No, that judgment is not final either.

In LLOG Exploration Co. v. Signet Maritime Corp., after affirming a declaratory judgment about delay damages under a maritime towage contract, the Fifth Circuit found that it lacked jurisdiction over the related award of attorneys’ fees: “[I]n its award of fees and costs to LLOG, the district court did not set a set a specific amount. This court held in S. Travel Club, Inc. v. Carnival Air Lines, Inc., 986 F.2d 125, 131 (5th Cir. 1993), ‘that an order awarding attorney’s fees or costs is not reviewable on appeal until the award is reduced to a sum certain.'” No. 15-31123 (Dec. 23, 2016, unpublished).

No, that judgment is not final.

In a dispute about a home loan, the district court wrote an opinion found for the defendant mortgage servicer in all respects, including its counterclaim for judicial foreclosure. The final judgment, unfortunately, did not address that claim or otherwise contain “catch-all” language. Because “[t]he district court’s ‘final judgment’ neither adjudicates ‘all claims . . . of all parties,’ nor expressly styles itself as a partial final judgment pursuant to Rule 54(b). . . . this Court has no appellate jurisdiction and cannot review the merits of the case.” Wease v. Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC, No. 16-10521 (Dec. 29, 2016, unpublished).

Timely Notices of Appeal and ECF Filing Requirements

cloekThe ECF records for the Western District of Texas showed that the appellant in Sudduth v. Texas Health & Human Services Commission filed her notice of appeal on August 31 — one day late. Following Franklin v. McHugh, 804 F.3d 627 (2d Cir. 2015), the Fifth Circuit found the ECF notices dispositive and dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The Court observed that the Western District local rules and Fed. R. App. P. 4(a)(5) allow a party to seek relief from the district court in the event of technical problems with the ECF filing, which the appellant did not do here. Finally, “Sudduth argues that she was not made aware of any jurisdictional defect until this court requested briefing on this issue and that, at the very least, Franklin should not be retroactively applied to her case because it is new law. But, as previously discussed, the local rules and procedures here were sufficiently clear as to the requirements for timely filing, and the onus is on Sudduth, not the court, to be aware of and cure any deficiencies in the notice of appeal.” No. 15-50764 (July 18, 2016).

Not the right way, under Rule 41(a) – UPDATED

41Bechuck sued Home Depot and Advantage Sales for injuries allegedly suffered in a Home Depot store.  After a pretrial conference at which the district court expressed skepticism about the claims against Home Depot, and a flurry of resulting orders and motions, a final order of dismissal resulted that Bechuck challenged in several ways.  The Fifth Circuit largely agreed with him, concluding, (1) placing a a restriction on where a case can be refiled is not appropriate for a Rule 41(a)(1) or (a)(2) voluntary dismissal, absent any prior history of forum-shopping or other forum-related gamesmanship; and (2) while labelling a Rule 12 dismissal as one under Rule 41(a)(2) is an abuse of discretion, so long as it without prejudice or undue condition, there is no harm because the matter can be freely refiled.  Bechuck v. Home Depot USA, No. 15-20219 (Feb. 17, 2016).

Allegedly fraudulent settlement not set aside

diver down flagCal Dive settled a hard-fought lawsuit against Schmidt, one of its divers, who alleged that he suffered a debilitating brain injury on the job.  A year after the settlement, having continued with surveillance that it conducted during the litigation, Cal Dive brought an “independent action” under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(1) to set aside the settlement, alleging “that, after reaching the Agreement but before signing the Release, Schmidt had acquired a driver’s license and purchased a new car. In the months following the settlement, Schmidt was observed “cutting his grass, shopping, driving, and jogging for at least two miles.”  The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of Cal Dive’s action for failure to plead reliance, noting that during the litigation, “Cal Dive did not believe Schmidt’s allegations or testimony and hired its own experts to examine him over several years.”  Cal Dive Int’l v. Schmidt, No. 15-30300 (Jan. 21, 2016, unpublished).

