No claim on engagement letter, no arbitration.

Lowe brough a class action, alleging that company management breached its fiduciary duties to the employee pension plan, and that KPMG aided those breaches by ignoring the underfunding of the plan. KPMG contended that these claims necessarily implicated its engagement agreement with the company, which contained an arbitration clause, and thus required arbitration under the “direct-benefit estoppel” doctrine. Here, “Lowe did not know about the Engagement Letters, and has disclaimed any reliance on the Letters, and her claims rely on common law tort theories, not on the Letters.” The Court concluded that “[i]f that choice makes it harder for [Lowe] to prove her case, so be it,” but her claims as currently stated did not depend on KPMG’s engagment agreement and thus did not have to be arbitrated.” Lowe v. KPMG, No. 16-60263 (Jan. 5, 2017, unpublished).

PRACTICE TIP – Determining Diversity Details

Several unpublished opinions from the Fifth Circuit in recent weeks, most recently Smitherman v. Bayview Loan Servicing LLC, No. 16-20328 (Jan. 11, 2017, unpublished), have ordered limited remands to the district court “to permit supplementation of the record and to make findings regarding . . . citizenship.” Once completed, “the district court’s amended opinion shall return” to the panel “for appropriate action.” It appears that the Court is reviewing case files not only to confirm appellate jurisdiction, but also the necessary facts to support federal subject matter jurisdiction as well.

Fishy claim

Jarrod Burle, a commercial fisherman, made a claim for lost income with the Deepwater Horizon settlement. He then obtained loans, in the form of “pre-settlement funding contracts,” from Woodbridge Baric Pre-Settlement Funding, LLC. After receiving payment from the settlement system, he paid $20,000 back to Woodbridge. A special master then sought to recover that payment from Woodbridge after Burle was found to have made a fraudulent claim. The Fifth Circuit reversed a judgment against Woodbridge, rejecting an analogy between Woodbridge and an attorney with a contingent fee contract, and applying the more general rule that “[b]ecause Woodbridge Baric’s claim for the repayment of the loan was not purely contingent upon the success of Burrle’s claims for compensation, the failure of this contingency did not extinguish [its] claim and does not prevent [it] from asserting its valid interest in defense of its right to retain the funds as a bona fide payee.” In re Deepwater Horizon, No. 15-30599 (revised Jan. 9, 2017).

More on notices of appeal

Johnson-Williams sued MERS about a foreclosure. She lost a Rule 12(b)(6) motion filed by MERS, then her own motion for leave to amend, and finally a motion for reconsideration. She appealed, and the Fifth Circuit observed the limited scope of her appeal, as the notice referred only to the district court’s order as to the amendment.  Johnson-Williams v. MERS, No. 16-10276 (Jan. 4, 2017, unpublished).

No jurisdiction under Alien Tort Statute

“In 2004, an Iraqi insurgent group kidnapped and murdered twelve Nepali men as they traveled through Iraq to a United States military base to work for . . . a Jordanian corporation that had a subcontract with . . . Kellogg Brown Root.” Adhikari v. Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., No. 15-20225 (Jan. 3, 2017). The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of tort claims against KBR brought by the representatives of the deceased, including a claim based on the Alien Tort Statute.

The ATS is a cryptic part of the Judiciary Act of 1798, stating: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” In 2013, the Supreme Court clarified and limited the extraterritorial scope of the statute in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 133 S. Ct. 1658. Applying Kiobel, the panel majority found no ATS claim stated, despite the strong policy against the human trafficking that was alleged to be involved in this case. A dissent read Kiobel to establish a “touch and concern” test as to contact with the United States, and would have found a cognizable ATS claim pleaded on these facts.

Good records defeat tort liability, again.

The unsuccessful plaintiff in Dawson v. RockTenn Services, Inc. sued because of injuries he suffered while delivering sulfuric acid to a paper mill. In yet another opinion that endorses careful recordkeeping, the Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for the defendants: “Under Rock-Tenn’s operating procedures, Martin Transport’s drivers were required to, and apparently did, check that the pressure-release line was ‘free from defects and
void of other materials’ prior to each delivery. Martin Transport’s drivers delivered acid to the mill at least daily, often twice daily, without ever apparently notifying Rock-Tenn of any defect in the pressure-release line. In the absence of any countervailing evidence to suggest that a reasonable person in Rock-Tenn’s position would have undertaken further inspection or maintenance of the pressure-release line, there is no basis for imputing RockTenn with constructive knowledge of an alleged defect in that line.” No. 16-30112 (Dec. 27, 2016, unpublished).

No, that judgment is not final either.

In LLOG Exploration Co. v. Signet Maritime Corp., after affirming a declaratory judgment about delay damages under a maritime towage contract, the Fifth Circuit found that it lacked jurisdiction over the related award of attorneys’ fees: “[I]n its award of fees and costs to LLOG, the district court did not set a set a specific amount. This court held in S. Travel Club, Inc. v. Carnival Air Lines, Inc., 986 F.2d 125, 131 (5th Cir. 1993), ‘that an order awarding attorney’s fees or costs is not reviewable on appeal until the award is reduced to a sum certain.'” No. 15-31123 (Dec. 23, 2016, unpublished).

No, that judgment is not final.

In a dispute about a home loan, the district court wrote an opinion found for the defendant mortgage servicer in all respects, including its counterclaim for judicial foreclosure. The final judgment, unfortunately, did not address that claim or otherwise contain “catch-all” language. Because “[t]he district court’s ‘final judgment’ neither adjudicates ‘all claims . . . of all parties,’ nor expressly styles itself as a partial final judgment pursuant to Rule 54(b). . . . this Court has no appellate jurisdiction and cannot review the merits of the case.” Wease v. Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC, No. 16-10521 (Dec. 29, 2016, unpublished).

Moot dispute gets the boot.

Sessa Capital, a hedge fund, supported the election of certain directors to the board of Ashford Prime, a hotel business. Ashford’s management rejected their applications, contending that they were incomplete. Litigation ensued, in which Sessa sought an injunction against the June 10, 2016 board election. The district court denied relief; Sessa appealed, and a motions panel of the Fifth Circuit denied an interim stay.

Since that election proceeded, mootness became an obvious appellate issue. The Fifth Circuit noted that “Sessa did not ask the district court to stay the [June 10] election,” and also “never sought the invalidation of the shareholder election in the district court” — requests that, had they been made, could potentially have kept the dispute alive. To the contrary, the Court observed that “Sessa repeatedly made a tactical decision to seek only prospective relief. When the district court contemplated pressing the reset button by staying the shareholder election and allowing Sessa to resubmit the questionnaires, Sessa vehemently opposed this solution.” Accordingly, the Court dismissed the appeal as moot. Ashford Hospitality Prime, Inc. v. Sessa Capital, No. 16-10671 (Dec. 16, 2016, unpublished).