Oil well lien: Can an owner be a contractor?

Drillers asserted a subcontractors’ lien on Debtors’ oil well.  Endeavor Energy Resources, L.P. v. Heritage Consolidated, L.L.C., No. 13-10969 (Aug. 27, 2014). Debtors argued that when the general contractor acquired a 1% ownership interest in the lease, that interest related back to the time before Drillers began work, and voided any lien because a party cannot be both a contractor and an owner.

The Fifth Circuit rejected that argument and reversed the lower courts, finding that the Texas Supreme Court intended the relation-back doctrine in this context to expand the interest to which a valid lien can attach (applying Diversified Mortgage Investors v. Lloyd D. Blaylock General Contractor, Inc., 578 S.W.2d 794 (Tex. 1978)).  Noting that this interest was not acquired until after the Drillers had done their work, the Court observed that even an earlier acquisition would reach the same result: “If [GC] gained a 1% ownership interest in the lease at the time that Drillers performed their work, then Drillers may have gained an additional claim for contractors’ liens against [GC].  It would not, however, prevent Drillers from asserting separate subcontractors’ liens against [Debtors].”

Mortgage Servicing Basics

A borrower lost a summary judgment in a mortgage dispute in Langlois v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 13-10914 (Sept. 8, 2014, unpublished).  In addition to a basic summary of problems that such cases can have, the opinion illustrates one in particular.  The stronger an alleged oral modification becomes, the weaker a corresponding fraud claim becomes, because “When oral promises are directly contradicted by express, unambiguous terms of a written agreement, the law says that reliance on those oral promises is not justified.”  (quoting Taft v. Sherman, 301 S.W.3d 452, 458 (Tex. App.–Amarillo 2009, no pet.)  The same phenomenon strengthens a Statute of Frauds defense as well.

The regulation, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (“PURPA”) directs the FERC to encourage alternative energy providers, called “Qualifying Facilities” under that statute.  In a novel arrangement that encourages flexibility but also can raise “troublesome” Tenth Amendment concerns, PURPA directs state agencies — such as the Texas PUC — to adopt rules that comply with FERC’s regulations and help implement PURPA.  Exelon Wind 1, LLC v. Nelson, No. 12-51228 (Sept. 8, 2014) (quoting Power Resource Group v. Public Utility Comm’n of Texas, 422 F.3d 231 (5th Cir. 2005), and FERC v. Mississippi, 456 U.S. 742 (1982)).

The Texas PUC, acknowledging this mandate as well as the vagaries of wind power generation in the Texas Panhandle, enacted a rule limiting the pricing benefits of PURPA to “Qualifying Facilities able to forecast when they will deliver energy to the utility.”  Exelon, a wind power producer, challenged the validity of this rule under PURPA.

The Fifth Circuit first rejected a jurisdictional challenge, finding that Exelon’s attack on the rule was an “as-applied” challenge — over which federal courts have jurisdiction – as opposed to a “facial” challenge reserved to state courts.  In so reasoning, the Court declined to give Chevron deference to a “Declaratory Order” by FERC.  On the merits, — again declining to give the FERC letter deference — the Court upheld the PUC regulation: “The PUC had the discretion to determine the specific parameters for ehwn a wind farm can form a Legally Enforceable Obligation, and . . . left open the possibility that other wind farms might be able to provide firm power . . . .”

A dissent, agreeing with the jurisdictional analysis, differed on the merits, finding that the PUC rule conflicts on its face with the applicable FERC regulation, and that deference was due to the “FERC’s reasonable interpretation of that regulation according to well-established principles of adminstrative deference.”

