Objections 101

objectionBankruptcy debtors complained that the district court erred erred in overruling their objections to the bankruptcy court’s proposed findings of fact, noting that no responses were filed to those objections. The Fifth Circuit disagreed: “No statute or rule prohibits the district court from considering or ruling on the merits of an unopposed motion just because it is unopposed.”  (Of course, “[b]y failing to file objections or respond . . . [the adverse parties] have waived their right to appeal the proposed findings and to present any legal issues in opposition to them,” but “[t]hat waiver . . . has no impact on the district court’s authority to consider the merits of the objection.” Monge v. Rojas, No. 15-50180 (June 14, 2016, unpublished).

Preservation twofer in contract case

The parties to a contract about the construction of a barge disputed whether an amendment required price adjustments based on the price of steel.   Blessey Marine Services, Inc. v. Jeffboat, LLC, No. 13-30731 (Nov. 10, 2014, unpublished).  In a pretrial summary judgment ruling, the district court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the contract was unambiguous, and held a jury trial to hear extrinsic evidence and resolve the ambiguity.  On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held:

1.  Because the plaintiff did not renew the ambiguity argument in a Rule 50 motion (although it did raise the point in a motion in limine and in opposition to the other side’s motion), the Court could not consider it on appeal; and

2.  “By adducing some of the same extrinsic evidence at trial that it had sought to exclude in its motion in limine, [Plaintiff] waived its right to challenge the district court’s admission of that evidence.”  (citing Fed. R. Evid. 103(b) and Ohler v. United States, 529 U.S. 753, 755 (2000) [“[A] party introducing evidence cannot complain on appeal that the evidence was erroneously admitted.”])

Preservation Twofer

1.  Request a limiting instruction to help preserve evidentiary error:  “Moreover, even if there is merit to this distinction, [Defendant] never requested a limiting instruction during trial that would have enabled the jury to consider the evidence regarding insurance only for permissible purposes. Where ‘counsel never requested a more complete limiting instruction,’ the district court ‘cannot [be] fault[ed] . . . for failing to give one spontaneously.” Eagle Suspensions, Inc. v. Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, Inc. (June 9, 2014, unpublished).

2.  Renew earlier issues to help preserve charge error: “Essentially, [Defendant] now argues that the district court should have recalled [Defendant’s] federal preemption argument from January and February 2013 when drafting the final jury instructions on March 20, 2013, even though [Defendant] itself never referenced this federal preemption argument in [Defendant’s] objections to the proposed jury instructions. . . . [A]  party cannot merely rely on ‘‘the fact that the court is already aware of its position as an excuse for a failure to make a specific, formal objection at the charge conference.’  Rule 51 specifically requires parties to make their objections after the proposed jury charge has been drafted and distributed for comment.”  Id. (quoting Jimenez v. Wood County, 660 F.3d 841, 845-46 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc)).

A series of unfortunate events

1.  Defendants’ Rule 59 motion was filed a day late, “therefore the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion.”

2.  Post-verdict, the defendant did not renew, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b), an earlier Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) motion that challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for the plaintiff’s mental anguish claims.  The Court “decline[d] to review” the issue, noting that the Fifth Circuit’s cases “are not entirely uniform” as to whether this oversight was a waiver or allows review under a plain error standard.

3.  The Court found no plain error from the plaintiff’s closing argument, including the lawyer’s “odd tactic of handing his business card to the jury during argument, especially in light of the court’s curative instructions and [defendant’s] failure to move for a mistrial.” McLendon v. Big Lots Stores No. 13-20338 (April 14, 2014, unpublished).

 

Tortious interference damages affirmed

In Homoki v. Conversion Services, a check processing company sued its sales agent and a competitor.  No. 11-20371 (May 28, 2013).  It won judgment for $700,000 against the competitor for tortious interference with the sales agent’s contract with the company, and $2.15 million against the agent for past and future lost profits.  The company and competitor appealed.  First, the Fifth Circuit — assuming without deciding that the plaintiff had to show the competitor’s awareness of an exclusivity provision in the agent’s contract — found sufficient evidence of such knowledge in testimony and the parties’ course of dealing, and affirmed liability for tortious interference.  Second, the Court found that the plaintiff’s “experience in managing his business for sixteen years” supported his damages testimony, and that “[w]hile [plaintiff]’s presentation of its damages evidence was far from ideal,” also found sufficient evidence of causation on the interference claim.  Finally, the Court found that the plaintiff had given adequate notice of its claim of conspiracy to breach fiduciary duties (the joint pretrial order was not signed by the judge), but the plaintiff waived jury trial on that issue by not requesting a damages question — particularly given the significant dispute about causation in the evidence presented.

