bank of America for the alleged breach of an oral contract to sell a $15.5 million loan.  After the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of this claim under Rule 12(b)(6), it affirmed summary judgment for the defendant in Highland Capital Management LP v. Bank of America, No. 13-11026 (July 3, 2014). Highland relied upon standard terminology promulgated by an industry association, while the Bank pointed to evidence showing that, in this specific transaction, the Bank was not familiar with that terminology and not want it to control.  “Although industry custom is extrinsic evidence a factfinder can use to determine the parties’ intent to be bound, its value is substantially diminished where, as here, other evidence overwhelmingly shows that the persons involved in the dealings were unaware of those customs.”    The Court also rejected an alternative theory that a prior transaction that involved the terminology continued to govern the parties’ relationship, noting: “Whether a prior contract had a binding effect on the procedures available for future contract-formation is a legal question.”

Second case:  As with the previous case, WH Holdings LLC v. Ace American Ins. Co. was remanded for development of a factual record, this time for extrinsic evidence about a contract ambiguity.  No. 13-30676 (June 26, 2014, unpublished).   And as with the previous case, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment, finding that seven pieces of extrinsic evidence were either not relevant to the specific contract issue, or “equally consistent with both” readings.

The rain, in main, did not fall on the cranes

Aransas Project v. Shaw presented a challenge to an injunction against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, prohibiting the TCEQ from issuing new permits to withdraw water from rivers that feed the estuary where whooping cranes live.  No. 13-40317 (June 30, 2014).  The whooping crane, described in the opinion as a “majestic bird that stands five feet tall,” is an endangered species, and the only known wild flock lives in Texas during winter.

The Fifth Circuit first rejected an argument for Burford abstention, finding that this case presented a “broader grant of administrative and judicial authority by state law to remedy environmental grievances” than a prior opinion where it allowed abstention in a similar sort of environmental dispute.  Cf. Sierra Club v. City of San Antonio, 112 F.3d 789 (5th Cir. 1997).

The Court then reversed the injunction, finding no causation “in the face of multiple, natural, independent, unpredictable and interrelated forces affecting the cranes’ estuary environment.”  While couched in language about proximate causation and environmental law, the Court’s analysis is a classic illustration of the recurring Daubert problem of excluding alternate causes.  (In the course of this discussion, the butterfly effect theory makes a cameo appearance in footnote 10.)

Construction work and CGL coverage, redux –

The plaintiffs in Crownover v. Mid-Continent Casualty Co. won an arbitration claim based on the “breach of the express warranty to repair” in their contract with an HVAC installation company.  No. 11-10166 (June 27, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit, applying Gilbert Texas Construction LP v. Underwriters of Lloyd’s London, 327 S.W.3d 118 (Tex. 2010) and the recent response to a certification request in Ewing Construction Co. v. Amierisure Ins. Co., 420 S.W.3d 30 (Tex. 2014), concluded that CGL coverage was not available: “Whereas contractually agreeing to repair damage resulting from a failure to exercise reasonable care in performing the work or agreeing to perform work in a good and workmanlike manner would mirror a contractor’s duty under general law . . . contractually agreeing to repair damage resulting from a failure to comply with the requirements of the contract would not.”  Law360 has a good article about the development of this important insurance coverage issue over the last several months.

Analytical GAAP

At issue in Meadaa v. K.A.P. Enterprises LLC was the relative liability of three defendants for a $3.5 million claim.  No. 12-30918 (July 1, 2014).  In a summary judgment affidavit, an expert opined that transactions of Defendant 1 had not resulted in unfair advantage to Defendants 2 and 3, and had kept its affairs separate from those of Defendant 4.  The expert had reviewed financial documents from Defendant 1 and tax returns from Defendant 4.  The Fifth Circuit found no clear error in the district court’s striking of this affidavit for a lack of personal knowledge.  Because “[i]t is by no means clear how a [CPA] can obtain personal knowledge of the effects of the actions of one entity on other parties without reviewing the latter’s financial documents,” it was “incumbent upon him to explain how he acquired such knowledge.”  As a procedural matter, the Court also found that a notice of appeal from a final judgment encompassed a later ruling on a Rule 59 motion.

3 Fifth Circuit cases to know from 2Q 2014

In the second quarter of 2014, the Fifth Circuit said how to . . .

1. . . . enforce an Agreed Protective Order.  Two judges, finding “written notice” ambiguous, found that Ford did not waive confidentiality designations by having a lengthy email exchange rather than moving for protection.  The dissent would construe the ambiguity against Ford and faults the majority for encouraging “vague, non-responsive answers.”  Moore v. Ford Motor Co., ___ F.3d ___ (June 20, 2014).

2. . . . . remove based on federal question jurisdiction.  A petition raised a sufficient federal question for removal when it incorporated this allegation from an EEOC complaint: “I have been and continue to be discriminated against, in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended, [and] the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, as amended, because of my national origin (Iranian).”   Davoodi v. Austin ISD, ___ F.3d ___ (June 16, 2014).

3.  . . . protect in-house counsel’s attorney-client privilege.  Addressing the common question of “business or legal advice?” the court found a memo privileged because it “deal[t] with any legal liability that may stem from under-disclosure of data, hedged against any liability that may occur from any implied warranties during complex negotiations.”  Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Hill, 751 F.3d 379 (2014).

How to (not) litigate “CONFIDENTIAL” designations under an agreed protective order

The agreed protective order said:  “At any time after the delivery of documents designated ‘confidential,’ counsel for the receiving party may challenge the confidential designation of any document or transcript (or portion thereof) by providing written notice thereof to counsel for the opposing party.”  The producing party then has 15 days to seek protection; if it does not do so, “then the disputed material shall no longer be subject to protection as provided in this order.”  Moore v. Ford Motor Co., No. 13-40761 (June 20, 2014).

Pursuant to the order, Ford produced four boxes of documents related to Volvo safety issues.  These communications ensued:

  • On May 11, 2004, plaintiffs’ counsel emailed to challenge the confidentiality designations of several documents.
  • On June 4, Ford’s counsel asked for Bates numbers.
  • On June 23, plaintiffs’ counsel responded, expanded on the confidentiality argument, and said it “will begin passing them out to any and everyone that is interested”
  • In July, plaintiffs’ counsel asked: “what’s the word . . . on confidentiality?”
  • The next day, Ford’s counsel withdrew its designations as to some documents, said it was “evaluating your claims” as to others, and “expects you to abide by the terms of the Protective Orders in the meantime”
  • Plaintiffs’ counsel responded: “I gave Ford adequate time.  I am sending the materials out.  Thanks for trying.”  (He did not specify what “materials”)
  • On February 22, 2005, plaintiffs’ counsel asked for an update on the “confidentiality issue”
  • On March 8, 2005, Ford responded that “in the spirit of cooperation” it would “officially de-designate from the Protective Order” specified other documents.

In 2012, documents surfaced in other litigation that Ford had produced pursuant to the above protective order; while the opinion does not specify what they were, it seems clear that they were documents which Ford had not formally “de-designated.”  Ford moved to enforce the protective order and the district court agreed, finding no “clear written notice . . . challenging the confidential designation of these documents.”

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the 15-day period ran from the first email, and Ford thus waived its designations by not moving for protection.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding the protective order ambiguous on this issue, and stating: “This interpretation may well be the better reading without more, but the parties understanding of these agreed orders bears upon the interpretation, and the actions of both parties strongly suggest” otherwise, noting the lengthy dialogue between the parties.    Noting that “[a]lthough on de novo review a different outcome may obtain,” the Court found the district court’s conclusion that no waiver occurred to not be clearly erroneous.

A dissent, among other arguments, noted that (1) the 15-day provision only requires that confidentiality be “in dispute,” (2) Ford drafted the agreement so any ambiguity should be construed against it, and (3) Ford had the burden to establish confidentiality.  The dissent concluded the majority opinion undermined “efficient resolution of discovery disputes” by allowing “Ford . . . to undermine this purpose through vague, non-responsive answers.”

Law school exam on diversity . . .

  1. Thompson sued Defendants in Arkansas in 2011, alleging he was a citizen of Arkansas.  That lawsuit was dismissed for improper venue.
  2. Thompson sued Defendants again in Florida in 2012, and voluntarily dismissed that action after the magistrate concluded that diversity was lacking.
  3. Thompson sued Defendants again in Alabama in 2012, alleging that he was a citizen of Arkansas.  That action was transferred to Mississippi.   It was then dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because Thompson and one of the citizens were both Florida citizens at the time of filing in 2012.

Thompson argued that the relevant facts related to the original 2011 filing, not the 2012 re-filing.  HELD: “[T]he [Alabama] complaint does not relate back to the [Arkansas] complaint because the second complaint was not an amendment, but rather the commencement of a separate action.”  Dismissal affirmed.

No fact issue

A subtle Erie issue flashed by when Andrews alleged premises liability claims against BP, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for BP under a Texas statute. Terry v. BP Amoco, No. 12-40913 (June 27, 2014, unpublished).  BP won summary judgment: “Exhibits C and D are the only evidence that Andrews identified as raising a material issue of fact as to BP’s responsibility for the explosion. Those exhibits are a Safety Bulletin issued by the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) and a CSB press release discussing the bulletin. The statute creating the CSB, however, prohibits Andrews from using the documents as evidence in this case.  Additionally, both CSB documents also likely constitute inadmissible hearsay under the Federal Rules of Evidence.”  The question not raised is how much substantive effect this type of federal statute must have in a state law tort claim, removed to federal court under diversity jurisdiction, so as to raise an Erie issue.

