Objectively unreasonable removal

A business named “Renegade Swish” sued Wright in Texas state court for breach of an employment agreement. Wright counterclaimed for violations of the FLSA. For reasons not explained in the opinion, Swish then nonsuited its contract claims, moved to realign the parties so it would be the new defendant, and removed the case to federal court based on federal jurisdiction. The Fifth Circuit held that Swish lacked an objectively reasonable basis for removal, citing both precedent (primarily, Holmes Group, Inc. v. Vornado Air Circulation Systems, Inc., 535 U.S. 826 (2002)), and the text of 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), which refers to removal by “defendants.” The Court did not credit Swish’s reliance on the pending motion to realign, declining to “invite federal courts to dream of counterfactuals when actual litigation has defined the parties’ controversy,” and rejected the cases cited by Swish as not presenting a meaningful conflict: “As compared to [a controlling case]m where the disagreement among the courts was ‘hotly contested,’ any disagreement here is tepid and lopsided.” Renegade Swish v. Wright, No. 16-11152 (May 22, 2017).

SCOTUS 8-0 – fewer patent cases to EDTEX

While arising from the Federal Circuit’s patent jurisdiction rather than the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court’s unanimous May 22 decision in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC is of great interest to all local corporations involved in patent litigation: “As applied to domestic corporations, ‘reside[nce]’ in [28 U.S.C.] § 1400(b) refers only to the State of incorporation.”

Filed first, but not first-to-file –

Green Tree Servicing, LLC v. Clayton involved an unusual argument about the “first-to-file rule, in the context of two actions pending before the same district judge. The Fifth Circuit observed: “[T]he concerns undergirding the firstto-file rule are not triggered when the cases are before the same judge. The first-to-file rule is aimed at avoiding both conflicting rulings on similar issues and duplicative rulings. But when the same judge is deciding both cases, there is no danger of conflicting rulings.” No. 16-60726 (May 18, 2017, unpublished).

How not to maintain privilege – 4 key points for privilege logs

Document logs are a necessary, if unloved, feature of privilege disputes. A privilege log is inherently difficult to create, since it must describe the relevant documents but not reveal the privileged information in them. And because a log often lists many documents on the same subject, it can quickly become dull and repetitive. But proper preparation of a log is key to litigating about privilege, as the Fifth Circuit recently held in EEOC v. BDO Seidman LLP when it rejected the sufficiency of the defendant’s log in an employment case. No. 16-20314 (May 4, 2017). The opinion provides four practical tips for attorneys involved in privilege disputes.

The case began when Hang Bower, a former HR manager at BDO Seidman, alleged that she had been subjected to gender discrimination. In response to an EEOC subpoena, BDO prepared a privilege log listing 278 documents. The EEOC filed an enforcement action in federal court, offering a declaration from Bower in support. In it, she said that many of the communications “were made for the primary purpose of conveying business directives or factual information.” She also said that “BDO required her . . . to include in HR-related emails a false designation that the communication was prepared ‘at the request of legal counsel.’”

The magistrate judge found that BDO’s log was adequate, declined to do an in camera review of the documents, and denied relief to the EEOC. The district judge affirmed and the Fifth Circuit reversed, identifying four particular areas of concern:

  1. Substance. “[N]umerous log entries fail to identify a sender, recipient, date, or provide a substantive description of the subject matter . . . [s]ome entries have only vague descriptions such as ‘discrimination claim,’ ‘internal investigation,’ or ‘work environment claim’”
  2. Email chains. “Emails involving counsel are also problematic, as the log’s descriptions do not indicate whether a particular entry consists of one email or a string of emails – a distinction that may be dispositive as to whether the privilege applies.”
  3. Business/Legal distinction. “[N]ot only does the log include conclusory descriptions of ‘legal advice,’ it does so in the context of communications with in-house counsel – an area court have acknowledged presents unique challenges . . . further compounded where HR personnel, such as Bower, are involved.” The Court noted the issues raised in Bower’s declaration.
  4. Disclosure. “[T]he log leaves open questions about (1) whether emails courtesy copied to a third party remained privileged . . . (2) whether matters communicated to attorneys were done so with the intention of remaining privileged . . . and (3) whether non-attorney individuals to whom communications were sent were within the sphere of confidence . . . .”

Because the log lacked sufficient detail to establish BDO’s prima facie case of attorney-client privilege as to all the entries, the Fifth Circuit found that the magistrate judge’s legal analysis was flawed and remanded. The Court observed: “Although we leave to the district court’s discretion how to proceed on remand, we note that in camera review will likely be necessary given the facts and circumstances of this case.”

