In the course of affirming a substantial judgment for misappropriation of trade secrets, the Fifth Circuit made an interesting observation in a footnote about liability for civil conspiracy under Texas law: “For instance, [Defendant] argues he is entitled to judgment on the conspiracy to misappropriate claim because such a claim is barred by Texas’ intra-corporate conspiracy doctrine, i.e., that a corporation and its employees cannot conspire with each other in carrying out a company’s business. He has presented no case applying it to the instant situation, where the conspiracy predated even the creation of the company at issue. Here, [Defendant] stole [Plaintiff’s] trade secrets months before the creation of SXP, and the creation and operation of SXP was the means by which the conspiracy was carried out.” Quantlab Technologies v. Kuharsky, No. 16-20242 (June 22, 2017, unpublished).
While otherwise affirming a judgment in the plaintiff’s favor, in Merrit Hawkins & Associates v. Gresham the Fifth Circuit vacated an award of exemplary damages under Texas law in a non-compete case. It distinguished the plaintiff’s authorities by saying: “Unlike in those cases, the only argument and evidence that [plainitff] MHA presented to the jury on the issue of exemplary damages was that [defendant] Consilium intentionally breached the non-compete contract. MHA claimed that ‘the circumstances of this case [were] quite egregious, that everything was intentional, [Consilium] knew [MHA] had these agreements . . . and they breached them anyway.’ However, this is the exact type of argument that the Texas Supreme Court explains is insufficient to show malice when an element of the underlying cause of action is willful harm. Even drawing all inferences in favor of MHA, the additional evidence MHA points to is insufficient to show that Consilium acted with specific intent to cause substantial harm to MHA. The proximity of the two businesses, without more, does not lead to the conclusion that Consilium acted with malice towards MHA. And the fact that Consilium’s founder was a partner at MHA was not raised for the purpose of showing that MHA engaged in a strategic plan of hiring away MHA employees to harm it, but rather to show that Consilium was aware that MHA’s employees had non-compete agreements. Moreover, MHA has never claimed that Consilium induced [the employee] to steal or use its proprietary information . . . .” No. 16-10439 (June 21, 2017).
The Fifth Circuit reversed a JNOV on liability for breach of contract in Kerr v. Mapei Corp., holding: “The jury was presented with two alternative, but plausible, accounts of the formation and authorization of a contract. The jury reasonably selected one of those alternatives.” As to consequential-type damages for lost profits for other sales, however, the Court affirmed the judgment for the defendants, finding that the plaintiff’s damages model “was not supported by any empirical analysis or any evidence outside of the [contract] relationship . . . (e.g., real-world sales, customer surveys, or current market demand).” In particular, it noted the lack of evidence that the substantial business opportunity related to the contract would recur, the fact that the contract was terminable at will, and the lack of weight for a party’s own “unsubstantiated, self-serving speculations” about future business. No. 16-10430 (May 23, 2017, unpublished).
Streamline Production Systems v. Streamline Manufacturing involved trademark litigation between businesses with similar names. The Fifth Circuit affirmed theury’s findings about the distinctiveness of the plaintiff’s mark and the likelihood of confusion, observing that the various factors did not all point the same way but “there is not a complete absence of evidence” to support what the jury found. The court reversed on remedy, however, finding that the “reasonable royalty” damages went beyond the scope of the infringement, and that the award of unjust enrichment was not supported by evidence of lost profits or willful action by the defendant. No. 16-20046 (revised April 14, 2017).
Plaintiffs alleged that a terrible crime would have been averted with a faster response to a 9-1-1 call. The Fifth Circuit, applying City of Dallas v. Sanchez, 494 S.W.3d 722 (Tex. 2016), found a lack of proximate cause (and thus, immunity applied) because “plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that any of the intervening parties would have acted differently,” including the call center operator and emergency personnel on the scene. The allegations on the general subject of response time were too speculative to satisfy Twombly (footnote 4). And “‘even if the brief delay in relaying Cook’s location ‘contributed to circumstances that delayed potentially life-saving assistance, the [delay] was too attenuated from the cause of [Cook’s] death . . . to be a proximate cause.” Cook v. City of Dallas, No. 16-10105 (March 29, 2017).