How to get hit with punitive damages

Plaintiff recovered $12,200 in actual damages and $40,000 in punitives on his claim for race discrimination, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed in all respects.  Rhines v. Salinas Construction Technologies, Ltd. (June 25, 2014, unpublished).  On the punitive damages award, the Court noted this evidence: (1) the employer falsely told the EEOC that plaintiff had not complained about the workplace; (2) an employee admitted at trial that he signed a false affidavit about the use of racial slurs in the workplace; and (3) “the person who allegedly performed the [employer's] investigation testified before the jury that he did not investigate.”  As the Court dryly summarized: “There was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s award of punitive damages.”

The decedent’s ashes, Louisiana process servers, and personal jurisdiction

Defendant was personally served in Louisiana; the question was whether the plaintiffs fraudulently induced her to come there.  Gatte v. Dohm (June 23, 2014, unpublished). More specifically, Defendant (part owner of a Mexican clinic where the plaintiffs’ relative had died) alleged she had been duped into travelling to Louisiana to return the decedent’s ashes and personal effects to family members, as they were too distraught to travel themselves.  The district court found fraudulent inducement; the Fifth Circuit reversed, noting a conflict between the affidavits submitted by the parties and applying the principle: “Conflicts between the facts contained in the parties’ affidavits must be resolved in the plaintiff’s favor for purposes of determining whether a prima facie case for personal jurisdiction exists.”  (citing D.J. Investments, Inc. v. Metzeler Motorcycle Tire Agent Gregg Inc., 754 F.2d 542, 546 (5th Cir. 1985).

No “sign-off mid-litigation” to “tinker with ongoing cases” . . .

In Tetra Technologies, Inc v. Continental Ins. Co., the district court ruled on several key issues in an insurance coverage dispute, declined to certify the rulings for immediate appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) because it found no substantial ground for difference of opinion, and entered judgment on those matters pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b).  No. 13-30516 (June 10, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit found that judgment improper, and thus dismissed on jurisdictional grounds for lack of a final and appealable order. Rather than sounding the “death knell” of claims as required by Rule 54, the Court concluded that the rulings would allow “Tetra and Maritech to prevail completely nor not at all on their indemnification claim against Continental, depending on the resolution of certain ‘factual issues.’”  “Thus, what we are presented with here is a request by the district court for us to sign off mid-litigation on legal questions it considers non-contentions.  Since the inception of the federal judiciary, however, our role has been to review final decisions of trial courts, not to tinker with ongoing cases through piecemeal appeals . . . “

Federal question? Where to look . . .

In the published opinion of Davoodi v. Austin ISD, the Fifth Circuit revisited the recurring question of how substantial a federal question must be to create jurisdiction (and thus, allow removal). No. 13-50823 (June 16, 2014).  Notably, the Court did not analyze whether the plaintiff stated a claim under federal law in the causes of action alleged in his pleading.  Rather, the decision turns on how much the pleaded facts involved violation of federal law.  This focus contrasts with the framework of Howery v. Allstate Ins. Co., which rejected jurisdiction because “[f]rom its context, it appears that Howery’s mention of federal law merely served to describe types of conduct that violated the DTPA, not to allege a separate cause of action under the FCRA,” and because a violation of federal law was not an “essential element” of Howery’s state law claims.  243 F.3d 912, 918-919 (5th Cir. 2001).  

Davoodi sued in Texas state court, alleging state law claims for “national origin discrimination” and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a claim for “retaliation” without a specified basis in state or federal law. The first of the two paragraphs in the “Facts” section of the petition said:

“On or about June 2, 2011 Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC and the Texas Human Rights Commission.  (See Charge attached as Exhibit ‘A’ and fully incorporated herein).  This charge alleged that Defendant discriminated against Plaintiff based on his National Origin (Iranian).  On February 3, 2012 the EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights.  The Texas Human Rights Commission did not issue a dismissal/right to sue.”  

The Court noted that the incorporation of the Charge made it “part of [plaintiff's] complaint for all purposes,” and created federal jurisdiction because the Charge contained the averment and claim: “I have been and continue to be discriminated against, in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended, [and] the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, as amended, because of my national origin (Iranian).”  The Court remanded as to the Rule 12 dismissal of the case, however, to allow the plaintiff a chance to replead under Lozano v. Ocwen Federal Bank, 489 F.3d 636 (5th Cir. 2007).

The movant’s Rule 12 arguments, as reflected in the appellate record excerpts, address whether the plaintiff’s pleading stated a claim for “retaliation” under either state or federal law.  The Fifth Circuit did not engage the basis for that claim in its analysis of federal question jurisdiction, focusing entirely on the fact allegations described above and the statement made to the EEOC.  Allstate can be reconciled with Davoodi  because the mention of federal law in the Allstate pleading is substantially smaller, as a percentage of the overall allegations.  That analytical framework — different than Allstate‘s focus — may invite new removals based on a “percentage-based” analysis of a pleading’s factual allegations.

When does an administrative action trigger the duty to defend?

A company received “PRP” (Potentially Responsible Party) letters from the EPA, followed by a “Unilateral Administrative Order” requiring the company to do remedial work.  Its CGL insurer denied coverage, contending that these administrative communications under CERCLA were not a “suit” that triggered the duty to defend.  McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp. v. Phoenix Ins. Co., No. 13-20360 (June 11, 2014, unpublished).  The insured argued that the word “suit” was ambiguous and thus led to coverage; the insurer argued that a broad reading of “suit” was inconsistent with the word “claim” in the policy and the word “petition” in the usual phrasing of the Texas “eight corners” rule.  Finding the issue important and that “the parties each make reasonable arguments” about it, the Fifth Circuit certified this question to the Texas Supreme Court: “Whether the EPA’s PRP letters and/or unilateral administrative order, issued pursuant to CERCLA, constitute a ‘suit’ within the meaning of the CGL policies, triggering the duty to defend.”

TILA and the “no good deed goes unpunished” principle

The Leas joined a wholesale membership club, and made a $100 payment that day as part of the down payment.  Their contract did not include the starting date, interval, or date of the month when their installment payments would be due over the next 3 years for the $4,000 membership fee.  Lea v. Buy Direct LLC, No. 13-20281 (June 12, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit found that TILA applied because the Leas had entered a credit transaction, even if they had not bought any goods yet.  Then, recognizing that “[Defendant's] decision to leave the contract blanks unfilled was, at least in part, an accomodation to the Leas,” the Court nevertheless reversed the district court’s summary judgment for the club on the Leas’ TILA claim.  “Perhaps our reversal falls into the category of letting no good deed go unpunished.  Another perspective, though, is that TILA provides an unvarying set of rules that protect consumers who might otherwise voluntarily waive what they should not.”  Thus, although “[w]e do not perceive any harm here . . . harm is not a prerequisite for [TILA] relief.”

What to consider under Rule 12(b)(6)

Adding to an April opinion about the proper scope of review for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Fifth Circuit reminded that — In addition to the pleading itself — a court may consider “the documents attached to the complaint, the documents attached to the motion to dismiss which were referred to in the complaint and central to Plaintiffs’ claim, as well as taking judicial notice of matters of public record.”  Mitchem v. Fannie Mae, No. 13-10904 (June 9, 2014, unpublished).  Mitchem provides citations to published Fifth Circuit authority for each of these points.

Preservation Twofer

1.  Request a limiting instruction to help preserve evidentiary error:  “Moreover, even if there is merit to this distinction, [Defendant] never requested a limiting instruction during trial that would have enabled the jury to consider the evidence regarding insurance only for permissible purposes. Where ‘counsel never requested a more complete limiting instruction,’ the district court ‘cannot [be] fault[ed] . . . for failing to give one spontaneously.” Eagle Suspensions, Inc. v. Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, Inc. (June 9, 2014, unpublished).

2.  Renew earlier issues to help preserve charge error: “Essentially, [Defendant] now argues that the district court should have recalled [Defendant's] federal preemption argument from January and February 2013 when drafting the final jury instructions on March 20, 2013, even though [Defendant] itself never referenced this federal preemption argument in [Defendant's] objections to the proposed jury instructions. . . . [A]  party cannot merely rely on ‘‘the fact that the court is already aware of its position as an excuse for a failure to make a specific, formal objection at the charge conference.’  Rule 51 specifically requires parties to make their objections after the proposed jury charge has been drafted and distributed for comment.”  Id. (quoting Jimenez v. Wood County, 660 F.3d 841, 845-46 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc)).

Any port in a storm

Two boats collided.  The district court dismissed the resulting tort litigation in favor of Mexico on forum non conveniens grounds.  Cotemar S.A. de C.V. v. Hornbeck Offshore Services, No. 13-20230 (May 21, 2014, unpublished).  After that dismissal, the plaintiff seized the offending vessel in Louisiana (still there at the time of this writing).  The Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded for further analysis.  The first point dealt with a potential time bar in the Mexican system.  “If access to relief in the Mexican courts has become time-barred for reasons not of Appellants’ ‘own making,’ then the Mexican courts are no
longer an available alternative forum.”  (citing Veba-Chemie AG v. M/V Getafix, 711 F.2d 1243, 1248 n.10 (5th Cir. 1983)).   Second, the “supervening change of circumstances” arising from the vessel seizure may affect the balancing of private and public factors, because a transfer to Mexico would now likely result in duplicative proceedings.

