Consolidation of two cases = CAFA removal as “mass action”

Plaintiffs, represented by the same counsel, sought to consolidate two actions in state court; the defendant removed under CAFA’s “mass action” provision. A Fifth Circuit panel majority affirmed the denial of Plaintiff’s motion to remand, rejecting arguments about timeliness, retroactivity, and CAFA’s text. The majority reasoned that “it is the mass action, not claims against particular defendants, that is removable,” and that the plaintiff’s motion satisfied the CAFA requirement of “100 or more persons . . . proposed to be tried jointly on the ground that the plaintiffs’ claims involve common questions of law or fact.” A dissent would remand based on CAFA’s “not-retroactivity” language, as one of the state cases was filed before CAFA took effect. Lester v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 14-31383 (Jan. 9, 2018).

Deposition transcript is “other paper” for removal clock

While both sides made cogent policy arguments, plain meaning triumphed in Morgan v. Huntington Ingalls, and the Fifth Circuit held that the thirty-day removal deadline begins to run from receipt of a deposition transcript that may create a basis for removal, rather than the oral testimony itself.  “[P]aper” is defined as “[a] written or printed document or instrument.” “[R]eceipt” is defined as the “[a]ct of receiving; also, the fact of receiving or being received; that which is received.” “Copy” is defined as “[t]he transcript or double of an original writing.” “‘Ascertain’ means ‘to make certain, exact, or precise’ or ‘to find out or learn with certainty.’” No. 17-30523 (Jan. 11, 2018).

What triggers the right to remove?

In this not-unusual situation, the Fifth Circuit found that a removal based on diversity was timely: In response to special exceptions, [the Strongs] filed an amended petition stating the maximum amount of damages in controversy by specifying that the Strongs sought “monetary relief of $100,000 or less.” Cf. Tex.  R. Civ. P. 169 (requiring the “$100,000 or less” language to allow for expedited actions). The Strongs also sought injunctive relief ordering both a loan modification to prevent further TDCA violation and “the arrearage . . . to be deleted and/or capitalized . . . so that the loan is brought current.” Green Tree did not remove to federal district court until after it received a response to its request for disclosure in which the Strongs explicitly indicated that they were seeking damages in excess of $75,000.” The Court rejected the Strong’s argument that the petition implictly placed the entire property value at issue. Strong v. Green Tree Servicing LLC, No. 16-11346 (Dec. 11, 2017) (unpublished).

No, that’s not a federal question

Griffith sued his former employer under state law, referring in the pleading to a charge he filed with the EEOC and its issuance of a right-to-sue notice. Alcon removed based on federal question jurisdiction; the district court accepted the removal and granted summary judgment to the employer. The Fifth Circuit reversed: “Although Griffith indeed referenced his dealings with the EEOC in his complaint, he did not mention Title VII or any similar federal statute. As such, the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiciton and was not entitled to render judgment in Alcon’s favor.” Griffith v. Alcon Research, No. 17-20290 (Dec. 6, 2017, unpublished).

Scope of CAFA remand review

Johnson v. Real Estate Mortgage Network, Inc. reminds of a technical but important point about the review of remand orders under CAFA in the Fifth Circuit: “Facing our CAFA deadline, we continue to apply [prior preceden’s] suggestion that our jurisdiction to review a CAFA remand order stops at the edge of the CAFA portion of the order,” and does not extend to “every issue decided in the remand order, including federal question jurisdiction.” No. 17-30768 (Nov. 30, 2017).

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).

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).

No foreclosure, ergo no wrongful foreclosure

Foster sued about a foreclosure; the state court granted a TRO (so no foreclosure occurred); and the mortgage servicer defendants removed and obtained summary judgment. Foster challenged the denial of her motion to remand, arguing that she did not improperly join the substitute trustee appointed to conduct the foreclosure sale. The Fifth Circuit affirmed: “[B]reach of a trustee’s duty does not constitute an independent tort; rather, it yields a cause of action for wrongful foreclosure. A claim of wrongful foreclosure cannot succeed, however, when no foreclosure has occurred.” Foster v. Deutsche Bank, No. 16-11045 (Feb. 8, 2017).

Waiver of removal rights – law’s the same –

Defendants removed, the plaintiff moved to remand, and the the district court granted the motion. It found a waiver of the right to remove, noting this contract provision: “The Parties hereto hereby irrevocably and unconditionally consent to the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of Harris County in the State of Texas for any action, suit or proceeding arising out of or relating to this Agreement or the Proposed Transaction . . . .” The defendants claimed ambiguity (which would make the waiver no longer be “clear and unambiguous,” and thus not satisfy the demanding standard in this area) from (1) the definition of “Proposed Transaction,” (2) the definitions of the relevant parties, and the use of “Proposed Transaction” in the above part of the relevant clause, but not in another, similar provision later in it. The Fifth Circuit rejected these arguments and affirmed, but also affirmed the denial of any award of attorneys’ fees. Grand View PV Solar Two, LLC v. Helix Elec., Inc., No. 16-20384 (Feb. 1, 2017). The opinion is a good summary of the law on this topic, which has not been addressed in detail recently.