The bankruptcy estate has limits

Earlier this year, the Fifth Circuit ordered the remand to state court of litigation between Vantage Drilling and Hsin-Chi Su.  Vantage Drilling Co. v. Su, 741 F.3d 535 (5th Cir. 2014).  Meanwhile, several marine shipping companies, owned in whole or in part by Su, filed for Chapter 11 protection in the Southern District of Texas, and Vantage intervened in those proceedings.  TMT Procurement Corp. v. Vantage Drilling Co., No. 13-20622 (Sept. 3, 2014).  The district court entered several orders related to DIP financing and shares of Vantage stock, which Vantage appealed.

The Fifth Circuit rejected a mootness challenge, concluding that the DIP lender’s awareness of Vantage’s claim removed the appeal from certain Code provisions that limit appellate rights.  The Court then held that (1) the shares at issue were not estate property — even though the district court’s orders had tied them to the business affairs of the debtor, and (2) the ongoing state court litigation was not “related to” the estate because it was an action “between non-debtors over non-estate property.”  Accordingly, the lower courts lacked jurisdiction to enter the orders challenged by Vantage, and the Fifth Circuit vacated them.

Un-deducted.

Trying to set up a “Special Limited Investment Partnership” to reduce taxes, Dow Chemical contributed 73 patents to a partnership with several foreign banks, which licensed the patents back to Dow.  Chemtech Royalty Assocs. v. United States, No. 13-30887 (Sept. 10, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the finding of a “sham partnership,” noting three points: (1) the transaction was structured to ensure the banks a fixed annual return on investment; (2) Dow agreed to bear all material risks arising from the transactions; and (3) the banks did not meaningfully share in any potential upside.  The Court dismissed several case citations by Dow as elevating form over substance.  The Court concluded by vacating and remanding as to penalty — the district court concluded that that “it could not impose a valuation-misstatement penalty when an entire transaction has been disregarded,” but since that ruling, the Supreme Court suggested that it was as least possible to do so in United States v. Woods, 134 S. Ct. 557 (2013).

Posted in Tax

Cleaning the Ponzian Stables

The Fifth Circuit affirmed liability under the Texas fraudulent transfer statute as to several investors who actually earned returns from the Ponzi scheme run by Allen Stanford.  Janvey v. Brown, No. 13-10266 et al. (Sept. 11, 2014).  First, the Court dismissed a choice-of-law issue as presenting a “false conflict,” since Antigua had no real interest in the application of its laws to the Stanford scheme when compared to Texas.  The Court then endorsed the district court’s approach to the situation, which found that the investors gave reasonably equivalent value to the extent they received back their principal, while requiring the return of interest: “allowing [them] to keep their fraudulent above-market returns in addition to their principal would simply further victimize the true Stanford victims, whose money paid the fraudulent interest.”

Bleak Haus

The Swareks and the Derrs disputed the ownership of a large farm in Issaquena County, Mississippi (at 1400 residents, the least populous county in that state, but also the home of its largest captured alligator).  Their litigation unfolded as follows:

  1. In 2005, Swareks sued Derrs in Issaquena County;
  2. In March 2009, the Derrs sued Swareks in the — somewhat unlikely — venue of the German Regional Court in Düsseldorf, Germany (population 600,000, and capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia);
  3. In November 2009, the Swareks voluntarily dismissed their claims in Mississippi;
  4. In 2010, the Derrs lost in Germany when that court recognized the dismissal of the Mississippi claims; but then,
  5. The Derrs ultimately won on appeal in Germany before the Higher Regional Court of Düsseldorf, obtaining judgment for $300,000 in costs.

The Derrs sought to domesticate the judgment in Mississippi, and the district court rejected their request, citing res judicata and characterizing the German action as an end run around the Mississippi state court.  On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed with these three observations:

  1. “Filing a mirror-image lawsuit in a foreign court while domestic litigation is pending is not sufficient, on its own, to preclude recognition of a foreign judgment, and the district court erred in denying comity on this ground.”
  2. While dismissal for want of jurisdiction may not have preclusive effect, a voluntary dismissal does: “If the plaintiff chooses to extinguish his rights forever he is entitled to do so, and the defendant will reap the benefit of a res judicata bar to any attempt by the plaintiff
  3. As to the German appellate holding: “The German Higher Regional Court’s decision to sidestep the comity determination and re-adjudicate claims that had already been settled in the Chancery Court violated the Mississippi public policy of res judicata and the Swareks’ right to permanently terminate their claims.  Comity must be a two-way street.”

