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 No. 15-60309 (May 4, 2016, unpublished).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 JAB Energy Solutions v. Servicio Marina Superior, No. 15-30504 (Feb. 26, 2016, unpublished).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 No. 15-60434 (Jan. 4, 2016, unpublished).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).
Hilda Garza sued Starr County for wrongfully discharging her as a county attorney, in retaliation for announcing her candidacy for the local school board, and she won a $1.4 million verdict for front pay at trial. The district court set aside the verdict as advisory, reasoning that it went to an issue of equitable relief, and allowed the County to offer her reinstatement as an alternative remedy. The Fifth Circuit reversed. While Fed. R. Civ. P. 39(c) allows an advisory jury, it does not apply when: (1) the parties voluntarily submit an issue to a jury without formal objection, and (2) the district court does not announce in advance that the verdict is advisory. Garza v. Starr County, Texas, No. 14-41343 (Oct. 20, 2015, unpublished) (citing, inter alia, Alcatel USA, Inc. v. DGI Techs., Inc., 166 F.3d 772 (5th Cir. 1999)). (The County also challenged the award as excessive; while noting that the “more prudent course” would have been for the County to cross-appeal, the Court allowed the County to raise that issue on remand — although noting that the County’s lack of earlier objections would limit what it could raise.)
Allstate sued a group of chiropractic clinics and law firms under RICO, alleging that they conspired to send them fraudulent bills for unnecessary services. Allstate won a 7-figure judgment at trial. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, reviewing some basic RICO principles after recent Supreme Court rulings:
- “Although the evidence proving the two will sometimes coalesce, the government still has to satisfy the organizational metric of the enterprise (including continuity and common purpose) and the statutorily enumerated predicated offenses. There is thus no impermissible collapsing of the distinction between the enterprise and the pattern of racketeering.” (applying a plain error standard of review)
- “[M]ail fraud and its place in RICO framework are different from a case alleging common-law fraud, and one of the differences is the lack of a reliance requirement.” Here, “[r]egardless of how proximate cause is sliced, Allstate proved it. There is no plausible argument that the insurers were unforeseeable victims or otherwise wronged by the caprice of chance.”
- As to damages, distinguishing a similar case that found inadequate proof that all paid-for services were unnecessary, the Court held: “There is no such deficiency here. The court instructed the jury, in awarding damages, to distinguish between the portions of the bills generated for unreasonable or unnecessary services and those not generated for those services. Allstate had experts examine all of the files, not just a representative sample, and one of those witnesses testified that Allstate had internally itemized the elements of each settlement.”
Allstate Ins. Co. v. Plambeck, No. 14-10574 (Sept. 17, 2015).
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon accident, plaintiffs sought to bring two class actions against BP alleging violations of federal securities law — one regarding BP’s representations about its pre-spill safety procedures, and one about BP’s post-accident statements as to the flow rate of oil after the spill occurred. The district court certified the post-spill class, concluding that the plaintiffs had established a model of damages consistent with their liability case and capable of measurement across the class, and refused to certify the pre-spill class, finding that it had not satisfied the “common damages” burden established by the Supreme Court in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). The Fifth Circuit affirmed. As to the post-spill class, the Court reviewed BP’s criticisms of the plaintiffs’ damages expert, and found that they were not so potent as to invalidate his theory at the class certification stage. As to the pre-spill class, however, the Court agreed that the expert failed to exclude class members who would have bought the stock even with full knowledge of the alleged risks, making his analysis infirm for certification purposes. Ludlow v. BP, PLC, No. 14-20420 (revised Sept.15, 2015).
Bartos, an injured seaman, sued for future lost wages. His expert offered calculations based on a retirement age of 55.8 (from a table of work-life expectancies) or 67 (the Social Security full-retirement age). The Fifth Circuit reversed a damages award based on the older age and rendered an award based on the younger one, reasoning: “Barto’s economist did not provide any reason to believe that Barto would continue to work past his statistical work-life expectancy. The only relevant evidence Barto presented at trial was his testimony that he plans to work ‘[a]s long as I can retire. Whatever the retirement age is.’ This scant evidence was not enough to show that Barto ‘by virtue of his health or occupation or other factors, is likely to live and work a longer, or shorter, period than the average.'” Barto v. Shore Construction LLC, No. 14-31326 (revised Sept. 29, 2015).
The plaintiff in International Marine LLC v. FDT proved 33 breaches of the noncompete provisions of a contract related to the chartering of tugboats. The district court and Fifth Circuit agreed that a liquidated damages clause applied to the last several breaches. As to the first five, however, the Court reasoned that the clause “would impose an unreasonable penalty, because due to the parties’ conduct, we know the extent of damages [Plaintiff] suffered from each of these breaches.” It noted: “For over a century, courts have refused to award liquidated damages for contractual breaches solely involving default on payment obligations.” No. 14-31192 (Aug. 10, 2015, unpublished).
Johnny Long, a former bankruptcy debtor, sought to bring FCA claims against his former employer. The defendant successfully obtained dismissal on the ground of judicial estoppel because the claim was not listed on Long’s bankruptcy schedules. After reminding that judicial estoppel, as a flexible and equitable doctrine, does not automatically compel dismissal in such a situation, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The elements are that “(1) the party against whom judicial estoppel is sought has asserted a legal position which is plainly inconsistent with a prior position, (2) a court accepted the prior position, and (3) the party did not act inadvertently.” The specific issue was the third element, and whether Long had a motivation to conceal. The Court noted three advantageous features the payment terms in Long’s Chapter 13 plan, which disclosure could have endangered — and further noted that after judicial estoppel was raised, Long sought to reopen his case so “he may pay interest to his creditors” if he recovered on his FCA claim. United States ex rel Long v. GSD&M Idea City, LLC, 798 F.3d 265 (5th Cir. 2015). A later award to the defendant of roughly $200,000 in costs was substantially affirmed in United States ex rel Long v. GSDMidea City, LLC, No. 14-11049 (Dec. 1, 2015).
A contract dispute about the management of several vessels (among them, the M/V Maurader, right) led to a holding that a termination fee was void as a penalty. The contract required the boat owner to pay the management company “fifty percent of what [it] would have earned as a Management Fee had [the] Agreement not been so terminated,” and provided a formula for making that calculation, which in this case was $537,246.86. “The termination fee formula, however, makes no deductions to account for the fact that [management company] would have fewer expenses in the event of termination, and [it] has not quantified the expenses that would remain.” Comar Marine Co. v. Raider Marine Logistics LLC, No. 13-30156 (July 6, 2015).
A set of “kaleidoscopic claims” about the Houston ISD’s contracting process produced several RICO holdings of note in Ramirez Group v. Houston ISD, No. 13-20753 (May 18, 2015):
- To show the requisite injury, “[a] plaintiff need not show that the other party would have been obliged to confer a benefit, only that the other party would have conferred the benefit.” This can be shown by a substantial drop in work assignments coupled with other suspicious activity.
- The Houston ISD is immune from suit under RICO, because a governmental entity cannot form the requisite criminal intent, and because municipal entities enjoy common law immunity from punitive damages.
- Official immunity does not extend to a school trustee accused of acting “wholly outside the legitimate scope” of his duties by allegedly accepting bribes.
- The requisite mental state for tortious interference can be shown “[w]here only a limited number of . . . contractors would be selected, [so] all of the participants in the scheme ‘knew the interference was substantially certain to occur as a result of the conduct.'”