A church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi proved that its insurer did not properly handle its claim resulting from tornado damage (right), resulting in a damages award of over $1,000,000. The Fifth Circuit affirmed against challenges by both sides; as to the church’s request for punitive damages, it held: “Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Mount Carmel, GuideOne’s alleged conduct did not rise to the necessary level of an independent tort that would warrant punitive damages. Mount Carmel merely alleges that GuideOne had ‘knowledge of the financial harm that would result’ from its cancellation of the policy. But this type of knowledge is likely present for many cancellations and alone is not sufficient to rise to the level of an independent tort. Accordingly, it does not warrant punitive damages.” GuideOne Elite Ins. Co. v. Mount Carmel Ministries, No. 15-60915 (Jan. 23, 2017, unpublished).
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).
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).
Robert 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).
A steel-hulled tugboat, owned by Marquette, allided with the fiberglass-hulled SES Ekwata, rendering the Ekwata unusable. In the resulting litigation, the plaintiff won damages and an award of sanctions under the district court’s inherent power. On appeal, “Marquette asserts that the fee award was unwarranted because Marquette had a good faith basis to challenge the quantum of damages and thus in proceeding through a trial. But even if true, this fact did not justify Marquette’s intransigence on liability or the means by which Marquette defended [Plainitff’s] damages claim—namely, one expert who, according to the
district court’s findings, opined on value ‘without including any comparables, without considering the equipment on the vessel, without an accurate description of the vessel, and without reliable underlying information” and a second expert who, according to the district court’s findings, “not only failed to correct the glaringly incorrect information set forth in [the first expert’s] report, but incorporated it into his own.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Moench v. Marquette Transp. Co. (revised October 13, 2016).
A group of optometrists won judgment against Wal-Mart for $1,395,400, consisting entirely of statutory penalties relating to Wal-Mart’s influence over their working hours. After withdrawing the initial panel opinion and then receiving answers to certified questions in Forte v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 15-0146 (Tex. May 20, 2016), the Fifth Circuit again concluded that “the district court’s judgment regarding damages must be vacated; attorneys’ fees are the only matter that remains in the case.” Forte v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 12-40854 (Oct. 27, 2016).
Hoffman v. L&M Arts arose from the sale of a 1961 Rothko painting (right) by Sotheby’s in 2010; a previous owner alleged that this sale revealed facts about her own sale, in violation of a confidentiality provision in the sales contract that said: “All parties agree to make maximum efforts to keep all aspects of this transaction confidential indefinitely.” The Fifth Circuit ruled for the defense in all respects, concluding that:
- The original owner did not state a fraud claim against the relevant gallery, based on its alleged misrepresentation of its authority to act on behalf of an unnamed buyer, or its alleged misrepresentation about representing an entity or individual. (Notably, the owner did not argue in the district court that equitable relief could still be appropriate without proof of damage), or its claim that the piece would “disappear” into its client’s private collection.
- The contract did not require secrecy about the fact of the sale, based on the plain meaning of the term “aspect,” other provisions in the agreement, and the Texas policy against restraints on alienability.
- The questions about damages associated with the alleged breach either reflected speculative bargains, incorrect damages measures, or a disgorgement theory that is not well-supported as a Texas contract remedy.
No. 15-10046 (Sept. 28, 2016).
The plaintiff in GlobeRanger Corp. v. Software AG won a $15 million judgment for misappropriation of trade secrets. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding:
- After a thorough review of Circuit precedent – not all entirely consistent – “that GlobeRanger’s trade secret misappropriation claim requires establishing an additional element than what is required to make out a copyright violation: that the protected information was taken via improper means or breach of a confidential relationship. Because the state tort provides substantially different protection than copyright law, it is not preempted.”
- Recognizing the “jurisdictional Catch-22” created by that ruling, and referring back to an earlier panel opinion from the time of the case’s removal: “As the complaint [then] alleged only conversion of intangible property for which there is equivalency between the rights protected under that state tort and federal copyright law, complete preemption converted the conversion claim into one brought under the Copyright Act that supported federal question jurisdiction at the time of removal and supplemental jurisdiction after it was dismissed.”