A dissent characterized the interplay between the Mississippi and German holdings differently, and thus would affirm.

 

Contract terminated, goods sold, no unjust enrichment.

In Ferrara Fire Apparatus, Inc. v. JLG Industries, Inc., the Fifth Circuit returned to ground surveyed by the American Law Institute’s Restatement (Third) of Restitution, which the Court recently visited in cases about a faithless employee and the payment of benefits to a seaman.  Here, Gradall Industries manufactured a specialized boom called the “Strong Arm,” designed for firefighting, and Ferrara Fire Apparatus contracted to serve as its exclusive sales representative.  The relationship soured, Gradall terminated the contract, and Ferrara sued.  Ferrara obtained judgment for unjust enrichment for $1 million.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding no evidence of “an absence of justification or legal cause for the enrichment” as required by Louisiana law: “Gradall was simply competing in the market, which it was entitled to do after ending its exclusive contract with Ferrara.”  No. 13-30600 (Sept. 9, 2014, unpublished).

Servicer’s records not good enough for MSJ

In loan-level litigation between borrowers and mortgage servicers, the servicer usually has the significant advantage of better record-keeping.  In Tielke v. Bank of America, however, the Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment for a servicer.  No. 13-20425 (Sept. 4, 2014, unpublished).  The Court observed, as to the servicer’s loan history statement, that “we are unable to decipher this document with any certainty.”  The main problem was whether the borrowers had truly fallen into default or the servicer was inaccurately carrying forward matters that should have been erased by their bankruptcy; compounded by confusion over the servicer’s handling of an escrow account for insurance.  In a conclusion that should encourage careful record-keeping by all parties, the Court found: “There are simply too many unanswered questions”

CLE September 9 at Belo with FIVE 5th Circuit judges

On September 9 at noon at the Belo Mansion in downtown Dallas, a panel consisting of Judges Gregg Costa, Jennifer Elrod, James Graves, and Stephen Higginson — and moderated by Judge Catharina Haynes — will offer tips about effective advocacy before the Fifth Circuit.  It is sponsored by the DBA’s Business Litigation Section; co-sponsored by the Appellate Law & Trial Skills Sections.  Terrific opportunity for advice that comes straight from the source.

Settlement agreement isn’t an arbitration award

The plaintiffs’ employment lawsuit in Arce v. Austin Industries was stayed in favor of arbitration.  No. 14-20098 (Aug. 28, 2014, unpublished).  While the parties then reached a settlement agreement, the district court would not dismiss the lawsuit without review and approval of the settlement.  The district court found the attorneys fees excessive and only dismissed the case after modifying that aspect of the settlement.  The plaintiffs appealed, noting the deference given to arbitration awards, and the Fifth Circuit rejected that argument: “The plaintiffs have not shown that the arbitrator imposed the terms of the settlement on the parties through any order or award.  Furthermore, the plaintiffs have cited no authority holding that a private settlement that happens to take place while the parties are in arbitration is tantamount to an arbitration award.”

Injunction ended, so should the appeal.

Claimants in the compensation system created by BP after the Deepwater Horizon accident received an award in October 2013.  Lake Eugenie Land & Development v. BP Exploration & Production,  No. 14-30398 (Aug. 25, 2014, unpublished).  Unpaid by March 2014, they filed a “Motion to Confirm Award and Order Payment,” which the district court denied because an interim injunction had stayed the entire program while aspects of it were under legal challenge.  After appealing, the injunction lifted.  The Fifth Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, finding that the trial court’s ruling was neither an order that “vacates, modifies, or corrects” an arbitration award, nor an “interlocutory order . . . continuing . . . an injunction against an arbitration.”