Noncompete enforceable (LA law) but damages excessive

The plaintiff in Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. v. Babcock obtained a $1.2 million judgment for violation of a noncompetition agreement in the insurance field.  No. 11-30452 (Dec. 18, 2012).   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the enforceability of the agreement.  As to its substance, the Court held that Gallagher’s prohibition of employees from competing for accounts on which they actually worked at Gallagher was “less restrictive than allowed under state law.”  As to geographic scope, the Court affirmed the district court’s narrowing of the provision from 64 parishes to the 9 in which Gallagher actually provided insurance services.  The Court vacated the damages because the key witness conflated (a) the group of clients who chose to leave Gallagher after the employee left with (b) the group of clients who actually followed Gallagher to his new employer.  See id. at 18 (“Defendants did not breach their agreements by leaving GBSI, but by accepting work from clients who departed along with them.”)

Rule 60(b)(5) and a co-defendant’s appeal

Lowry Development LLC v. Groves & Assocs. Insurance involved a real estate developer who sued its insurer about coverage for wind damage, and alternatively, its insurance agent for negligence.  No. 11-60670 (Aug. 3, 2012).  The district court granted summary judgment for the developer against the insurer (thereby mooting the claim against the agent), which the Fifth Circuit reversed.  Id. at 3.   The developer then sought to reinstate its claim against the agent.  The Court found that the agent’s dismissal was “based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated” and thus came within Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(5).  The agent argued that the insurer should have taken a protective appeal at the time of the original dismissal, but the Court, “[a]cknowledging that [plaintiff’s Rule 60(b) motion looks like the protective appeal it failed to file,” found no abuse of discretion in the district court’s decision to grant the motion.  Id. at 10.

Exchange of opinions about charge error preservation

In the context of a denial of en banc rehearing, a concurring and dissenting opinion disputed whether an issue of charge error in an employment case had been preserved below.  Nassar v. UT Southwestern Medical Center, No. 11-10338 (July 19, 2012).  The exchange echoes a similar one in the recent en banc case of Jimenez v. Wood County, 660 F.3d 841 (5th Cir. 2011). 

Sanctions affirmed for “John Doe” ISP subpoenas

The plaintiff’s counsel in Mick Haig Productions v. Does 1-670 served subpoenas on Internet service providers (ISPs) about the alleged wrongful download of pornographic material.  No. 11-10977 (July 12, 2012).   The district court found that the subpoenas violated orders that it had made to manage discovery, and imposed significant monetary and other sanctions on the lawyer.  Op. at 4-5.  The Fifth Circuit found that all of the lawyer’s appellate challenges were waived — either because they were not raised below, or were raised only in an untimely motion to stay filed after the notice of appeal, and thus were waived.  Id. at 5.  The Court declined to apply a “miscarriage of justice” exception to the standard waiver rules, stating that the lawyer’s actions were “an attempt to repeat his strategy of . . . shaming or intimidating [the Does] into settling . . . .”  Id. at 6.

Mutual mistake, ambiguity, and extrinsic evidence

The Fifth Circuit addressed the doctrine of mistake under Louisiana law in Fruge v. Amerisure663 F.3d 743 (2011).  After reminding that choice-of-law issues are waived unless presented to the district court, the Court considered reformation of an insurance policy under general contract principles.  The Court began by noting that Louisiana law allows reformation in the case of mutual mistake, and consideration of extrinsic evidence to prove such a mistake, even if the policy language is unambiguous.  It reviewed different post-accident reformation scenarios, noting that a Louisiana statute generally precludes a post-accident reformation to rescind coverage, and concluded that a reformation claim based on mutual mistake was cognizable in the post-accident setting presented in this case.  The Court reversed and remanded, noting that the extrinsic evidence could potentially prove that no mistake occurred.

$28 million judgment affirmed in stock option case

The case of Garriott v. NCsoft presented a challenge to a $28 million judgment for breach of an employee’s stock option contract.  After resolving a liability issue under South Korean law about the employee’s termination, the Court considered whether the judgment impermissibly considered post-breach stock appreciation.  The Court faulted the defendant for not raising its challenge to the damages calculation in a Daubert motion, evidence objection, or charge objection, and rejected the argument under “plain error” review.  Op. at 7-9 (“Displeased with the jury’s decision, NCSoft now asks for a mulligan.”)  The Court also found sufficient direct evidence, consistent with the expert models, as to when the employee would have sold his shares.  Op. at 9 (reminding that damages “may be too speculative if based on ‘assumptions without basis in the real world,'” but that the plaintiff “need not prove damages with mathematical certainty”).