Duggan, an non-named member of a class certified under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(1), made an untimely objection to the fairness of the class settlement. While he was not a named party, he sought to appeal under the doctrine recognized by Devlin v. Scardelletti, 536 U.S. 1 (2002), which allowed non-named class members “who have objected in a timely manner to approval of the settlement at the fairness hearing have the power to bring an appeal without first intervening.” Unfortunately for Duggan, the Fifth Circuit found no reason to excuse his late objection, in particular rejecting the argument that his opponent was required to move to strike the objection in district court as a prerequisite to arguing waiver on appeal. Farber v. Crestwood Midstream Partners LP , No. 16-20742 (July 17, 2017).
Litigation continues on the Texas tollroads, most recently producing a defamation lawsuit in BancPass v. Highway Toll Administration LLC, arising from letters sent by a company’s competitors to Google and Apple. The defendant unsuccessfully argued that the letters were immune from liability by the Texas privilege associated with court proceedings.
Before the Fifth Circuit, matters began well for the defendant – the Court concluded (1) that an immediate interlocutory appeal was allowed because the Texas privilege protects from suit, not just liability, and (2) while “[c]ertainly, the district court expressed its displeasure” at this issue arising late in the proceedings, it did not formally certify the appeal as frivolous (and thus avoided a line of cases that would otherwise have undermined defendant’s appeal right). But on the merits:
“Texas caselaw is clear that our analysis must focus on the connection between the communications and the specific legal action HTA now claims that it was contemplating, rather than legal action more broadly. The letters to Google and Apple in particular put forward bare accusations of unlawful conduct that was unrelated to HTA’s later tortious interference claim and that neither directly implicated HTA’s own legal rights nor constituted legal claims that HTA had any ability to pursue.”
No. 16-51073 (July 13, 2017).
At oral argument, the appellant in a technical dispute about the appointment of arbitrators “argued for the first time that ‘if maritime jurisdiction applies, then . . . there is appellate jurisdiction over the appeal.'” The Fifth Circuit observed: “We do not usually allow parties to raise a new argument for the first time at oral argument. . . . Of course, an argument that this court lacks jurisdiction cannot be waived, but here the argument is that the court has jurisdiction, a matter the appellant is required to prove.” Bordelon Marine, LLC v. Bibby Subsea ROV, LLC, No. 16-30847 (April 14, 2017, unpublished).
In Smitherman v. Bayview Loan Servicing LLC, the Fifth Circuit order a limited remand to the district court, so that court could supplement the record about the defendant’s citizenship and then make findings. The district court, however, went on to vacate the judgment it had entered previously and remand the case to state court. The Fifth Circuit observed: “Because the district court lacked the authority to do so, we construe its order to be an indicative ruling made pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 62.1(a)(2). Accordingly, we REMAND this case to the district court and DISMISS the appeal as moot and relinquish jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 12.1(b).” No. 16-20328 (March 29, 2017, unpublished).
It is well-settled nationally that “an appellate court may not alter a judgment to benefit a nonappealing party” because “it takes a cross-appeal to justify a remedy in favor of an appellee.” Greenlaw v. United States, 554 U.S. 237, 244–45 (2008). The Fifth Circuit treats that principle as jurisdictional. See, e.g., Amazing Spaces, Inc. v. Metro Mini Storage, 608 F.3d 225, 250 (5th Cir. 2010) (“[T]his circuit follows the general rule that, in the absence of a cross-appeal, an appellate court has no jurisdiction to modify a judgment so as to enlarge the rights of the appellee or diminish the rights of the appellant.”) Some other Circuits, however, take a different view. See, e.g., Am. Roll-On Roll-Off Carrier LLC v. P&O Parts Baltimore, Inc., 479 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2007) (“This circuit views the cross-appeal requirement as one of practice, rather than as a strict jurisdictional requirement.”) (Thanks to my LPCH colleague Russ Herman for pointing this out.)
In Netsch v. Sherman, the appellants’ counsel missed the 14-day deadline for an appeal from bankruptcy court. The district court denied relief and the Fifth Circuit affirmed; while noting that all relevant factors were either neutral or favored appellants, it concluded:”[T]he bankruptcy court concluded that the reason for the delay weighed strongly against finding excusable neglect. In its analysis of this factor, the bankruptcy court emphasized that the parties had been subject to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure throughout the adversary proceeding, these rules were unambiguous, and Appellants’ counsel confused the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The bankruptcy court also indicated that confusing bankruptcy procedure with civil procedure does not constitute excusable neglect. Consequently, the court held that the reason for the delay should be given greater weight than other factors.” No. 16-10432 (Dec. 22, 2016, unpublished).