Federal jurisdiction in labor dispute, somehow.

In Houston Refining, LP v. United Steel Workers, an arbitrator found that the suspension of a company’s 401(k) plan, after its bankruptcy filing, violated the company’s CBA with a union.  No. 13-20384 (Aug. 25, 2014).  Two judges agreed that the parties had not “clearly and unmistakably” allowed the arbitrator to decide arbitrability, noting this provision of the parties agreement: “At arbitration, the parties shall reserve all rights to present any and all arguments and advance any and all defenses to them including, without limitation, arguments concerning whether or not an applicable collective bargaining agreement was in effect at the time that a particular grievance arose.”  A dissent stressed other provisions of the agreement and the limited scope of review in the CBA context.  All three judges agreed that the court had subject matter jurisdiction, but differed on the rationales, in the specific context of an alleged breach of a contract controlled by federal labor law.

When does a preferential transfer happen?

In Flooring Systems, Inc. v. Chow, these events led to a dispute about whether a preferential transfer occurred:

  • June 2007: Flooring Systems, Inc. obtains a Texas state court judgment against Eric Poston.
  • October 26, 2007: State court appoints a receiver to collect assets to satisfy the judgment.
  • November 20, 2007: Flooring Systems serves Plain Capital Bank with a certified copy of the receivership order.
  • December 18, 2007: Bank turns over $22,923.05 check.
  • January 15, 2008: Receiver pays Flooring Systems $18,529.64
  • January 31, 2008.  Poston files for bankruptcy, Chow appointed as trustee.

If the transfer was made on October 26, it did not implicate the 90-day preferential transfer period in the Bankruptcy Code; if made on the 20th, it did.  Citing a Texas statute that provides: “[T]he rights of a receiver . . . do not attach until the financial institution receives service of a certified copy of the order of receivership . . . ,” the Fifth Circuit held that the transfer did not occur until the date of service on the bank, and affirmed.  No. 13-41050 (Aug. 28, 2014).

O brave new bankruptcy, which has such people in’t . . .

In Galaz v. Galaz, a bankruptcy debtor sued her ex-husband for the fraudulent transfer of a royalty interest in the works of the Ohio Players, a popular funk band in the 1970s. Nos. 13-50781, 50783 (Aug. 25, 2014).  Her ex-husband brought third-party claims against a music producer, who in turn brought counterclaims.  The resulting litigation produced judgments in favor of both the debtor and the producer against the ex-husband.  On appeal, in a landscape formed by the legacy of Stern v. Marshall, 131 S. Ct. 2594 (2011), the Fifth Circuit held:

1.  While the debtor’s fraudulent transfer claim was not the “paradigmatic” case where assets are transferred out of the estate, it could still “conceivably” affect the estate, and the bankruptcy court thus had statutory jurisdiction because these non-core claims related to her bankruptcy;

2.  The producer’s counterclaims, however, had no connection to the estate and the bankruptcy court had no statutory jurisdiction over them;

3.  Under Stern, in light of the present posture of cases from this Circuit and one awaiting Supreme Court review, the implied consent of the parties cannot confer constitutional jurisdiction on the bankruptcy court to enter final judgment such as the debtor’s claim here.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded, hinting that the bankruptcy court could prepare proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law for the district court as to the debtor’s claims.  The Court also noted that the debtor had standing as a creditor under the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act even though her personal interest in the royalties flowed through a business she partly owned.