600 Camp Goes Seriously High-Tech

At the recent University of Texas Conference on State and Federal Appeals, Fifth Circuit Clerk Lyle Cayce gave a  presentation about the Court that included a demonstration of a remarkable new technology.  After an attorney files a brief, the Court has software that quickly adds hyperlinks for all case and record citations (which is the reason for the recent local rule change to standardize the form for record references).  Those links are then available to the judges and staff on their computers and tablets.  Among other implications, this new technology means that pre-argument, review of the record is no longer limited to the parties’ record excerpts.

Texas garnishment: unchanged after 112 years

The district court held that under Texas law, a creditor may not garnish on a judgment, after entry of judgment but prior to the filing of an appeal.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, relying upon Waples-Platter Grocer Co. v. Texas & Pacific Railway Co., 68 S.W. 265 (Tex. 1902) [a case from the court of Chief Justice Reuben Gaines and the governorship of Joseph Sayers, a period "notable for the number of disasters that the state faced" such as the Galveston Hurricane and the invasion of the boll weevil].  JGM Holdings LLC v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., No. 13-10678 (May 19, 2014, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit rejected an argument that the later overruling of a holding in Waples about res judicata implicitly overruled this holding about garnishment.

Known unknowns

Placid Oil filed for bankruptcy and the claim bar date, published in the Wall Street Journal, passed in 1987. “By the early 1980s, Placid was aware, generally, of the hazards of asbestos exposure and, specifically, of Mr. Williams’s exposure in the course of
his employment. Prior to the Plan’s confirmation, no asbestos-related claims
had ever been filed against Placid, and the Williamses did not file any proof of
claim.”  Williams v. Placid Oil Co., No. 12-11120 (May 27, 2014).  Applying In re: Crystal Oil, 158 F.3d 291 (5th Cir. 1998), the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in the Williamses subsequent tort suit against Placid: “Although Placid knew of the dangers of asbestos and Mr. Williams’s exposure, such information suggesting only a risk  to the Williamses does not make the Williamses known creditors. Here, Placid had no specific knowledge of any actual injury to the Williamses prior to its bankruptcy plan’s confirmation.”  (Donald Rumsfeld’s 2002 discussion of the broader philosophical point is reviewed here.)

Trade secret grab bag

Aspen Technology Inc v. M3 Technology Inc. affirmed an $11 million judgment in a suit to enforce a noncompetition agreement.  Nos. 12-20388 & 13-20268 (May 29, 2014, unpublished).  Most of the grounds are fact-specific and substantially influenced by spoliation matters.  On a key copyright issue, the Court held: “Aspen’s registration of its derivative materials permits Aspen to bring a claim that M3 had infringed preexisting versions of its software,” aligning the Fifth Circuit with several other courts that have addressed the point.  The Court removed roughly $500,000 in attorneys fees arising in prior litigation from the award for tortious interference, noting that the opposing party in that litigation was also a party in this case, removing the fee claim from the “equitable exception” to the rule that a contract or statute must allow recovery of fees.

Expert should rule out other causes.

Ayala was killed by a propane heater explosion; his estate sued the manufacturer for damages.  Ayala v. Enerco Group, 13-30532 (May 28, 2014, unpublished).  Ayala’s wife testified that he was generally careful with the heater, although she did not observe him at the time of the accident.  An expert identified several possible defects with the heater, but: “[There was no evidence to suggest the Ayalas’ heater itself was defective. He did not perform a structural analysis of the Mr. Heater or destructive testing of an example unit. His conclusions supporting that there could be a leak were based solely on the nature of the item itself. McPhate also admitted that he could not rule out other potential sources of a propane leak other than a defect in the heater, such as a faulty propane bottle or a failure by Mr. Ayala to secure the valve properly on the heater.”  Accordingly, the estate’s claims failed.  A sanctions award against the plaintiff’s counsel under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 for filing a second lawsuit was reversed because that filing did not show a “persistent” pattern of vexatious litigation as required by that statute.

Fatal omission.

Two cases warn against skipping foundational steps (or “not showing your work”):

1.  The dismissal of Garcia v. Jenkins Babb, LLP was affirmed for failure to allege facts sufficient under Iqbal to show that an FDCPA claim arose from a consumer transaction; more specifically, “giv[ing] no indication what item was purchased or what service was paid for, much less explain how the item or service was intended for personal or family use.”  No. 13-10886 (May 29, 2014, unpublished).

2.  An award of sanctions was reversed and remanded in Arnold v. Fannie Mae when “the
district court abused its discretion by failing to adequately articulate the authority, the basis, and the reasoning for the sanctions” under Rule 11, inherent power, or 28 U.S.C. § 1927.

Blogging about logging . . .

The plaintiffs in Garziano v. Louisiana Log Home, Inc. made 88 percent of the installment payments for a build-it-yourself log cabin kit, and then defaulted.  No. 13-60291 (May 29, 2014, unpublished).  The log cabin company won summary judgment against several contract and tort claims by the purchasers.  Before final judgment was entered, however, it came to light that the company had resold several of the logs and actually was ahead on the transaction overall.  The district court denied a Rule 59(e) motion about this information and entered judgment.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that the district court should not have focused on plaintiffs’ erroneous characterization of the issue as “unjust enrichment,” and by doing so, “essentially granted LLH an impermissible double recovery—making the earnest money provision an unenforceable penalty.”  The Court remanded “with instructions for the district court to make findings on the amount of actual damages that LLH suffered and to amend the judgment to remit to the Garzianos any monies paid to LLH under the contract that were in excess of LLH’s actual damages.”  (The defendant offers several packages for log homes, all of which look elegant and cost-effective to this author.)

Still preempted.

The plaintiff in McKay v. Novartis, Inc. challenged the dismissal on preemption grounds, by an MDL court in Tennessee, of products liability claims about drugs made by Novartis. No. 13-50404 (May 27, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit rejected an argument about inadequate time to get certain medical records, noting that the plaintiffs “sought formal discovery of evidence that was available to them through informal means” (citing other cases from the Court on that general topic), and also observing that two years passed from the filing of suit until Novartis sought summary judgment.  The Court also affirmed the MDL court’s grant of summary judgment on Texas state law grounds about a breach of warranty claim, finding inadequate notice; as an Erie matter: “the majority of Texas intermediate courts have held that a buyer must notify both the intermediate seller and the manufacturer.”

Giant.

Burnett Ranches, Inc. operates the sprawling Four Sixes and Dixon Creek ranches in the Texas Panhandle; its history runs to Captain Samuel “Burk” Burnett’s land dealings in the 19th Century with Comanche chief Quanah Parker.  The IRS contended that its current owner (Captain Burnett’s great-granddaughter) was subject to accrual rather than cash accounting pursuant to a law against “farm syndicate” tax shelters.  Burnett Ranches v. United States, No. 13-10403 (May 22, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the ranch as to an exception to that law for active farm operators: “To accept the government’s overly expansive reading of § 464 by crediting its overly narrow reading of the Active Participation Exception would be to sanction ‘administrative legislation’ by an Article II executive agency.  This we decline to do, agreeing instead with the district court that the government’s efforts fail, grounded as they are in nothing more than the fact that legal title to Ms. Marion’s interest in Burnett Ranches stands in the name of her S corp.” Of general interest, the Court concluded that “interest” has a broad, nontechnical meaning so long as it does not have a “narrowing modifier.”

Tugging and barging into judicial estoppel

A barge accident caused a large oil spill in the Mississippi River.  In the first lawsuit about the incident, the district court placed liability solely on the tugboat operator, noting the (valid and enforceable) charter agreement between it and the barge owner.  In a later case, the barge owner contended that the agreements were void ab initio because the tugboat operator entered without intent to perform.  Gabarick v. Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., No. 13-30739 (May 21, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit agreed that the new position was barred by judicial estoppel. Key to its analysis was that while the barge owner’s positions were in the alternative in the first action, which would not create estoppel: “Once a court has accepted and relied upon one of a party’s several alternative positions, any argument inconsistent with that position may be subject to judicial estoppel in subsequent proceedings.”  The Court also concluded that the district court’s decision to stay the second case so the first could proceed did not compel an argument choice in that case that would make the application of judicial estoppel inequitable.

Pleading and the duty to defend — the anti-Twombly . . .

The Twombly line of cases emphasizes the importance of detail in pleading.  In the insurance context, however, too much detail can defeat coverage.  In State Farm v. Moseley, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment for an automobile insurer as to the duty to indemnify, concluding that a “volunteer driver” for a healthcare provider fell within the policy’s “for a charge” exclusion.  The driver received compensation that, while focused on reimbursement for expenses, could yield profit depending on the route taken and the number of passengers.  As to the duty to defend, however, the Court reversed, finding that the following pleading did not unambiguously trigger the exclusion, as it did not allege that “(1) [Plaintiff] gave [Defendant] any payment for transporting her; (2) [Defendant] was operating a taxi service; or (3) the specific amount of compensation [Defendant] received for transporting [Plaintiff]“:

“11.  Upon information and belief, Defendant Elizabeth W. Mosley, owned, operated, and controlled, or in the alternative, was doing business as Mosley’s Transportation. Upon information and belief, the Defendant, Elizabeth W. [Mosley], owned, operated, and controlled, or in the alter- native, was doing business as LogistiCare of MS. Further, upon infor- mation and belief, the Defendant, Elizabeth W. Mosley . . . is in the business of transporting patients to and from their medical treatment facilities.

