Tortious, but not anticompetitive.

antitrust cartoon elephantThe Fifth Circuit’s recent opinion in Retractable Technologies Inc. v. Becton Dickinson Co. reversed a $340 million antitrust judgment and placed significant limits on the activity to which the antitrust laws apply. Judge Edith Jones wrote for the panel, joined by Judges Jacques Wiener and Stephen Higginson. No. 14-41384 (Dec. 2, 2016).

Plaintiff Retractable Technologies Inc. (“RTI”) and Defendant Beckton Dickinson (“BD”) were competing manufacturers of syringes. Retractable sued for false advertising under the Lanham Act, and alleged that BD attempted to monopolize the syringe market in violation of section 2 of Sherman Act.

As summarized by the Court, the antitrust verdict in RTI’s favor “rest[ed] upon three types of ‘deception’ by its rival: [1] patent infringement . . . [2] two false advertising claims made persistently; and [3] BD’s alleged ‘tainting the market’ for retractable syringes in which it alone competed with RTI.”

The Court found that each of these three liability theories failed.

First, as to patent infringement, the Court observed that by its very nature, a patent grants a limited monopoly. Thus, “patent infringement invades the patentee’s monopoly rights, causes competing products to enter the market, and thereby increases competition,” meaning that it “is not an injury cognizable under the Sherman Act.”

Second, the false advertising claims involved BD’s admittedly inaccurate claims to have the “world’s sharpest” needles with “low waste space.” But even these statements “may have been wrong, misleading, or debatable,’ . . . they were all “arguments on the merits, indicative of competition on the merits.” (quoting Stearns Airport Equip. Co. v. FMC Corp., 170 F.3d 518, 522 (5th Cir. 1999)).

syringeAfter a thorough analysis of different standards used to evaluate antitrust claims based on allegedly false advertising, the Court concluded: “The broader point . . . is the distinction embodied in our precedents between business torts, which harm competitors, and truly anticompetitive activities, which harm the market.” RTI did not make such a showing here.

Finally, the “taint” claim alleged that BD refused to make needed repairs to its retractable needle design, in hopes of persuading purchasers that all such syringes – including RTI’s – were inherently unreliable, until some time after RTI’s patents expired and BD could use RTI’s design to revitalize and take over the retractable syringe market. The Court called this theory “illogical,” since selling a bad product would only serve to benefit RTI’s competitors, and would not serve BD well in any attempt to expand its brand once RTI’s technology became available.

While reversing on the antitrust claim and the substantial damages associated with it, the Court went on to remand for reconsideration of what Lanham Act remedies for false advertising might still be appropriate.

This case is a forceful reminder that a good business tort claim does not equate to a good antitrust claim – or, even any antitrust claim at all. It is also a reminder of two broader points about how the Fifth Circuit approaches business tort claims arising from federal law.

On the one hand, that Court allows vigorous litigation of federal claims within their proper boundaries, as it recently did in affirming a nine-figure judgment arising from an antitrust conspiracy claim in MM Steel LP v. JSW Steel (USA), Inc., 806 F.3d 835 (5th Cir. 2015). (Notably, Judge Stephen Higginson, who was on the panel in the Retractable case, wrote the opinion in MM Steel.)

But on the other hand, the Court carefully polices the boundaries of those claims, as it did here, and as it also did in its painstaking comparison between state law trade secret claims and federal copyright claims in GlobeRanger Corp. v. Software AG, 836 F.3d 477 (5th Cir. 2016). The “siren song” of treble damages under the Sherman Act is a compelling one, but the pathway to such damages is carefully guarded.

When is a bank not a bank?

bank-errorThe issue in Moneygram Int’l v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue was whether MoneyGram could take advantage of a favorable deduction rule for “banks,” unhelpfully defined in the Internal Revenue Code with a sentence beginning: “[T]he term ‘bank’ means a bank or trust company . . . .” Turning to the specific requirements of the definition, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the Tax Court “erred by interpreting TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphic‘deposit’ to include the requirement that MoneyGram ‘hold its customers’ funds for extended periods of time,'” and by requiring that a “loan” be made for interest. A dissent criticized the majority’s “[n]itpicking some of the definitions of a loan . . . .” No. 15-60527 (Nov. 15, 2016, unpublished).

It’s a long way to Antigua.

animated-flag-of-antigua-and-barbuda-1Plaintiffs alleged that the government of Antigua was complicit in Allen Stanford’s fraudulent scheme; it defended under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. With respect to liabilty under the “commercial activity” exception to the Act, the Fifth Circuit found too attenuated a connection to the United States. As to the scheme itself, “[w]hile Antigua may have helped facilitate Stanford’s sale of the fraudulent CDs, Stanford’s criminal activity served as an intervening act interrupting the causal chain between Antigua’s actions and any effect on investors.” And as to a more specific claim based on Antigua’s failure to repay loans to Stanford, “the financial loss in this case was not directly felt by Plaintiffs, who are investors and customers of Stanford . . . The financial loss due to Antigua’s failure to repay the loans was most directly felt by Stanford who was the actual lender in the loan transactions.” Frank v. Commonwealth of Antigua & Barbuda, No. 15-10788 (Nov. 22, 2016).

No known claim about potential future discovery sanctions

iillusionistOneBeacon Ins. Co. v. Welch & Assocs. involved insurance coverage for an attorney malpractice claim, arising for an exclusion for knowledge about “any actual or alleged act, error, omission or breach of duty arising out of the rendering or the failure to render professional legal services.” Since even the carrier agreed that “[o]n its face, this covers every single thing an attorney does or does not do, wrongful or not,” the Fifth Circuit found that the exclusion could not be applied literally without making the contract illusory. Focusing on the alleged “wrongful act,” the Court found that the relevant lawyer’s awareness of a discovery order and potential dispute was not equivalent to knowledge that a rare death-penalty sanction award would result. The Court also sustained an award of additional violations for an intentional violation of the Insurance Code with respect to the handling of the claim. No. 15-20402 (Nov. 14, 2016).