Copied right, but not copyright.

copyright_symbol_9The plaintiff in GlobeRanger Corp. v. Software AG won a $15 million judgment for misappropriation of trade secrets. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

Removal, remand, and post-removal developments

remove stampJefferson v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyds visited the intricate rules surrounding appellate review of remand orders. Here: “Dismissals of non-diverse parties allow for the exercise of diversity jurisdiction, and the propriety of remand in a properly removed case is judged on the basis of the district court’s jurisdiction over the claims remaining at the time of remand, not the time of removal.” Accordingly, “the district court had no discretion to remand this case if the remaining parties were diverse at the time of removal.” No. 15-30211 (Aug. 15, 2016, unpublished).

Remanded, to fight another day

RemandIn Wright v. ANR Pipeline, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had not stated a plausible claim against a (nondiverse) employee of a pipeline company, and affirmed the remand of the matter to state court. It changed the disposition of the merits, however, reminding that because the improper joinder “inquiry does not concern the merits, where the court determines that defendant has been improperly joined and should be dismissed, that dismissal must be without prejudice.” No. 15-30741 (June 14, 2016, unpublished).

A removal that ran the red light

red light cameraThe plaintiff in Watson v. City of Allen sued, in Texas state court, several Texas cities about the operation of their “red light camera” programs.No. 15-10732 (May 5, 2016). The cities removed based on his RICO claim and CAFA. Plaintiff then dropped the RICO claim and sought remand based on CAFA’s “local controversy” and “home state” exceptions. The district court kept the case, finding it untimely as to CAFA, finding supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims, and dismissing many claims for lack of standing. The Fifth Circuit reversed, concluding:

  1. The 30-day deadline in 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) does not apply to CAFA mandatory abstention provisions, since it “does not deprive federal courts of subject matter jurisdiction, but rather, acts as a limitation upon the exercise of jurisdiction granted by CAFA.”
  2. The CAFA motion was filed within a reasonable time of removal, when “[a]ll indications are that [Plaintiff] acted diligently to gather evidence,” and because “fifty-two days is simply not a very long time.”
  3. TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_SmallThe “home state” exception applied because “[t]his suit’s primary thrust is an attempt to declare unconstitutional red light camera scheme,” meaning that the State of Texas and its municipalities were the “primary defendants,” and not the companies hired to carry out the program.
  4. The district court should have declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction, since “Texas courts have a strong interest” in the remaining issues and the plaintiff’s “motion to amend . . . to delete the federal claims is not a particularly egregious form of forum manipulation, if it is manipulation at all.”

Improper joinder clarified, maybe.

joinderAlleging that a toe joint implant did not work properly, Flagg sued “Manufacturing Defendants” (who built the implant) and “Medical Defendants” (who surgically installed it in Flagg’s foot.)  The Manufacturing Defendants were diverse from Flagg,  a Louisiana citizen, while the Medical Defendants were not.

Affirming the district court while reversing the panel, an 11-4 en banc opinion holds “the plaintiff had improperly joined the non-diverse defendants because [he] has not exhausted his claims against those parties as required by statute.”  That Louisiana statute requires review by a “medical review panel” before suit is filed against a health care provider; the Fifth Circuit concluded that pursuant to it, “there is no doubt that the state court would have been required to dismiss the Medical Defendants from the case,” as no such review had occurred at the time of removal.  A vigorous dissent raised questions about the Court’s standard for analyzing claims of improper joinder, as well as whether this kind of state statute (“a non-adjudicative, non-comprehensive, waivable process since concluded in this case”) was a proper foundation for an improper joinder claim.  Flagg v. Stryker Corp., No. 14-31169 (March 24, 2016) (en banc).

When is a claim illusory?

illusionistCollins challenged bankruptcy court jurisdiction over “illusory indemnity and contribution claims” that he alleged had no conceivable effect on the bankruptcy estate due to their lack of merit.  The Fifth Circuit rejected his argument: “Both the Supreme Court and this court have gravitated away from conflating jurisdiction and merits, and Collins’s proposed standard results in exactly that conflation.”  The Court also noted that the claims, based on a principal’s alleged commitment to indemnify its agent, were not “wholly insubstantial and frivolous” on their merits.  Collins v. Sidharthan, No. 14-41226 (Dec. 15, 2015).