12. The Defendant, LogistiCare Solutions, LLC, in the regular course of business, operates and maintains a non-emergency medical transportation services business . . . .

13. That on or about March 19, 2010, the Deceased, Pearlie Graham, was being transported by the Defendant, Elizabeth W. Mosley, and riding as a guest passenger in a vehicle being driven and operated by the Defendant, Elizabeth W. Mosley, Individually and d/b/a Mosley’s Transportation and/or d/b/a LogistiCare of MS, or in the alternative, [] was acting in furtherance of and within the course and scope of her employment with Defendant, LogistiCare Solutions, LLC . . . . “

More drywall, more contacts, more jurisdiction.

“Picking up where we left off in Germano v. Taishan Gypsum Company, Ltd., 742 F.3d 576 (5th Cir. 2014),” the Fifth Circuit affirmed personal jurisdiction in three other suits involving default judgments arising from the “Chinese Drywall” MDL litigation.  In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litig., No. 12-31213 (May 20, 2014).  Again, the Court found jurisdiction for the same basic reasons related to the “stream of commerce.” Applying Florida and also Louisiana law, this opinion also features a detailed discussion of when an agency relationship can give rise to jurisdiction, applying the recent Supreme Court case of Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746 (2014).

Aristotle on BP’s Deepwater Horizon settlement: “[T]he structure of the best tragedy should not be simple but complex . . . “

The Fifth Circuit has now resolved the challenges to BP’s Deepwater Horizon settlement, as follows:

1.  In October 2013, in three separate opinions, First Panel remanded for more fact findings as to accounting issues about the settlement.

2.  In January 2014, in a 2-1 decision, Second Panel affirmed the settlement over challenges based on Rule 23 and related standing issues.

3.  In March 2014, satisfied with the results of the remand, First Panel affirmed the mechanics of the settlement in a 2-1 decision.

4.  On May 19, 2014:

A.    First Panel denies panel rehearing, concluding in a 2-1 opinion: “In settling this lawsuit, the parties agreed on a substitute for direct proof of causation by a preponderance of the evidence.  By settling this lawsuit and agreeing to the evidentiary framework for submitting claims, the claimants did not abandon their allegations of Article III causation.”

B.  Second Panel also denies panel rehearing, also in a 2-1 opinion, noting its “complete agreement” with the denial of panel rehearing by First Panel.

C.  The full court denied en banc rehearing as to First Panel and also as to Second Panel, both over dissents that stressed Article III issues.

That’s all folks!

Generic drug claims preempted

Eckhardt v. Qualitest Pharmaceuticals reviewed tort claims under Texas law against generic drug manufacturers.  No. 13-40151 (May 15, 2014).   The Fifth Circuit found that labeling claims were preempted under PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 131 S. Ct. 2567 (2011), and products liability claims were preempted under Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, 133 S.Ct. 2466 (2013).  Misrepresentation claims against brand-name drug manufacturers were rejected under state law for lack of a duty from them to generic-drug users. Law360 provides some further discussion.

Costa Confirmed

The full Senate confirmed Judge Gregg Costa’s appointment to the Fifth Circuit yesterday. While great news for the Court and bar, it bears mention that the seat was open for 837 days, and two vacancies still remain on the Fifth Circuit.  Just as it is difficult to balance the sound of an orchestra missing musicians, it is hard to balance the powers of a government missing key officials.

Posttrial, focus with the right lens

In Songcharoen v. Plastic & Hand Surgery Associates, the district court denied cross-motions for summary judgment about the meaning of a contract and had a trial as to the terms it believed to be ambiguous.  No. 13-60315 (April 2, 2014, unpublished).  Even though both matters present a common issue of law, because “the ‘evidence’ presented at pretrial may well be different from the evidence presented at trial,” the Court reviewed the issue through review of the denial for judgment as a matter of law.  The Court reminded: “because Rule 50 motions for judgment as a matter of law are not required following a bench trial, reviewing a district court’s denial of summary judgment is appropriate following a bench trial.”  (citing Black v. J.I. Case Co., 22 F.3d 568, 570 (5th Cir. 1994), and Becker v. Tidewater, Inc., 586 F.3d 358, 365-66 n.4 (5th Cir. 2009)).

Ouch.

The defendant in Advanced Nano Coatings, Inc. v. Hanafin “entered into an employment agreement with [plaintiff] in which [defendant] agreed to devote 100% of his professional time and effort to [plaintiff] or its subsidiary . . . .”  No. 13-20109 (Feb. 19, 2014, unpublished).  “The district court . . . found that Hanafin breached his fiduciary obligations . . . a finding Hanafin does not dispute on appeal.”  Quoting ERI Consulting Engineers v. Swinnea, 318 S.W.3d 867, 872 (Tex. 2010), the Fifth Circuit noted that under Texas law, “if the fiduciary . . . acquires any interest adverse to his principal, without a full disclosure, it is a betrayal of his trust and a breach of confidence, and he must account to his principal for all he has received.” The Court then held: “Accordingly, [defendant's] breach of fiduciary duties obligates him to repay everything he gained by virtue of his position, including payments for his salary and any expenses he may have incurred.”

Parties here, parties there. Jurisdiction? Know not where.

Chesapeake sued two defendants to recover a large overpayment.  Harleton Oil & Gas intervened to claim a share of that payment.  Chesapeake Louisiana L.P. v. Buffco Prod., Inc., No. 13-40458 (May 7, 2014, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit ruled: (1) Harleton should have been aligned as a plaintiff rather than a defendant, since it “intervened to seek affirmative relief, not to protect its interests . . . .”; (2) that change destroyed diversity and mooted a summary judgment granted by the district court; (3) the case should then be remanded for the district court to consider whether Harleton is indispensable and its joinder requires dismissal of the entire action; but (4) the district court had jurisdiction over the defendants’ counterclaims against Chesapeake, which involved different wells than the one relevant to Harleton.  “When an independent basis for jurisdiction exists with respect to a counterclaim, a federal court may adjudicate the claim even if the original claim was dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.”

Of Terrebonne Bay, LA and Marshall, TX

The short opinion in Navigators Ins. Co. v. Moncla Marine Operations LLC rejected the appeal of a decision to continue a stay of court proceedings, involving the proceeds from the sale of a barge, in favor of arbitration.  No. 13-30975 (May 8, 2014, unpublished).  The Court reminded: (1) a stay is not an appealable final order (citing Apache Bohai Corp. v. Texaco China, B.V., 330 F.3d 307 (5th Cir. 2003)); (2) absent a clear identification of an “important issue . . . completely separate from the merits,” the collateral order doctrine does not allow appeal either; and (3) neither does mandamus, distinguishing a D.C. Circuit case involving a court’s statutory authority over enforcement of a foreign arbitral award.  In a footnote, the Court noted a citation by the movant to In re Radmax, 720 F.3d 285 (5th Cir. 2013), and made the understated observation: “The factors that must be demonstrated to obtain mandamus relief in a venue transfer case are not the same as the factors in an arbitration case.”

Is payment an affirmative defense for a guarantor?

In the earlier case of Levy Gardens Partners v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., the Fifth Circuit concluded that a pleading about the extent of coverage was “fundamental to the complaint” and “did not raise a new matter outside of the complaint”; accordingly, it did not implicate the rules about the pleading of affirmative defenses.  706 F.3d 622, 633 (5th Cir. 2013).  In contrast, in LSRef2 Baron LLC v. Tauch, the Court held that a guarantor’s defense of payment by the primary obligor was an affirmative defense.  After a review of Louisiana law on the topics of offset and setoff, which characterizes those matters as defenses, the Court concluded that “[Plaintiff] simply had to allege in its complaint that there was an event of default, which is defined in the Loan Agreement, not in the Guaranty.”  The Court also agreed that the issue had not been raised in a “pragmatically sufficient time,” as “all of the critical pretrial deadlines had passed or were about to expire.”

No reinstatement of voluntarily-dismissed appeal

Colbert v. Brennan arises from the difficult litigation involving the Brennan family, the noted New Orleans restaurateurs.  No. 13-30069 (May 9, 2014, unpublished).  Ted Brennan filed an unopposed motion to dismiss an appeal, pursuant to a settlement agreement [the finality of the agreement is not clear from the opinion].  (Pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 42(b), “an appeal may be dismissed on an appellant’s unopposed motion if the parties agree about costs.”)  Two months later, he sought to reinstate the appeal.  Citing Williams v. United States, 553 F.2d 420 (5th Cir. 1977), the Fifth Circuit held that the voluntary dismissal “voided” the notice of appeal, noting that “[h]e failed to file a new notice of appeal within the time limits required by Ruel 4(a) or to seek relief in the district court as provided by Rule 4(a).”  Citing Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007), the Court declined to apply any “equitable exception” to the rule that a notice of appeal is jurisdictional.  The Court also held it was not bound, on this jurisdictional question, by a previous single-judge ruling that reinstated the appeal.