- Found that GlobeRanger had offered sufficient evidence of: (1) what specifically constituted its claimed trade secrets; (2) whether Software AG acquired trade secrets improperly or with notice of impropriety, particularly in light of federal contracting regulations; and (3) whether Software AG “used” any trade secret.
The opinion concluded with an unfortunately apt observation about the business litigation that is the focus of this blog: “This case demonstrates the unfortunate complexity of much of modern civil litigation. A trial involving a single cause of action—misappropriation of trade secrets (plus a derivate conspiracy claim)—has resulted in an appeal raising numerous issues that span the lifecycle of the lawsuit: jurisdiction; preemption; federal contracting regulations; expert testimony on damages; and jury instructions.
Extensive tornado damage to a building at the University of Southern Mississippi led to a hard-fought dispute among insurers. The Fifth Circuit’s detailed affirmance of the district court’s opinion turned on this observation about the losing insurer’s postition: “Were this construction adopted, insurers who covered the same risk would be incentivized to enter into a stare-down, each waiting for the other to blink first in order to seize the opportunity to deny coverage. Such an outcome is neither reasonable nor commercially practicable.” Southern Ins. Co. v. Affiliated FM Ins. Co., No. 15060742 (July 21, 2016). (The opinion also features a rare appellate shout-out to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.)
In the trial of a dispute about the handling of another lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ lawyer in that other suit testified that he would not have settled for less than $3 million. On appeal, two expert reports were cited in opposition to that testimony, and the Fifth Circuit rejected them. It noted that the trial court was within its rights to credit the lawyer’s testimony, and that the reports had been prepared pretrial and thus could not have addressed that testimony. RSUI Indemnity Co. v. American States Ins. Co., No. 15-30976 (July 8, 2016, unpublished).
Bacharach, upset by the handling of credit reporting by SunTrust, sued it under the FCRA. The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for SunTrust, noting:
- Reporting about a failed “flip” of commercial property — especially when the alleged losses involved lost rental income — did not fall within the scope of the FCRA;
- Evidence of other, unrelated payment problems during the relevant period negated the element of causation; and
- “Vague and conclusory deposition testimony” does not establish actionable emotional distress under the FCRA.
Bacharah v. Suntrust Mortgage, No. 15-31009 (June 30, 2016).
To acquire rights to use patented check processing technology, Chase paid for a license which contained a “Most Favored Licensee” clause. The licensor granted a similar license to another entity for what Chase contended was a significantly lower royalty. Chase sued and won judgment for roughly $70 million. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, agreeing with Chase’s characterization of the royalty as “paid-up lump sum” rather than “running,” and thus concluding that the MFL clause could apply retroactively and require a refund. A dissent saw the clause as only applying prospectively. The opinions identify a number of practical problems that can arise in drafting sophisticated royalty agreements about intellectual property. JP Morgan Chase Bank NA v. Dixon, No. 15-40905 (May 19, 2016).
In a significant and technical dispute about Clean Air Act liability related to emissions at Exxon’s complex in Baytown Texas, the Fifth Circuit touched on a matter of broader interest about restitution/calculation of “benefit.” In its analysis of a proper civil penalty, the Court noted that “the effect of spending money to achieve compliance is often not mitigation of economic benefit — rather, plaintiffs may point to such expenditures as evidence of the regulated entity’s economic benefit to the extent the delay in making those expenditures allowed the regulated entity to use the money it saved productively.” Environment Texas Citizens Lobby v. ExxonMobil Corp., No. 15-20030 (May 27, 2016).
In Carpenter Properties Inc. v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, the Fifth Circuit found that a contract had been modified notwithstanding a signature on a formal counteroffer, but then found no liability under a “corporate veil” theory as to Chase: “[M]ere frustration with Chase for its failure to pay a commission once Chase’s identity was known is insufficient to amount to frustration of contractual expectations regarding the party to whom Carpenter looked for performance . . . .” No. 15-60309 (May 4, 2016, unpublished).