Anchors aweigh, to state court

navy2in3The defendants in Bartel v. Alcoa Steamship Co. sought to remove three Jones Act cases to federal court under the Federal Officer Removal Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1).  While each of the cases involved a United States Naval Ship (one owned by the Navy but operated by civil contractors), “no evidence show[ed] that the government actually exercised continuing oversight over operations aboard ship,” meaning that “the Federal Officer Defendants operated the vessels  in a largely independent fashion and, at a minimum, were free to adopt the safety measures the plaintiffs now allege would have prevented their injuries.”  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the remand of the cases. No. 15-30004 (Oct. 19, 2015).  [As a procedural note, those defendants had already been dismissed, but their dismissal did not affect the analysis of whether removal was proper at the time it occurred.]

An exhausting look at improper joinder

LA flagA prospective plaintiff in a medical malpractice case in Louisiana must submit the claim to a medical review panel before filing suit.  When suit is filed before the panel is done, district courts have divided on whether an in-state defendant is “improperly joined” for purposes of a diversity analysis in a removal.  In Flagg v. Stryker Corp., the Court concluded that such a defendant is not improperly joined, finding that the panel did not actually adjudicate the claim, and that the panel process could be waived by the parties. A dissent reasoned that the Louisiana statute was analogous to federal statutes where thee court had found improper joinder in similar situations.  No. 14-31169 (Sept. 4, 2015).

ERISA allows many removals, but not this one

A medical group sued a payor for underpayments.  The payor removed under ERISA complete preemption, contending that “about 98% of [Plaintiff’s] claims are claims for ERISA plan benefits.”  The district court kept the case and entered judgment for the payor; the Fifth Circuit reversed: “a claim that implicates the rate of payment as set out in the Provider Agreement, rather than the right to payment under the terms of the benefit plan, does not run afoul of [Aetna Health, Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200 (2004)] and is not preempted by ERISA.”  Kelsey-Seybold Medical Group v. Great-West Healthcare of Texas, No. 14-20506 (Aug. 10, 2015, unpublished).

Trade secret tactics

copyrightSMI alleged ten causes of action, claiming that the defendants “had stolen both technical and business trade secrets related to VaultWorks,” a software program that helps banks manage their cash inventories.  Spear Marketing, Inc. v. Bancorpsouth Bank, No. 14-10753 (June 30, 2015).    A series of unfortunate events for SMI ensued:

1.  Defendants removed on the grounds of complete preemption under the copyright laws.  Acknowledging a lack of Fifth Circuit precedent on the specific issues in this case, as well as a split among other circuits, the Court found that “the technical trade secrets found within VaultWorks fall within the subject matter of copyright,” and that SMI’s Texas Theft Liability Act claim — and to the extent it involved intangible assets, its conversion claim – – were preempted.

2.  SMI’s post-removal amendment to drop the key language for preemption failed because “jurisdictional facts are determined at the time of removal, and consequently post-removal events do not affect that properly established jurisdiction.”  The Court concluded that “SMI has conflated the question whether the initial removal was proper . . . with the question whether the district court should, in its discretion, remand the case when the federal claims disappear as the case progresses.”

3.  The remaining claims — trade secret misappropriation, in particular — failed for a lack of proof that the defendants actually used the information in question.

No “federal officer” removal for government contractor

A shipbuilder, under contract to the federal government, sought to remove an asbestos claim to federal court under the “Federal Officer Removal Statute,” 28 U.S.C. § 1442.  The Fifth Circuit concluded that the shipbuilder was acting at the direction of the federal government, but that the plaintiff’s pleading did not establish a link between his alleged exposure and the shipbuilder’s boat (a seemingly fundamental causation problem, but not implicated at this initial procedural stage).  Wilde v. Huntington Ingalls, Inc. (June 19, 2015, unpublished).

Don’t forget subject matter jurisdiction . . . UPDATED

The defendants in a wrongful foreclosure case removed and the district court dismissed the borrower’s claims on the pleadings. The Fifth Circuit reversed for jurisdictional reasons.  Smith v. Bank of America, No. 14-50256 (revised March 20, 2015, unpublished).

As to diversity jurisdiction, which was based on improper joinder of several defendants, the Court reminded: “[W]hen confronted with an allegation of improper joinder, the court must determine whether the removing party has discharged its substantial burden before proceeding to analyze the merits of the action.”

What is an objectively reasonable removal?

The issue in Omega Hospital LLC v. Louisiana Health Service & Indemnity was whether the defendant (also known as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana), had an objectively reasonable basis for removal.  No. 13-31085 (Nov. 18, 2014, unpublished).  Some of the Blue Cross insureds at issue were federal employees covered by a plan overseen by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  The Fifth Circuit reversed an award of attorneys fees against Blue Cross, noting “case law arguably supporting Blue Cross, and the absence of a ruling from this court,” and thus concluding: “We cannot say that Blue Cross lacked a reasonable belief in the propriety of removal” under the “federal officer” statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1).

Some jurisdiction, but not much.