Bankruptcy disclosure of debtors’ potential (although losing) FCA claim

In United States ex rel Spicer v. Navistar Defense, LLC, the Fifth Circuit found that bankruptcy debtors failed to make adequate disclosure of a potential False Claims Act claim as an estate asset.  No. 12-10858 (May 5, 2014).  Accordingly, the trustee was the real party in interest and was able to take over the administration of the claim, even though he did not learn of it until after the bankruptcy closed and long after suit was filed on the claim.  The review of the debtors’ disclosure is of broad general interest.  As to the merits, the Court affirmed dismissal, reminding that “a false certification of compliance, without more, does not give rise to a false claim for payment unless payment is conditioned on compliance.”

How to protect the privilege with in-house counsel

Legal advice or business discussion?  This question is the key issue in most privilege disputes about in-house counsel.  The Fifth Circuit addressed that question and offers practical guidance for in-house counsel in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Hill, No. 13-30830 (May 6, 2014).

ExxonMobil intervened in tort litigation to contend that the attorney-client privilege protected a short 1988 memo by an in-house lawyer. The lawyer created the memo during negotiations between Exxon Mobil and ITCO, a company that would store oil production equipment for it.  The memo recommended that Exxon Mobil, in response to an information request by ITCO, make a limited disclosure from a report it had about radioactivity associated with the equipment. As the Fifth Circuit summarized: “Stein [the lawyer] suggested that Guidry [the client] disclose only Table IV [of the report], because it contained the only data that ITCO specifically had requested, and that Guidry remove the caption ‘Table IV’ so as not to flag the existence of other tables.”   (The memo identifies the sender as “Counsel,” but does not otherwise say that the contents are privileged.)

Plaintiffs contended that the effect of this advice was to conceal information about dangerous levels of radiation.  The district court opinion [page 61 of the attached] rejected ExxonMobil’s position about privilege, reasoning that it had not shown that the “primary or predominant” purpose for consultation with the lawyer was for legal advice, “particularly in light of the fact that the [memo] itself does not contain any reference to a legal justification for Stein’s advice, or legal concerns prompting Guidry to seek such advice. . . . [I]t appears from the face of the document that the primary purpose of Stein’s advice to Guidry was to help secure more favorable contract terms . . . .”

The Fifth Circuit reversed.  Stating that its conclusion would be the same under de novo or clear error review, the Court held: “The manifest purpose of the draft [attached to the memo] was to deal with what would be the obvious reason Exxon Mobil would seek its lawyer’s advice in the first place, namely to deal with any legal liability that may stem from under-disclosure of data, hedged against any liability that may occur from any implied warranties during complex negotiations.”

This opinion offers practical guidance for maintaining privilege as to in-house counsel. First, the memo is focused.  Written in 1988, before long email chains became common, it presents a short exchange on a specific topic.  Second, it has a specific audience — it is written to a specific person rather than a large group — or a “reply all.”  Finally, it is clear. The memo refers directly to legal concepts such as warranty liability and property interests.  The memo’s focus, audience, and clarity appear to have been critical for the Court’s analysis and the preservation of Exxon Mobil’s privilege with its in-house counsel.

“Strikeout” in antitrust suit against NCAA bat standards

The plaintiff in Marucci Sports LLC v. NCAA alleged that the “Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution Standard” — a testing protocol “to ensure that aluminum and composite bats perform like wood bats” — was in fact an anticompetitive device calculated to protect the NCAA’s relationship with large bat manufacturers.  No. 13-30568 (May 6, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal, finding: (1) inadequate pleading of a conspiracy under Twombly; (2) inadequate pleading of an injury to “competition among non-wood baseball bat manufacturers” as opposed to its own; and (3) that the standard could fairly be called a procompetitive “rule and condition” of athletic competition.  Denial of leave to amend was also affirmed.

Hangover from Wal-Mart v. Dukes

Odle v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. presents an interesting, if unlikely to recur, issue about the tolling of limitations during appellate review of class certification.  No. 13-10037 (April 1, 2014).  The question was whether one of the plaintiffs in the original Wal-Mart v. Dukes class action was barred by limitations, when the Ninth Circuit’s en banc ruling had remanded the “former employee” claims (which included hers) for further consideration under a different part of Rule 23 that what the district court used.   The Fifth Circuit concluded that, under the considerations detailed by American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974) and later Circuit cases applying it, the claim was not time-barred: “To rule otherwise would frustrate American Pipe‘s careful balancing of the competing goals of class action litigation on the one hand and statutes of limitation on the other, by requiring former class members to file duplicative, needless individual lawsuits before the court could resolve the class certification issue definitively.”

How much to pay-per-view

A restaurant showed the pay-per-view broadcast of a boxing championship without the approval of the holder of the licensing rights.  J&J Sports Productions, Inc. v. Mandell Family Ventures, LLC, No. 13-10485 (May 2, 2014).  The licensor sued the restaurant under the Federal Communication Act, and the district court granted summary judgment to the licensor for $350 in statutory damages and $26,730.30 in attorneys fees.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, reviewing two issues.  First, as to the licensor’s claim under section 553 of the Act, the Court found a fact issue as to whether the restaurant had been “specifically authorized . . . by a cable operator” to make the showing, which would bring the restaurant within a statutory safe harbor.  The Court reviewed affidavit testimony of the cable company that at least showed “the Defendants did not steal, intercept, or obtain the broadcast under false pretenses.”  Second, the Court rejected a claim based on section 605 of the Act, finding it limited to radio communications only (thereby siding with the Third Circuit in a split with the Seventh about the applicability of that section to cable television).

 

Prudential standing previewed . . .

The Fifth Circuit released a slightly revised opinion in Excel Willowbrook LLC v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, No. 12-20367 (revised April 24, 2014), a dispute about the FDIC’s rights upon assigning the assets of a failed bank.  Of particular interest is the new footnote 34, which observes: “[T]he continued vitality of prudential ‘standing’ is now uncertain in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377 (2014).  See id. at 1388 (‘[A] court . . . cannot limit a cause of action . . . merely because “prudence” dictates.’).”

Fees about fees

At issue in Asarco v. Baker Botts. L.L.P. was a fee enhancement associated with an exceptional recovery in fraudulent transfer litigation for a bankruptcy estate.  No. 12-40997 (April 30, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit credited the bankruptcy court’s detailed findings about the quality of the law firms’ work and the “rare and extraordinary” result.  In so doing, the Court reminded that “[b]ecause this court, like the Supreme Court, has not held that reasonable attorneys’ fees in federal court have been ‘nationalized,’ the bankruptcy court’s charts comparing general hourly rates of out-of-state firms and rates charged in cases pending in other circuits are not relevant.”  The Court rejected the firms’ request for compensation from the estate for defending their fee applications, reasoning that the Code had sufficient protections against vexatious litigation, and declining to further expand the American Rule about defendants’ fees.

Certification Twofer

1.  The Fifth Circuit vacated its panel opinion in Sawyer v. duPont to certify two questions to the Texas Supreme Court — paraphrased slightly, they were (1) whether an at-will employee can sue for fraud for loss of employment, and (2) whether a 60-day “cancellation-upon-notice” collective bargaining agreement would change a “no” answer to (1).  The Texas Supreme Court has now answered those questions: “no” as to the basic question about a fraud claim arising from at-will employment, and “in the situation presented, no” to the second question about the effect of the CBA.  “The Employees argue that it would contravene public policy to allow an employer to benefit from its duplicity, but public policy is not better served by allowing contracting parties to circumvent their agreement.”  No. 12-0626 (Tex. April 25, 2014).  (The Fifth Circuit formally adopted that reasoning and affirmed on June 11, 2014).

2.  Similarly, the Court vacated its panel opinion in Ewing Construction v. Amerisure Insurance Corp. to certify the question whether a CGL policy’s “Contractual Liability Exclusion” would reach a contract in which a contractor commits to work in a “good and workmanlike manner.”  The Texas Supreme Court answered “no”: “[A] general contractor who agrees to perform its construction work in a good and workmanlike manner, without more, does not enlarge its duty to exercise ordinary care in fulfilling its contract, thus it does not ‘assume liability’ for damages arising out its defective work so as to trigger the Contractual Liability Exclusion.”  No. 12-0661 (Tex. Jan. 17, 2014).  The opinion has been called a “significant reassurance” to policyholders in the construction business.

How much federal question allows removal

In the recent case of French v. EMC Mortgage Corp., No. 13-50417 (April 29, 2014, unpublished), these allegations were deemed to “reference[] the FDCPA by way of asserting a cause of action under this federal statute,” and thus allowing removal:

“V.  ILLEGAL MORTGAGE SERVICING AND DEBT COLLECTION PRACTICES.

. . .

Specifically in collection calls and notices, monthly statements, payoff statements, foreclosure notices, and otherwise, EMC routinely makes misrepresentations to borrowers about their loans, including: [6 topics]

. . .

Plaintiffs submit that Defendant EMC’s conduct in this matter is in direct violation of the Texas Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the above referenced stipulated injunction.”