How to appeal amidst a settlement, and how to distinguish away old precedent

Ybarra sued the Dish Network, alleging that he received seven calls from it in violation if the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.  The trial court granted partial summary judgment for Ybarra on three of the calls, after which the parties agreed to the dismissal of the remaining claims.  Dish appealed, and Ybarra objected because the final judgment did TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Smallnot reserve Dish’s right to appeal.  Distinguishing the much-criticized case of Amstar Corp. v. Southern Pacific, 607 F.2d 1100 (5th Cir. 1979), the Fifth Circuit concluded: “Amstar only precludes the appeal of a claim directly covered by the consent judgment. Here, claims subject the partial summary judgment are independent of the settled claims. The reservation of a right to appeal [in the settlement agreement] was effective.”  Ybarra v. Dish Network, No. 14-11316 (Oct. 20, 2015).

No farrago, in Morocco.

casablanca2The Fifth Circuit reversed a ruling that declined to enforce a Moroccan judgment in the case of Dejoria v. Maghreb Petroleum Exploration, S.A., No. 14-51022 (Sept. 30, 2015).  Acknowledging that the Moroccan court system has been criticized for a lack of independence from that country’s king, the Court concluded that “we cannot agree that the Moroccan judicial system lacks sufficient independence such that fair litigation in Morocco is impossible,” and that the defendant had not shown that “Morocco would not recognize an otherwise enforceable foreign judgment only because the judgment was rendered in Texas.”  The Court distinguished other cases involving Iranian “revolutionary courts” and the Liberian court system during that country’s civil war, saying they “exemplify how a foreign judicial system can be so fundamentally flawed as to offend basic notions of fairness.”

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our proof, but in our pleadings, that they fail Twombly.

The plaintiff in Wooten v. McDonald Transit Assocs. sued for age discrimination and the defendant defaulted.    The trial court received damages evidence and entered judgment for the plaintiff.   The defendant then appeared – unsuccessfully – but obtained reversal from the Fifth Circuit.  No. 13-11035 (Jan 2, 2015).

“On appeal, the [defaulted] defendant, although he may not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, is entitled to contest the sufficiency of the complaint and its allegations to support the judgment.”   Here, the majority saw the pleading as a “threadbare recital of a cause of action,” especially weak as to causation.  At the hearing, however, “[P]laintiff’s live testimony provides sufficient evidence of each of the elements of his ADEA cause of action to support the entry of default.”

After a careful review of the language of the rules, precedent, and policy, the majority emphasized the pleadings over the evidence: “As there can be no judgment absent competent pleadings, it strains the text of [Rule 55] to suppose that this investigatory power encompasses the adduction of facts necessary to render the pleadings competent in the first place.”  The trial court should have either dismissed or, in one of various ways, ordered amendment of the pleadings and afforded the defendant the chance to answer them.  A dissent found that “[t]his result is inordinately lopsided and, even worse, favors the wearer of the black hat over the wearer of the white hat.”

“Enforce” settlement does not mean “change” settlement.

Sundown Energy could access its oil and gas production facility via the Mississippi River, but had to cross Haller’s land to access it from the highway.  They litigated about Sundown’s rights and reached a settlement, which their counsel read into the record on the day set for trial.  The Fifth Circuit found that the parties had reached a settlement, which the district court had the authority to enforce pursuant to their agreement.  The Court reversed, though, as to the district court’s resolution of several logistical issues: “Here, the district court erred by imposing several terms which either conflicted with or added to the agreement read into the record by the parties. Although the parties gave the district court the authority to enforce and interpret the settlement agreement, the district court did not have the power to change the terms of the settlement agreed to by the parties.”  Sundown Energy L.P. v. Haller, No. 13-30294 et al. (Dec. 8, 2014).

How to stipulate

A mortgage servicer sued two individuals, alleging a conspiracy to defraud; the defendants argued that the servicer lacked standing because the notes in question were not properly conveyed.  The case settled during trial, and as part of the settlement “the parties stipulated to several facts, including the fact that the Trusts were the owners and holders of the Loans at issue.”  An agreed judgment followed.  BAC Home Loans Servicing, L.P. v. Groves, No. 13-20764 (Nov. 3, 2014, unpublished).