The plaintiffs in Wendt v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. complained about several violations of the Texas Health Spa Act in the form membership contract of 24 Hour Fitness. Noting the specific remedies provided by that Act, the Fifth Circuit held: “We agree with the district court that Plaintiffs suffered no injury-in-fact. 24 Hour’s alleged violations of the Act did not harm Plaintiffs in any way. To the contrary, 24 Hour gave Plaintiffs exactly what they paid for: access to a gym. Plaintiffs therefore lack Article III standing, and the district court
properly dismissed the case.” No. 15-10309 (April 13, 2016).
JAB Energy successfully sued Cashman Equipment and Cashman’s subsidiary, Servicio Marina Superior (“SMS”), establishing at trial that poor performance by the ocean tug “Atlas” led to roughly $5 million in damages. The Fifth Circuit reversed an “alter ego” finding against Cashman, noting the absence of a fraud allegation against either defendant, and observing that JAB could have negotiated for the same warranty protections from Cashman as from SMS. It affirmed on the merits as to SMS, detailing the well-kept records by the plaintiff about how poorly Atlas tugged, especially as to engine performance and fuel consumption. JAB Energy Solutions v. Servicio Marina Superior, No. 15-30504 (Feb. 26, 2016, unpublished).
Diversity jurisdiction brings unusual claims to the federal courts, none more so than E.C. v. Saraco, in which a girl sued for injuries caused when the neighbors’ poodle attacked her. The poodle owners won summary judgment, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The legal issue was the foreseeability of violence by the poodle — whether it was known to have a “vicious and dangerous disposition.” The Court concluded that no fact issue was raised by evidence of (1) the poodle’s tendency to jump when excited, (2) the poodle’s allegedly tender ears, and (3) the girl’s unfamiliarity with the proper way to pet the poodle. No. 15-60434 (Jan. 4, 2016, unpublished). (The above poodle art was drawn by the great Banksy.)
Judgment creditors garnished two oil tankers (including the M/V FMPC 30, right); the garnishees appealed as to the connection between them and the judgment debtors. After reviewing the distinction between “alter ego” theories at the jurisdictional and merits stages, the Fifth Circuit reversed. Finding that “[t]he [district court relied almost exclusively on two ‘organizational charts’ submitted by Plaintiffs (taken from Garnishees’ website),” the Court found that the charts “do not actually depict corporate structure” or ” show the functional relationship among the entities.” Accordingly, the case for “jurisdictional veil piercing” was not established and the garnishment proceeding was dismissed. Licea v. Curacao Drydock Co., No. 14-20619 (Nov. 23, 2015).
After 15-plus years of litigation, the remaining issues in Art Midwest Inc. v. Clapper related to the calculation of prejudgment interest. No. 14-10973 (Nov. 9, 2015, last before the Fifth Circuit in Art Midwest Inc. v. Atl. Ltd. P’ship XII, 742 F.3d 206 (5th Cir. 2014)). The Court reversed as to the starting date for calculating interest — even though the first judgment by the district court was reversed in part, the date of that judgment was still the proper starting point under Fed. R. App. P. 37(a) and Masinter v. Tenneco Oil Co., 929 F.2d 191 (5th Cir. 1991), aff’d in relevant part, 938 F.2d 536 (5th Cir. 1991). The opinion also touches on waiver and law-of-the-case issues addressed in the 2014 appeal.
Treaty Energy sued for its damages after an involuntary bankruptcy petition against it was dismissed. One of its claims sought damages for losses in connection with attempts to sell its restricted stock during that period. The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants, noting: (1) “Though the sales price of restricted shares did fluctuate, it averaged 0.5¢ immediately before, during, and after the pendency of the involuntary petition, and (2) the affiant about an alleged plan to sell restricted shares at a substantial discount lacked personal knowledge, claiming only that he “did assist in the process when requested, which included gathering information when given direct instructions by his superiors.” Treaty Energy Corp. v. Hallin, No. 15-30113 (Oct. 27, 2015, unpublished).