This case rested on Howery v. Allstate Ins. Co., 243 F.3d 912 (5th Cir. 2001), in which the following allegations did not create federal question jurisdiction, because “[f]rom its context, it appears that Howery’s mention of federal law merely served to describe types of conduct that violated the DTPA, not to allege a separate cause of action under the FCRA”:

The acts, omissions, and other wrongful conduct of Allstate complained of in this petition constituted unconscionable conduct or unconscionable course of conduct, and false, misleading, or deceptive acts or practices. As such, Allstate violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, Sections 17.46, et seq., and the Texas Insurance Code, including articles 21.21, 21.21-1, 21.55, and the rules and regulations promulgated thereunder, specifically including 28 TAC Section 21.3, et seq. and 21.203.

Allstate’s destruction of [Howery's] file … constituted a further violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, for which plaintiff sues for recovery. Allstate also engaged in conduct in violation of the Federal Trade Commission rules, regulations, and statutes by obtaining Plaintiff’s credit report in a prohibited manner, a further violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act….

While these holdings are consistent, the line between them is only a few words in a lengthy pleading.  They underscore the importance of detail in considering whether removal is appropriate.

Meanwhile, at 500 Poydras . . .

The dispute presented by the petition for a writ of mandamus in In re Times-Picayune, LLC was a criminal defendant’s ability to have identifying information about online commentators on the defendant’s case produced for in camera review; the defendant contending that the commentators were federal prosecutors.  No. 14-30298 (April 8, 2014, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit denied the petition, reasoning: “Here, we are not persuaded that the district court’s (1) balancing of the speech rights of anonymous commenters against the due process interests of [defendant] and (2) ordering the Times-Picayune to turn over information for in camera review was clearly and indisputably erroneous. As an initial matter, there is little case law illuminating how the competing interests in situations comparable to this one should be balanced. . . . Even in the absence of precedent, however, we cannot say that the district court here clearly reached the wrong decision.”   [The short opinion is worth comparing to the concurrence in All Plaintiffs v. Transocean Offshore from 2013, about the availability of mandamus relief for discovery matters.]  And subsequently, the district court concluded that the commentator at issue was not a prosecutor.

Loan mod negotiation is not debt collection

The plaintiffs in Singha v. BAC Home Loans Servicing LP alleged a number of foreclosure-related claims, most of which were resolved by recent Fifth Circuit precedent.  Among them was a claim for unfair debt collection based on the common situation of failed negotiations about a loan modification.  As to that issue, the Court observed: “We do not announce a rule that modification discussions may never be debt collection activities. We do conclude, though, that the [Plaintiffs'] particular factual allegations here – allegations of what occurred during the course of what they describe as more than fifty phone calls and other contacts during a protracted loan modification process – are not communications in connection with collection of a debt.” (emphasis in original).  No. 13-40061 (April 17, 2014, unpublished).

 

Be careful what you plead for.

The plaintiff in Jonibach Management Trust v. Wartburg Enterprises sued the defendant for breach of an oral contract; specifically, an agreement to exclusively market the plaintiff’s products in the US.  No. 13-20308 (April 24, 2014).  The defendant made three counterclaims, two of which were dismissed because they relied on an additional oral modification to the contract and could not satisfy the Statute of Frauds.  The third survived before the Fifth Circuit, however, as it was essentially the mirror image of the plaintiff’s claim — contending that the plaintiff wrongfully supplied goods to other distributors.  Among other reasons for that conclusion, the Court noted that the plaintiff’s “pleadings and testimony regarding the initial contract . . . constitute judicial admissions,” and reviewed the elements of such an admission.

Arbitrating arbitrability

In Aviles v. Russell Stover Candies, the Fifth Circuit again engaged the issue of whether the unilateral power to change an arbitration clause makes it illusory and unenforceable. No. 12-11227 (April 4, 2014, unpublished).  This time, however, the Court observed that the agreement subjected to arbitration “any and all claims challenging the validity or enforceability of the [Waiver and Arbitration] Agreement.”   Accordingly, the Court affirmed the dismissal of her case in favor of arbitration, but vacated the magistrate judge’s resolution of the enforceability issue because it “should have declined to decide either of those two issues.”

Profits Proffer.

The plaintiff in Sanders v. Flanders alleged legal malpractice arising from the handling of patent applications.  The Fifth Circuit did not engage the question whether he had shown lost profits with reasonable certainty, noting: “[C]ounsel admitted during oral argument that [Plaintiff] did not make any offer of proof concerning the lost-profit evidence that he would have otherwise presented but for the district court’s hearsay ruling.”  No. 13-50235 (April 22, 2014, unpublished).

A document too far

In reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the district court “must limit itself to the contents of the pleadings, attachments thereto,” and “may also consider documents attached to either a motion to dismiss or an opposition to that motion when the documents are referred to in the pleadings and are central to a plaintiff’s claims.”  Brand Coupon Network LLC v. Catalina Marketing Corp., No. 13-30756 (April 8, 2014).  Here, without converting the Rule 12 motion into a summary judgment motion, the district court considered an affidavit “signed . . . a day before [plaintiff] filed its opposition to Defendants’ motion to dismiss, and weeks after the filing of the petition.”  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit reversed a dismissal under Rule 12 on limitations grounds.

Compare Sigaran v. U.S. Bank, N.A., No. 13–20367 (April 30, 2014, unpublished): “The district court, however, did not rely on those documents in making its ruling. The additional documents were relevant to the merits of the Sigarans’ claims under the Texas Constitution, but the district court did not reach the merits of those claims and instead dismissed them as barred under the statute of limitations. The mere presence of those documents in the record, absent any indication that the district court relied on them, does not convert the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment.”

Nonmagical gravel pit

At issue in Hess Management Firm, LLC v. Bankston were the damages arising from the termination of a contract about the operation of a gravel pit (sadly, not a magical gravel pit of rule-against-perpetuities lore).  No. 12-31016 (April 18, 2014).  The dispute was whether damages were capped at 180 days — the contract term for adequate notice of closure — or whether the closure of the pit was post-breach activity that is not relevant to damage calculation.  The Fifth Circuit sided with the bankruptcy court and reversed the district court’s enlargement of the damages, concluding: “A contrary result would defeat the maxim of placing a non-breaching party in the same position they would have been had breach not occurred, and award [plaintiff] more than their expectation interest.”

A series of unfortunate events

1.  Defendants’ Rule 59 motion was filed a day late, “therefore the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion.”

2.  Post-verdict, the defendant did not renew, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b), an earlier Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) motion that challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for the plaintiff’s mental anguish claims.  The Court “decline[d] to review” the issue, noting that the Fifth Circuit’s cases “are not entirely uniform” as to whether this oversight was a waiver or allows review under a plain error standard.

3.  The Court found no plain error from the plaintiff’s closing argument, including the lawyer’s “odd tactic of handing his business card to the jury during argument, especially in light of the court’s curative instructions and [defendant's] failure to move for a mistrial.” McLendon v. Big Lots Stores No. 13-20338 (April 14, 2014, unpublished).

 

CAFA jurisdiction not established in mass tort case

Class actions were filed about the effects of an explosion at a chemical plant.  The Fifth Circuit agreed that CAFA jurisdiction had not been established.  Citing Berniard v. Dow Chem. Co., 481 F. App’x 859 (5th Cir. 2010), the Court held: “[D]efendants ‘overstate the reach of the plaintiffs’ petitions by improperly equating the geographic areas in which potential plaintiffs might reside with the population of the plaintiff class itself.  Further, the comparisons that the Defendants-Appellants make to damage recovery in similar cases is too attenuated to satisfy their burden.’”  Perritt v. Westlake Vinyls Company, L.P., No. 14-30145 (April 14, 2014, unpublished).  The Court also noted: “Bald exposure extrapolations are insufficient to establish the likely number of persons affected by the release or, for those affected, the severity of their harm.”

Three Steps to Arbitration

The parties’ letter agreement incorporated “AIA Document B51″ with respect to “the services provided . . . under this Agreement.”  That document states that all claims shall be adopted under the AAA’s Construction Industry Arbitration Rules. Those Rules state that “the arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction.”  The Fifth Circuit found the agreement’s incorporation of the other documents to be effective, and accordingly the arbitrator had jurisdiction to determine arbitrability — including, whether the parties’ dispute involved “services.”  RW Development, LLC v. Cunningham Group Architecture, P.A., 13-60010 (April 11, 2014, unpublished).

What does the discovery rule require?

Congress amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act to have a limitations period of “2 years after the date of discovery by the plaintiff of the violation that is the basis for such liability.”   The plaintiff in Mack v. Equable Ascent Financial, LLC argued that this amendment meant that “he could not have ‘discovered’ the violation until he had researched the statute.”  No. 13-40128 (April 11, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that the amendment was made to equalize the treatment of different types of claims, and that the plaintiff’s reading “would indefinitely extend the limitations period.”

Arbitration, the Best Medicine

Several operators of drug stores sued pharmacy chains for misappropriating confidential information.  The defendants successfully compelled arbitration and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  Crawford Professional Drugs v. CVS Caremark Corp., No. 12-60922 (April 4, 2014).  Specifically (applying Arizona law), the Court found that the plaintiffs’ allegations sufficiently invoked the terms of a contract that contained an arbitration agreement, allowing arbitration to be compelled against nonsignatories on an equitable estoppel theory.  The Court went on to reject the plaintiffs’ argument that the contract, and its arbitration clause, were procedurally unconscionable contracts of adhesion.  It also found insufficient evidence to support their argument that the clause imposed substantively unconscionable litigation costs.