Live long and prosper

live-long-and-prosperRobert dePerrodil successfully sued for the injuries he suffered when a wave hit the boat he was on. He recovered damages based upon his plan to work until age 75; the defendant argued that the “court erred by using the plaintiff’s stated retirement goal, rather than the BLS average.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed, noting that dePerrodil had a “‘very reasonable’ goal, considering his medical history, work history, and future medical prognosis,” distinguishing other cases in the area that turned on more vague testimony. Perrodil v. Bozovic Marine, Inc., No. 16-30009 (Nov. 17, 2016, unpublished).

Certified questions answered about Texas home equity loans.

seal_of_the_supreme_court_of_texasLast year, the Fifth Circuit certified these two questions to the Texas Supreme Court:

1. Does a lender or holder violate Article XVI, Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii) of the Texas Constitution, becoming liable for forfeiture of principal and interest, when the loan agreement incorporates the protections of Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii), but the lender or holder fails to return the cancelled note and release of lien upon full payment of the note and within 60 days after the borrower informs the lender or holder of the failure to comply?

2. If the answer to Question 1 is “no,” then, in the absence of actual damages, does a lender or holder become liable for forfeiture of principal and interest under a breach of contract theory when the loan agreement incorporates the protections of Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii), but the lender or holder, although filing a release of lien in the deed records, fails to return the cancelled note and release of lien upon full payment of the note and within 60 days after the borrower informs the lender or holder of the failure to comply?

The TTexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicexas Supreme Court answered both questions “no” in Garofolo v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, No. 15-0437 (Tex. May 20, 2016). Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s contract claim in Garofolo v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, No. 14-51156 (Oct. 3, 2016, unpublished).

No insurance coverage for suit by creditors.

flower-arrangementColor Star Growers (a wholesale distributor of flowers) went into bankruptcy; their lenders sued the Verbeeks in Texas state court, alleging that they fraudulently induced the loans to Color Star. The Verbeeks sought a defense from the D&O carrier for their company. The insurer successfully obtained summary judgment based on the policy’s “Creditor Exclusion” and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The exclusion said: “The Insurer shall not be liable to pay any Loss on account of, and shall not be obligated to defend, any Claim brought or maintained by or on behalf of . . . [a]ny creditor of a company or organization in the creditor’s capacity as such, whether or not a bankruptcy or insolvency proceeding involving the company or organization has been commenced.” Rejecting the Verbeeks’ arguments that the state court plaintiffs were suing as “administrative agents” or “investors” rather than creditors, the Court observed that “the alleged facts giving rise to the underlying litigation relate entirely to the state court plaintiffs’ loan agreements with Color Star . . . .” The Court went on to affirm as to the duty to indemnify as well. Marke Am. Ins. Co. v. Verbeek, No. 15-51099 (Sept. 27, 2016, unpublished).

“Intertwined claims” estoppel requires arbitration.

stopsignHays, a cardiologist suffering from epilepsy, sued HCA for wrongful discharge as a result of mishandling his illness. The Fifth Circuit agreed that his tortious interference claim against HCA had to be arbitrated, because its viability depended on reference to the employment agreement between him and the specific hospital where he worked. It also affirmed on the theory of “intertwined claims estoppel,” making an Erie guess that the Texas Supreme Court would recognize this theory, and concluding that “Hays’s current efforts to distinguish amongst defendants and claims are the archetype of strategic pleading intended to avoid the arbitral forum, precisely what intertwined claims estoppel is designed to prevent.” Hays v. HCA Holdings, No. 15-51002 (Sept. 29, 2016).

Have gun, will enjoin.

paladinThe high-profile injunction case of Defense Distributed, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of State involved the federal government’s effort to prevent the online distribution of 3D printing files for the critical “lower receiver” component of the AR-15 rifle. The district court declined to grant a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the relevant laws and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. In an observation broadly applicable to litigation about online postings, the Court noted: “If we reverse the district court’s denial and instead grant the preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs-Appellants would legally be permitted to post on the internet as many . . . files as they wish . . . [which] would remain online essentially forever, hosted by foreign websites such as the Pirate Bay and freely available worldwide.” A thorough and strongly-worded dissent took issue with the First Amendment ramifications of the panel opinion; a petition for en banc rehearing has been filed and is pending as of this post. No. 15-50759 (Sept. 20, 2016).

How to measure the Rule 11 “safe harbor.”

lighthouse-harborOn September 16, 2013, Defendants obtained a magistrate judge’s report that recommended dismissal of Plaintiffs’ complaint. On September 18, Defendants served – but did not file – a motion for sanctions, stating that it would not be filed until the 21-day Rule 11(c)(2) “safe harbor” period passed. Plaintiffs objected to the report on September 30; Defendants filed their motion on October 18; and after adoption of the report and further briefing, the district imposed $25,000 in sanctions in mid-2014. The Fifth Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ challenge to the sanction based on the safe harbor period, reasoning — “Given that Plaintiffs could have formally or informally disavowed their claims during the 21-day period after Defendants served their motion, but instead elected to continue pursuing their claims, the district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting Plaintiffs’ ‘safe harbor’ argument.” Margetis v. Ferguson, No. 16-40563 (Nov. 10, 2016, unpublished).