The Fifth Circuit withdrew its original opinion in Scarlott v. Nissan North America to issue a revised opinion on rehearing.  No. 13-20528 (Nov.10, 2014).  The Court did not materially change its earlier holding that the amount-in-controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction was not satisfied, or its disposition by a remand to the district court for purposes of remand to state court.  The Court added discussion — and a dissent — about how the district court should handle a sanctions award on remand.  The plurality simply said: “In light of our holding that the district court did not have jurisdiction over this case, the district court should reconsider whether to award attorneys’ fees and costs to the defendants; and if the court decides that attorneys’ fees and costs are still appropriate, the court should reconsider the amount of the award.”  The dissent would vacate the award; among other points, it made this basic one: “By its very nature, section 1927 involves assessing the merits of the claim, which establishes the inappropriateness of the district court’s order in light of the lack of jurisdiction.”

Remand Orders Not Reviewable. Except When Reviewable.

Vaillancourt sued a mortgage servicer, the substitute trustee for a foreclosure, and her husband.  The defendants removed, claiming fraudulent joinder of the in-state defendants, and the district court rejected that argument and remanded.  In so doing, it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the accompanying state-law claims.   Vaillancourt v. PNC Bank, N.A., No. 14-40303 (Nov. 5, 2014).  A good exam question for a Federal Courts class resulted.

Because the district court based its remand order on its decision to decline supplemental jurisdiction, the Fifth Circuit (under its prior precedents) had appellate jurisdiction over that ruling, which necessarily included review of the predicate ruling about original jurisdiction. The Court noted that this result “is in some tension with 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d)’s command that ‘[a]n order remanding a case to the State court from which it was removed is not reviewable on appeal or otherwise,’ which the Supreme Court has construed to insulate from appellate review remands made on the basis of subject matter jurisdiction.”

The Court went on to reverse the ruling about fraudulent joinder, finding no cognizable claim pleaded against the trustee or the husband.  Accordingly, because “‘the district court had diversity jurisdiction over the state law claims at the time of remand,’ and ‘the exercise of that jurisdiction is mandatory,'” it reversed the remand order.

Texas state court: $3 million default taken at 10:15 AM.

In somewhat quirky language, the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure set this deadline to answer a lawsuit: “[O]n or before 10:00 a.m. on the Monday next after the expiration of twenty days after the date of service.”  Despite the specific time stated, attorneys often calendar only the answer day, reasoning that a default judgment is unlikely in the space of a few hours.  That practice failed in G&C Land v. Farmland Management Services, in which the plaintiff obtained a default judgment for over $3,000,000 at 10:15 on the critical Monday.  No. 14-10046 (5th Cir. Sept. 23, 2014).

Plaintiff alleged fraud claims about the costs of an agricultural lease on a West Texas farm; the judgment granted recovery on those claims and trebled the damages under the DTPA.  Two hours later, the defendant removed and then sought to set aside the default judgment.  The district court ultimately granted that motion, along with a summary judgment for the defendant on the merits, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Whilte the Fifth Circuit’s opinion is short and unpublished, the district court opinion (page 31 of the attached) goes into substantial detail about the default judgment.  It found a lack of willfulness by the defendant, a lack of prejudice to the plaintiff, and meritorious defenses.  As to willfulness, the district court noted that “fault is attributed only to Farmland’s counsel,” and held: “There is no dispute that Farmland failed to file an answer or remove before the deadline to answer in state court, which failure is attributed to the negligence of Farmland’s counsel.  Yet, such negligence does not amount to willfulness . . . “   It also noted that while Farmland had timely answered after removal in accordance with the Federal rules, “this alone does not excuse Farmland’s failure to timely answer in state court.”

The federal courts’ decisions to set aside the default judgment are clearly correct – the (affirmed) summary judgment shows that the claim lacked merit, and plaintiff was not prejudiced by having to address the merits instead of resting on a 15-minute “gotcha.”  And as to the deadline, the opinions do not address Rule 5 of the Texas Rule of Civil Procedure, which provides:  “If any document is sent to the proper clerk by first-class United States mail in an envelope or wrapper properly addressed and stamped and is deposited in the mail on or before the last day for filing same, the same, if received by the clerk not more than ten days tardily, shall be filed by the clerk and be deemed filed in time (emphasis added).”  A serious argument says that the state court’s speedy grant of a default judgment did not allow Rule 5 a chance to function as intended.

Nevertheless, the district court faulted defense counsel for not answering before 10:00, and used the word “negligence” to describe what happened.  Had the facts been different – a stronger claim, a change of position in reliance on the judgment – the decision could have been closer and counsel’s situation would have become more awkward.  In light of the facts of this case, defense counsel should be mindful of the 10:00 AM deadline in the rules, and factor it into their calendaring system.

A similar article about this case appeared in a recent Texas LawBook.