How to Have Your Case Removed

The unfortunate plaintiff in Robinson v. Wal-Mart Stores LLC argued that her state court petition referenced a $23,500 medical bill, which was in fact only $235. No. 12-41411 (April 9, 2014, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of her motion to remand, reminding: “If at the time of removal it is facially apparent from the state-court petition that he amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, a plaintiff’s subsequent request to amend her petition to ‘clarify’ the amount in controversy cannot divest jurisdiction.”  The Court also observed: “In addition, prior to removal, Wal-Mart proposed to Robinson that she stipulate to no more than $75,000 in damages in exchange for not removing the case to federal court,” and that the plaintiff had declined to make that stipulation.

 

Finally, a remand.

In Haase v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s RESPA claim, declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims, and remanded them to state court.  No. 12-20806 (April 9, 2014).  Appellees argued that “because this judgment remanded the remaining state claims to the state court without addressing their respective merits, it is not a final disposition of all claims in the case, and therefore not appealable under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.”  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, concluding that “as a practical matter, remands end federal litigation and leave the district court with nothing else to do.”  (applying Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706 (1996)).

 

Partial Rule 68 offer does not moot case

Payne sued Progressive Financial for violations of fair debt collection statutes, seeking statutory damages, actual damages, attorneys fees, and costs.  Payne v. Progressive Financial Services, No. 13-10381 (April 7, 2014).  Progressive made a Rule 68 offer of $1,001 in damages and fees to the date of the offer, to which Payne did not respond.  The district court reasoned that Payne had not pleaded a basis to recover actual damages, and that the unaccepted offer mooted her claim for statutory damages because it exceeded the amount she could recover.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that the district court’s analysis of the actual damages claim conflated jurisdiction with resolution of the merits; accordingly, Progressive’s offer was incomplete because it did not address actual damages.  A footnote reminds that a complete Rule 68 offer can moot a case, and that the Court did not reach the argument that the offer was incomplete because it did not include post-offer fees and costs.

All the rest have thirty-one . . .

The stark facts of Bierwith v. Countrywide Bank, FSB are: “[A[ppellant's] notice of appeal was filed on August 16, 2013, thirty-one days after the district court’s entry of final judgment on July 16, 2013.  Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 provides that a notice of appeal ‘must be filed with the district clerk within 30 days after entry of the judgment or order appealed from.’  As the Supreme Court has made clear, a party’s failure to take an appeal within the prescribed time precludes our jurisdiction.   Accordingly, [Appellants'] appeal is DISMISSED.”  No. 13-50755 (April 3, 2014, unpublished) (footnotes omitted).

CAFA jurisdiction continues after removal

The State of Louisiana sued several insurers, alleging it was the beneficiary of assignments made by the insured in return for help rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.  The insurers removed to federal court under CAFA.  After extensive proceedings, the district courts ultimately severed the actions by individual policy and ordered remand to state court.  State of Louisiana v. American National Property & Casualty Co., No. 14-30071 (March 26, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit reversed because “at the time of removal, these claims clearly possessed original federal jurisdiction as an integrated part of the CAFA class action.”  Noting language in Honeywell International v. Phillips Petroleum that “a severed action must have an independent jurisdictional basis,” 415 F.3d 429, 431 (5th Cir. 2005), the Court limited that language as “appl[ying] only to severed claims that are based on supplemental jurisdiction.”

Top Five 5th Circuit Cases – 1st Quarter 2014

  1. How close does Twombly come to Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b)?  Consider Merchants & Farmers Bank v. Coxwell, affirming the dismissal of a pleading: “The complaint did not specify what court issued the order, when it was issued, or to whom it was directed; [and] the complaint did not describe what the order required . . . .”  No. 13-60368 (5th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014, unpublished).
  2. Credibility questions create fact issues.  See Vaughan v. Carlock Nissan of Tupelo, No. 12-60568 (5th Cir. Feb. 4, 2014, unpublished) (reversing a summary judgment about a manager’s “bad faith,” noting credibility questions about his claimed justifications for a firing, ambiguity in other statements, and the timing of the termination).
  3. Forum non conveniens factors – the “availability of witnesses” factor is reviewed by Royal Ten Cate USA, Inc. v. TT Investors, Ltd.  No. 13-50106 (5th Cir. March 25, 2014, unpublished), and Indusoft, Inc. v. Taccolini, No. 13-50042 (March 19, 2014, unpublished).
  4. Conflicting documents about arbitration are harmonized in Lizalde v. Vista Quality Markets, ___ F.3d ___ (5th Cir. March 25, 2014) (enforcing an arbitration agreement despite a benefit plan with a broad termination right, noting that both agreements’ termination provisions “clearly demarcate their respective applications”).
  5. Settlement efforts as prerequisite for arbitration.  This language — “the parties agree to negotiate in good faith toward resolution of the issues, and to escalate the dispute to senior management personnel in the event that the dispute cannot be resolved at the operational level” — does not create a requirement of negotiation by senior management before arbitration is invoked.  21st Century Financial Services v. Manchester Financial, ___ F.3d ____ (5th Cir. March 31, 2014).

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How much negotiation is required before arbitration?

This language — “the parties agree to negotiate in good faith toward resolution of the issues, and to escalate the dispute to senior management personnel in the event that the dispute cannot be resolved at the operational level” — does not create (1) a requirement of negotiation by senior management before arbitration is invoked, or (2) a condition that any senior management negotiation fail before arbitratation is invoked.  It simply requires negotiation at the operational level.  21st Century Financial Services v. Manchester Financial, No. 13-50389 (March 31, 2014).

“Availability of witness” factor key to forum non conveniens analysis

The district court granted a dismissal in favor of New Zealand, on forum non conveniens grounds, in Royal Ten Cate USA, inc. v. TT Investors, Ltd.  No. 13-50106 (March 25, 2014, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit remanded for further consideration of what it saw as a key private-interest factor — “whether two key witnesses who reside in Texas would be amenable to process in New Zealand.”   The witnesses in question were former party employees living in Texas, and the parties disputed whether those individuals’ employment contracts obligated them to cooperate with litigation after their employment.  Their importance was heightened because they were particularly significant to one side, while the other side did not appear to have comparable problems with its likely witnesses.  The Court did not express an opinion about the proper result on remand, and noted that “[t]he decision regarding whether or not to take additional evidence is one that we leave to the sound discretion of the district court.”

Finality and bankruptcy appeals

A law firm appealed the disposition of its fee application.  The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court in part, vacated in part, and remanded for the firm to make another fee request that provided more necessary information.  Okin Adams & Kilmer v. Hill, No. 13-20035 (March 24, 2014).  The firm appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which concluded it had no appellate jurisdiction because the order was not final: “Given that the bankruptcy court must perform additional fact-finding and exercise discretion when determining an appropriate attorney’s fee award, the district court’s order requires the bankruptcy court to perform judicial functions upon remand.”  A detailed dissent concluded that, while the district court’s order required “more than a mechanical entry of judgment,” “it also involves only mechanical and computational tasks that are ‘unlikely to affect the issue that the disappointed party wants to raise on appeal.’”  Accordingly, it warned that “refusing to hear this appeal undermines the long-recognized, salutary purpose of allowing appeals in discrete issues well before a final order in bankruptcy.”

Arbitration clause not illusory

In Lizalde v. Vista Quality Markets, the Fifth Circuit revisited the recurring issue of whether an arbitration agreement becomes illusory because of an employer’s right to amend the terms of employment.  No. 13-50015 (March 25, 2014).The parties’ Arbitration Agreement gave the employer the power to terminate that agreement after following several procedural prerequisites, which made that agreement non-illusory.  In contrast, the parties’ Benefit Plan had a “completely unrestrained” termination power.  And, the Arbitration Agreement acknowledged: “this Agreement is presented in connection with the Company’s [Benefit Plan].  Payments made under the [Benefit Plan] also constitute consideration for this Agreement.”  The district court found the arbitration agreement illusory, based on that connection.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, nothing that both agreements’ termination provisions were limited to “this Agreement” and “this Plan” respectively and thus “clearly demarcate their respective applications.”

Certification v. the “rule of orderliness” . . .

The plaintiffs in Moran v. Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC ran afoul of the holding in Priester v. JP Morgan Chase, 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013), that “liens that are contrary to the requirements of § 50(a) [of the Texas Constitution] are voidable rather than void from the start.”  No. 13-20242 (March 24, 2014, unpublished).  They sought certification to the Texas Supreme Court to correct what they contended was an erroneous holding in Priester.  The Fifth Circuit gave two valuable general reminders in this area. First: “It is a well-settled Fifth Circuit rule of orderliness that one panel of our court may not overturn another panel’s decision, absent an intervening change in the law, such as by a  statutory amendment, or the Supreme Court, or our en banc court.”  Second, “While the Texas Constitution allows this court to certify questions to the Texas Supreme Court, certification is not a proper avenue to change our binding precedent.”

Blame it on Rio.