In addition to reminding about four key components of a good privilege log, this opinion reinforces the importance of evidence in resolving a privilege dispute. Bower’s declaration raised questions about the information in the log, which could not be resolved by the log entries themselves. Counsel preparing a privilege log thus needs to not only consider the completeness of the log entries, but how those entries will be supported by evidence and in camera review if there are further proceedings.

Case goes to arbitration, case stays in arbitration.

The district court in Salas v. GE Oil & Gas ordered arbitration in 2014 and dismissed the case. The arbitration did not proceed. Each side blamed the other; the district court had a status conference in 2016; and afterwards, withdrew its earlier order and reopened the case. The Fifth Circuit found that the district court lacked jurisdiction to do so, as its 2016 order “did not fall within the narrow scope of th[e] ancillary jurisdiction” provided by section 4 of the FAA: “The court neither determined whether the parties’ agreement to arbitrate was valid nor enforced that agreement. Instead, the court found that the parties had ‘failed’ to arbitrate and withdrew its prior order compelling arbitration. This was not permitted under the FAA.” No. 16-20379 (May 12, 2017).

Scylla, Charybdis, and Class Certification

In Slade v. Progressive Insurance, a putative class survived a challenge to its damages model based on Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). The Fifth Circuit concluded that the class avoided Scylla “by essentially rerunning Defendant’s calculation of actual cash value [for a damaged car] but with a lawful base value, Plaintiffs’ damages theory only pays damages resulting from the allegedly unlawful base value.” But the class then encountered Charybdis when a new issue arose from that calculation: “[B]y accepting Defendant’s condition score calculation as is, [named] Plaintiffs may have impermissibly waived unnamed class members’ ability to assert a future claim contesting Defendants’s computation” of a figure called “the condition factor.” This potential waiver raised a question as to whether the class representatives could adequately represent the class memebrs who might wish to challenge that factor, and the Court remanded for further consideration of that aspect of class certification. The Court also reminded that “a fraud class action cannot be certified when individual reliance will be an issue”; a particularly relevant reminder after the recent approval of class certification in Torres v. SGE Management, 838 F.3d 629 (5th Cir. 2016) (en banc). No. 15-30010 (May 9, 2017).

No gold for the Allen Stanford receiver.

The receiver for the Allen Stanford businesses alleged that Stanford Coins and Bullion made fraudulent transfers to Dilllon Gage, a wholesaler of coins and precious metals. The receiver lost at trial and the Fifth Circuit affirmed in Janvey v. Dillon Gage, Inc., No. 15-1121 (May 5, 2017). The Court noted conflicting evidence about SCB’s subjective belief as to its ability to pay all creditors, supported by objective evidence about its saleable inventory at the relevant time. The Court also found no reversible error in a jury charge that did not expressly define “intent,” or in the instructions given on other aspects of a fraudulent transfer claim under Texas law.

How not to answer the judge’s questions.

In the case of In re Hermesmeyer, No. 16-11189 (May 2, 2017, unpublished), the Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the $500 sanction imposed by the district court as a result of the below Q-and-A between the court and counsel:

THE COURT: Okay. Let’s see. There were some—there were two objections filed, and I believe both of them were related to the possibility of a sentence above the top of the advisory guideline range. Did I read those correctly, Mr. Hermesmeyer?

MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I think they have more to do with legality of whether such a sentence would be permissible or appropriate.

THE COURT: I’m sorry, I was wondering if I’m correct in thinking that both of the objections have to do with the possibility of a sentence above the top of the advisory guideline range. What is the answer to that?

MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, just what I said.

THE COURT: I’m not sure I understand how that answered my question. I’ve asked the question again. Would you please answer the question either yes or no.

MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I would stand on what I previously said. Thank you.

THE COURT: Mr. Hermesmeyer, you get very close to being held in contempt of court. Would you answer my question?

MR. HERMESMEYER: I have no further response, your Honor.

THE COURT: Okay. Mr. Hermesmeyer, I’ve ordered you to answer my question, and you’ve refused to answer it. I conside that you’re in civil contempt of court, and also you’re in violation of one of the local rules that requires attorneys to appropriately conduct themselves and to respond and answer orders of the Court. I’m going to give you another opportunity to answer my question. And if you would like, if you decline to answer my question, I’ll give you an opportunity at this time to respond to my suggestion that you will be held in civil contempt of court and held in violation of the local rule concerning the conduct of attorneys, if you refuse to answer my question. You may proceed.

[Pause in proceedings.]

THE COURT: Okay. Apparently you’re not going to respond. I’m ordering that you are in violation of the local rule. Let me get the exact number of it.

HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, at this point I would move to withdraw from the representation of [the defendant] given the indications that the Court has made. [He] needs an attorney that’s not under the threat of civil contempt or whatever sort of contempt
that the Court is indicating at this point.

THE COURT: I deny that motion. Rule of Criminal Procedure LCR 57.8(b) says: A presiding judge, after giving an opportunity to show cause to the contrary, may take any appropriate disciplinary action against a member of the bar for conduct unbecoming a member of the bar and failure to comply with any order of the Court. I consider that you have violated that rule in both respects. I’ll give you an opportunity—I’ve given you an opportunity to show cause why you shouldn’t be disciplined for that and you’ve declined to respond, so I’m ordering that you pay a $500 fine, and that it be paid by 2:00 today, and be paid to the office of the clerk of court here in Fort Worth.

 

Mopping up fact issues

In Austin v. Kroger Texas LP, the Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment for the defendant in a slip-and-fall case. On the merits, among other holdings of general interest, the Court noted:

  • “[A] janitor with fifteen years’ experience is competent to testify about the effectiveness of cleaning products and methods.”;
  • When coupled with evidence from “Kroger’s handbook” and the manager’s testimony about “the safety practice at the store,” the plaintiff raised a fact issue;
  • “[T]he fact that [Plaintiff] had successfuly cleaned a much smaller spill . . . with a dry mop does not conclusively demonstrate that Spill Magic was not necessary for [him] to safely clean a much larger and more serious spill.”

Procedurally, the Court instructed that the trial court should proceed under “the more flexible Rule 54(b)” on remand rather than “the heightened standard of Rule 59(e),” asking that it “construe the procedural rules with a preference toward resolving the case on the merits and avoiding any dismissal based on a technicality.” No. 16-10502 (April 14, 2017).

Judicial admissions are strong.

An insured disputed whether he had claimed ownership of a particular piece of property in a conversation with an insurance agent, Specifically, while testifying in his deposition that he did not remember the specific questions asked, the conversation did not last very long – implying that the agent simply assumed his ownership of the propertuy. “[H]owever,  n both his answer to State Farm’s complaint and his response to State Farm’s request for admission, [the insured] admitted to telling the agent who took his insurance application that he was the owner of the property and to stating as much in his application. The district court concluded that these facts were judicially admitted, and therefore rejected Appellants’ argument as an impermissible ‘attempt to create a dispute around a material fact already admitted.’” State Farm v. Flowers, No. 16-60310 (April 26, 2017).

Practical tip for private eyes

In a break from the usual topics about federal procedure, today’s post about the case of Foster v. Woods provides some practical advice for private investigators. Foster, a licensed private investigator, tailed a car into a school parking lot and observed it for a short period before realizing that the driver was his target’s teenaged son. Unfortunately for Foster, the son observed him and told a friend, whose father was the local sheriff. After Foster left the school grounds the sheriff arrested him and unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute him for having brought a firearm onto school grounds (although Foster held a concealed-carry permit, and neither he nor the firearm left the car while in the school parking lot. Foster sued for wrongful arrest; the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the sheriff: “Relevant here, Woods knew that Foster was not a student, that he followed a student’s vehicle into a student parking lot posted with a ‘no trespassing” sign, and that Foster remained in the lot for some time as students were arriving for school. . . . Given the facts known to Woods, he had knowledge that would warrant a reasonable officer to believe that Foster violated the trespass statute.” Advice – use caution when entering private property.

Fee award affirmed in Texas’s Obergefell case

In DeLeon v. Abbott, the Fifth Circuit affirmed an award of $585,470.30 in attorneys’ fees and $20,202.90 in costs arising from the Texas counterpart to Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015). The panel majority observed that “the essential goal in shifting fees (to either party) is to do rough justice,” and that as a result, “[w]e can hardly think of a sphere of judicial decisionmaking in which appellate micromanagement has less to recommend it.” A dissent, observing that “deference is a blank check,” approved of the bulk of the award but took issue with it as to time spent on (a) an unsuccessful third-party motion to intervene; (b) interacting with the media; and (c) coordinating with supportin amici. No. 15-51241 (April 18, 2017, unpublished).

Jurisdiction over remand order

The case of Decatur Hospital Authority v. Aetna Health Inc. involved a remand order, granted on the basis of timelieness (a ruling not ordinarily appealable because of 28 USC § 1447(c)), but where the notice of removal referred to the federal officer removal statute (made reviewable by the less-well-known § 1447(d)). The Fifth Circuit concluded that its review involved “[n]ot particular reasons for an order, but the order itself,” and went to affirm the remand and a related fee award, finding that the defendant did not learn new facts from an interrogatory answer that were not also contained in the original petition. No. 16-10313 (April 18, 2017).