The defendants then moved to vacate under FRCP 60(b), arguing that the plaintiff lacked standing.  The district court denied the motion and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  It first noted that “the court will generally enforce valid appeal waivers, [but] a party cannot waive Article III standing by agreement . . .”  Further noting that “parties may stipulate to facts but not legal conclusions,” the Court held: “That is exactly what happened here.  [Defendants] conceded facts that establish [plainitiff’s] status; thus, the district court appropriately reached the resulting legal conclusion that [plaintiff] has standing.”

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.

Bleak Haus

The Swareks and the Derrs disputed the ownership of a large farm in Issaquena County, Mississippi (at 1400 residents, the least populous county in that state, but also the home of its largest captured alligator).  Their litigation unfolded as follows:

  1. In 2005, Swareks sued Derrs in Issaquena County;
  2. In March 2009, the Derrs sued Swareks in the — somewhat unlikely — venue of the German Regional Court in Düsseldorf, Germany (population 600,000, and capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia);
  3. In November 2009, the Swareks voluntarily dismissed their claims in Mississippi;
  4. In 2010, the Derrs lost in Germany when that court recognized the dismissal of the Mississippi claims; but then,
  5. The Derrs ultimately won on appeal in Germany before the Higher Regional Court of Düsseldorf, obtaining judgment for $300,000 in costs.

The Derrs sought to domesticate the judgment in Mississippi, and the district court rejected their request, citing res judicata and characterizing the German action as an end run around the Mississippi state court.  On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed with these three observations:

  1. “Filing a mirror-image lawsuit in a foreign court while domestic litigation is pending is not sufficient, on its own, to preclude recognition of a foreign judgment, and the district court erred in denying comity on this ground.”
  2. While dismissal for want of jurisdiction may not have preclusive effect, a voluntary dismissal does: “If the plaintiff chooses to extinguish his rights forever he is entitled to do so, and the defendant will reap the benefit of a res judicata bar to any attempt by the plaintiff
  3. As to the German appellate holding: “The German Higher Regional Court’s decision to sidestep the comity determination and re-adjudicate claims that had already been settled in the Chancery Court violated the Mississippi public policy of res judicata and the Swareks’ right to permanently terminate their claims.  Comity must be a two-way street.”

A dissent characterized the interplay between the Mississippi and German holdings differently, and thus would affirm.

 

2 dismissals = 0 lawsuit.

A little-known but powerful part of Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b) provides: “[I]f the plaintiff previously dismissed any federal- or state-court action based on or including the same claim, a notice of dismissal operates as an adjudication on the merits.”   The Fifth Circuit affirmed a dismissal under this rule in Cabot Golf CL-PP 1, LLC v. Nixon Peabody, No. 13-40912 (July 7, 2014, unpublished).  It began by noting that, in this context, the distinction between Rule 12 and Rule 56 was immaterial, where “the material facts are undisputed, and we address a pure question of law.”  On the merits, Plaintiff had filed a state lawsuit, filed a federal lawsuit, dismissed the state action, and then dismissed the federal case with a unilateral notice.  Plaintiff argued that the 2-dismissal rule “should apply only to serial litigation (i.e., suits which are filed after the earlier suits were dismissed), not to parallel/tandem litigation as in this case (i.e., suits which were already pending when the earlier suits were dismisssed).”  The Court rejected that argument as unsupported by case law or the plain terms of the Rule.

No “sign-off mid-litigation” to “tinker with ongoing cases” . . .

In Tetra Technologies, Inc v. Continental Ins. Co., the district court ruled on several key issues in an insurance coverage dispute, declined to certify the rulings for immediate appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) because it found no substantial ground for difference of opinion, and entered judgment on those matters pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b).  No. 13-30516 (June 10, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit found that judgment improper, and thus dismissed on jurisdictional grounds for lack of a final and appealable order. Rather than sounding the “death knell” of claims as required by Rule 54, the Court concluded that the rulings would allow “Tetra and Maritech to prevail completely nor not at all on their indemnification claim against Continental, depending on the resolution of certain ‘factual issues.'”  “Thus, what we are presented with here is a request by the district court for us to sign off mid-litigation on legal questions it considers non-contentions.  Since the inception of the federal judiciary, however, our role has been to review final decisions of trial courts, not to tinker with ongoing cases through piecemeal appeals . . . “