Disbelief of the untruth

The bankruptcy debtor in McClendon v. Springfield had lost a defamation judgment for $341,000.  No. 13-41030 (Aug. 26, 2014, unpublished).  Because “the jury’s verdict could be sustained either on intentionality or recklessness,” the bankruptcy court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the claim resulted from a “wilful and malicious” injury.  Concluding that it did, the court denied discharge of that claim.  On appeal, the debtor argued that “a trial judge may not use his disbelief of a witness as affirmative support for the proposition that the opposite of the witness’s testimony is the truth.”  (citing Seymour v. Oceanic Navigating Co., 453 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (5th Cir. 1972)) (Texas state practitioners are familiar with similar sufficiency principles from City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802 (Tex. 2005)).  The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, both in light of the entire record received by the bankruptcy court, and because:  “[H]here, the factual inquiry was binary, a question whether [the debtor] acted willfully and maliciously or not.  . . . [T]he bankruptcy court’s disbelief of [the debtor's] statements that he did not know the statements were false leaves only the alternative that he did know . . . .”

Payment excused, unambiguously

CAP agreed to sell a security to VPRO.  Their contract said: “The purchase price is $400,000 and this amount is to be paid to you within 10 business days from the date of transfer of the [security t]o: CITIBANK NY DTC 908 Account 089154 CSC73464, Further Credit to: [CAP], Beneficiary Deposit Account NR. 840 BSI SPA San Marino.” Collective Asset Partners, LLC v. Vtrader Pro, LLC, No. 13-20619 (Aug. 15, 2014, unpublished).

CAP hired a broker, who successfully transferred the security to the DTC account but, because the broker provided inaccurate information, failed to transfer it on to the San Marino account.  VPRO refused to pay.  CAP sold the security to another buyer for $175,069.41 and sued VPRO for the difference.

Applying Texas law, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that VPRO unambiguously had no payment obligation until both transfers occurred, noting both the “Further Credit to” language in the contract, and the fact that the broker in fact tried to make both transfers.

 

Oil drilling, claims for waste, and Rule 12

Plaintiffs own and operate a mineral lease in the Gulf of Mexico; they allege that their neighbors drilled so as to deplete the value of their lease.  Specifically, they pleaded claims for “waste” and “unlawful drainage and trespass” under Louisiana law, as adopted by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.  Breton Energy LLC v. Mariner Energy Resources Inc., No. 13-20307 (Aug. 12, 2014).   As to the waste claims, after a detailed review of the specific allegations and precedent, the Fifth Circuit found a cognizable waste claim pleaded against the defendant alleged to have perforated the relevant oil sands.  The Court affirmed, however, the dismissal of claims against the non-perforating defendants, finding “equivocat[ion]” in a key allegation that those defendants could have caused the Minerals Management Service to “take[] other steps to protect the correlative rights of adjacent lessees.”  The Court also rejected claims for drainage losses and trespass, describing the interplay of those claims with a waste claim under Louisiana law.

On wings of eagles . . .

McAllen Grace Brethren Church v. Salazar presents a fascinating conflict between Native American religious practice and the preservation of endangered eagle species.  No. 13-40326 (Aug. 20, 2014)  Robert Soto, a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe, sought to use eagle feathers in a tribal religious ritual.  All parties agreed that his beliefs were sincere and that the lack of the feathers would substantially burden his ministry.  The Lipan Apaches, while recognized by Texas authorities since the 1838 Live Oak Treaty between the Tribe and the Republic of Texas, are not a “federally recognized tribe” as understood by the Interior Department.  Accordingly, under the Department’s regulations that implement various statutes about the protection of eagles, he was not entitled to the feathers.

Assuming that the Department’s stated goals — eagle protection and protection of federally-recognized tribes — served compelling interests, the Fifth Circuit held that the record did not show that the regulations used the least-restrictive means to advance those interests.  The Court found the Department’s evidence of harm to be inconclusive and subject to more than one interpretation, and also found inadequate consideration of potential alternative approaches.  Acknowledging that other courts have accepted similar arguments by the Department, the Court observed: “Soto does not seek to make the practice of his religion ‘easier,’ he seeks to avoid roadblocks of the government’s own making which have made the practice of his religion not just ‘not easier’” but impossible.”  Accordingly, it reversed a summary judgment for the Department and remanded.