Indusoft sued in the Southern District of Texas alleging theft of intellectual property.  Two defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds of forum non conveniens (under Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501 (1947), not 1404(a)).  The Court affirmed dismissal, finding no error in (1) presuming that Brazil was an adequate alternate forum, (2) concluding that certain electronic data was more likely to be preserved in Brazil, (3) discounting the importance of one witness for whom compulsory process would not be available in Brazil, and (4) analyzing the interplay between the Texas case and related litigation in Brazil. Indusoft, Inc. v. Taccolini, No. 13-50042 (March 19, 2014, unpublished). The Court reversed dismissal of the other defendants’ counterclaims, finding that it was erroneous to do so sua sponte (citing Lozano v. Ocwen Federal Bank, 489 F.3d 636, 643 (5th  Cir. 2007)).

“REMANDED for entry of order remanding . . .”

After the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Fifth Circuit in Mississippi v. AU Optronics, which held that the case was not a “mass action” under CAFA, AU Optronics argued that federal courts still had jurisdiction over the matter as a “class action.”  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that it had addressed and rejected that argument in its prior panel opinion.  Mississippi v. AU Optronics, No. 12-60704 (March 19, 2014, unpublished).  Its treatment of the issue was not dicta because it was “an explication of the governing rules of law” that received the Court’s “full and careful consideration.” Because that analysis “was a proper holding, the law-of-the-case doctrine forbids its reconsideration.”  Alternatively, the point was waived when AU Optronics did not appeal it to the Supreme Court.  (While the distinction between holding and dicta is fundamental to the common law, much less appellate practice, a formal definition such as this is rare.  A detailed analysis appears in Loud Rules, an article in the Pepperdine Law Review by this blog’s author and Professor Wendy Couture of the University of Idaho Law School.)

Mortgage Servicing, a Handy Guide

While a host of opinions have addressed basic problems with common plaintiffs’ theories in mortgage servicing cases, the recent case of Williams v. Wells Fargo is a useful guide to a wide range of them in a single opinion, including the statute of frauds and its exceptions, waiver, and basic TDCPA and RESPA violations.  The Court also reminded that a good contract pleading should identify the specific ways in which a contract has been breached, and found waiver when the grounds were not sufficiently detailed until the appellate level.

Chevron lives.

Even by the standards of tax cases, BNSF Railway Co. v. United States is arcane, but the underlying statutory analysis is of broad general interest.  No. 13-10014 (March 13, 2014). The first issue — the taxability of certain stock options — turned on whether a Treasury regulation about the meaning of the term “compensation” was entitled to Chevron deference.  The Fifth Circuit held that it was — as to the first Chevron factor, the Court found the term ambiguous, noting (1) the lack of a similar statute using the term, (2) variation among dictionary definitions, and (3) ambiguity in business usage, such as there was, at the time the relevant statute was passed in the 1920s-40s.  [Unintentional capitalist wit appears in footnote 63, which refers to the "Rand House Dictionary" rather than the "Random House Dictionary" in a citation about "capital or finance."]  The Court then found the regulation reasonable, noting its general consistency with the goals and structure of the statute and its legislative history.  A second holding illustrates the application of the “specific-general canon” and “the rule against superfluities.”

No “anti-SLAPP” protection for law firm soliciting clients

A law firm argued that the Texas “anti-SLAPP” statute protected its efforts to solicit former patients of a dental clinic as clients.  NCDR, LLC v. Mauze & Bagby PLLC, No. 12-41243 (March 11, 2014).  (This statute has led to a great deal of litigation about communication-related disputes, often in areas that the Legislature may not have fully anticipated — this blog’s sister details such litigation in the Dallas Court of Appeals.)  In a detailed analysis, the Fifth Circuit agreed that the district court’s ruling against the firm was appealable as a collateral order.  The Court then sidestepped an issue as to whether the anti-SLAPP statute was procedural and thus inapplicable in federal court, finding it had not been adequately raised below.  Finally, on the merits, the Court affirmed the ruling that the law firm’s activity fell within the “commercial speech” exception to the statute:  “Ultimately, we conclude that the Supreme Court of Texas would most likely hold that M&B’s ads and other client solicitation are exempted from the TCPA’s protection because M&B’s speech arose from the sale of services where the intended audience was an actual or potential customer.”

Now you’re time-barred, now you’re not.

Taylor sued his employer in state court for violations of Texas law.  Taylor v. Bailey Tool & Manufacturing Co., No. 13-10715 (March 10, 2014). Later, he amended his pleading to add federal claims.  Defendant removed and moved to dismiss on limitations grounds.  Under Texas law, Taylor’s new claims would not relate back because the original state law claims were barred by limitations when suit was filed.  Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c), however, the claims would relate back because they “arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out” in the original pleading.  Noting that Rule 81(c) says the Federal Rules “apply to a civil action after it is removed,” the Fifth Circuit concluded that they did not “provide for retroactive application to the procedural aspects of a case that occurred in state court prior to removal to federal court.”  Accordingly, it affirmed dismissal.

Proceeds from homestead sale — exempt?

When a homestead is permanently exempted from a bankruptcy estate, are any proceeds from a subsequent sale of the homestead also permanently exempt? Viegelahn v. Frost found they were not.  No. 12-50811 (March 5, 2014).  Frost argued that In re Zibman, 268 F.3d 298 (5th Cir. 2001), was distinguishable because he sold his homestead after petitioning for bankruptcy, when the homestead was already exempted, while Zimban concerned homestead proceeds obtained before bankruptcy. The Fifth Circuit found that distinction immaterial, concluding that once a debtor sells his homestead the essential character of the homestead changes from “homestead” to “proceeds,” placing it under a more limited six month exemption.  Accordingly, when a debtor does not reinvest the proceeds within that period, they are removed from the protection of Texas law and are no longer exempt from the estate.

When is a New Trial Necessary on Damages Only?

In Naquin v. Elevating Boats, LLC, the Fifth Circuit found that the verdict and resulting judgment in a Jones Act case erroneously included compensation for mental anguish from seeing the death of another person.  No. 12-31258 (March 10, 2014).  The Court disposed of the case as follows: “[S]erious practical problems would be presented at trial if we were to save some elements of the damage award and retry only other elements of damage.  ‘Where, as here, the jury’s findings on questions relating to liability were based on sufficient evidence and made in accordance with law, it is proper to order a new trial only as to damages.’  We therefore retain the jury’s liability finding but order a new trial on damages.”  (quoting Hadra v. Herman Blum Consulting Engineers, 632 F.2d 1242, 1246 (5th Cir. 1980)).

MERS and RICO

Plaintiffs alleged that the members of MERS violated RICO by making fraudulent statements about the legal effect of mortgages nominally recorded in the name of MERS. Welborn v. Bank of New York Mellon, No. 13-30103 (March 5, 2014, unpublished).  The district court dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) on the ground that Plaintiffs impermissibly sought to enforce the Trust Indenture Act by way of a RICO action.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, but on the alternative ground that Plaintiffs had not pleaded a RICO injury to their “business or property.”  The alleged injuries — “loss of recording fees and general damage to the integrity of public records” arose “not . . . from commercial activity, but rather from the provision of a public service — that is, a governmental function.”

Sorry, BP.

BP’s continuing efforts to reduce the scope of its Deepwater Horizon settlement program again produced three separate opinions from a panel in In re Deepwater Horizon (several cause numbers, March 3, 2014).  Judge Southwick found that the plan’s requirement of a “certification on the document that the claimant was injured by the Deepwater Horizon disaster” resolved any lingering jurisdictional issues.  Judge Dennis concurred in a shorter opinion.  Judge Clement dissented, arguing: “This agreement, as implemented, is using the powers of the federal courts to enforce obligations unrelated to actual cases or controversies.”

Fact issues about promissory estoppel

The Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment on a construction subcontractor’s promissory estoppel claim in MetroplexCore, LLC v. Parsons Transportation, No. 12-20466 (Feb. 28, 2014).  The Court noted the specificity of the statements made to it by representatives of the general contractor, the parties’ relationship on an earlier phase of the project, and specific communications describing reliance.  The Court relied heavily on the analysis of a similar claim in Fretz Construction Co. v. Southern National Bank of Houston, 626 S.W.2d 478 (Tex. 1981).

Scope of discovery requests

Duoline Technologies v. Polymer Instrumentation presents an unusual appellate review of a discovery order, arising from an ancillary proceeding to enforce a subpoena for a Pennsylvania case.  No. 13-50532 (March 5, 2014, unpublished).  Plaintiff Duoline sought to depose Joseph Schwalbach, a former employee, about the business dealings between his new company and Defendant Polymer.  Among other rulings, the district court limited the document requests and deposition scope to events during Schwalbach’s employment by Duroline.  The Fifth Circuit noted that some evidence supported the plaintiff’s theory of a connection between the businesses, and that logically, plaintiff’s theory relied upon events after Schwalbach left his job at Duoline.  The Court did not find an explanatory affidavit from Schwalbach to be dispositive.

Boundaries matter.

Several Louisiana parishes sought damages under a state statute for damages arising from the Deepwater Horizon incident.  In re Deepwater Horizon, No. 12-30012 (Feb. 24, 2014).  Condensing a much more nuanced opinion — the Fifth Circuit held that the claims were preempted by the Clean Water Act under International Paper v. Oulette, 479 U.S. 481 (1987), because the pollution arose from a source outside Louisiana.  The Court rejected arguments that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (prompted by the Valdez disaster) changed that analysis, and concluded that the Supreme Court ruled consistently with this result in Arkansas v. Oklahoma, 503 U.S. 91 (1992).