Johnson-Williams sued MERS about a foreclosure. She lost a Rule 12(b)(6) motion filed by MERS, then her own motion for leave to amend, and finally a motion for reconsideration. She appealed, and the Fifth Circuit observed the limited scope of her appeal, as the notice referred only to the district court’s order as to the amendment. Johnson-Williams v. MERS, No. 16-10276 (Jan. 4, 2017, unpublished).
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).
While the Court did address the merits, and its enthusiasm for the appeal was tempered by the many cases brought to it about the BP Deepwater Horizon settlement, the Fifth Circuit offered this cautionary note about briefing the standard of review: “Bailey’s opening brief skips this step — it does not acknowledge the standard of review, and offers no arguments to show that the district court abused its discretion. Bailey therefore has waived an issue necessary to the success of the appeal.” Claimant v. BP Exploration & Production, No. 16-30642 (Dec. 13, 2016, unpublished).
The NLRB consistently holds that an agreement requiring arbitration of individual claims (and thus foreclosing class actions) violates federal labor law; the Fifth Circuit consistently reverses the NLRB on this point. After again reversing the NLRB and citing the Circuit’s “rule of orderliness” about deference to prior panel decisions, the Court noted the NLRB’s remarkably candid litigation position: “The Board concedes that this court has squarely rejected both of those decisions, and that our precedents necessitate rejecting its arguments here. The Board further acknowledges that it seeks to manufacture a circuit split in order to ‘facilitate Supreme Court review.'” Employers Resource v. NLRB, No. 16-60034 (Nov. 1, 2016, unpublished).
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).
Bonnie Pereida’s estate successfully brought RICO claims against a dealer in rare coins, arguing that it systematically deceived Ms. Pereida about the quality of the coins she bought from it. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the estate that the RICO claim survived her, finding that “RICO’s remedial purpose predominates” over its penal purposes. But, it reversed as to the proof of a “pattern of racketeering activity,” finding that the relevant time period was too short and did not qualify as “open-ended.” It noted that on remand, the plaintiff could potentially still elect a remedy in common-law fraud where this problem would not arise.
During that analysis, the Court offered a telling general comment: “[Plaintiff] contends that the Defendants waived this challenge to the ‘pattern’ element by raising it for the first time in their motion for a new trial. It should have been raised, he argues, in a motion for summary judgment so he would have known that this was a contested issue. The argument says a lot about modern civil litigation in which summary judgment, rather than trial, has become the focus. But when a case does go to trial, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove every element.” Malvino v. Dellniversita, No. 15-41435 (Oct. 20, 2016) (emphasis added).
Graves v. Colvin provides an exceptionally clear illustration of harmless error:
- Graves challenged the Social Security Administration’s determination that she was not disabled.
- A regulation governing ALJ hearings on such matters provides: “Occupational evidence provided by a VE or VS [vocational expert or vocational specialist] generally should be consistent with the occupational information supplied by the DOT [“Dictionary of Occupational Titles”] . . . At the hearings level, as part of the adjudicator’s duty to fully develop the record, the adjudicator will inquire, on the record, as to whether or not there is such consistency.”
- Graves lost, and argued in court that the ALJ failed to ask this required question.
- But — “‘Procedural perfection in administrative proceedings is not required’ as long as ‘the substantial rights of a party have not been affected.’ Graves does not even attempt to show that the vocational expert’s testimony was actually inconsistent with the DOT. Nor has she otherwise demonstrated prejudice. Hence, the ALJ’s procedural error was harmless and does not warrant reversal.”
No. 16-10340 (Sept. 21, 2016).
In Smith Group JJR, PLLC v. Forrest General Hospital, a dispute about an architect’s fee, the appellant argued that “the district court erred by considering extrinsic evidence bearing on the meaning of the term ‘actual contstruction cost’ in the parties’ agreement. This issue – the proper role of extrinsic evidence in determining the meaning of a contract, produces frequent litigation and frequent differences of opinion between district courts and the Fifth Circuit. Here, the court found a waiver of these arguments before the trial court, reminding that “citing cases that may contain a useful argument is simply inadequate to preserve that argument for appeal; ‘to be preserved, an argument must be pressed, and not merely intimated.'” No. 16-60134 (Sept. 9, 2016, unpublished). (This post was picked as one of the top five of the week by the Appellate Advocacy blog on the Law Professor Blogs Network!)
In trademark and trade dress litigation between Diageo, the maker of Crown Royal (left) and Mexcor, who makes Texas Crown Club (right), Diageo stipulated that “Mexcor did not infringe its marks until Mexcor sold its very first Texas Crown Club bottle in a bag bearing the Texas Crown Club logo” during the fourth quarter of 2011. Despite this concession, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Mexcor was not entitled to judgment on related issues when it “failed to urge that these counterclaims be presented to the jury after the district court denied its motions for JMOL.” The Court went on to remand the permanent injunction against Mexcor for revisoin, noting that the injunctoin could not extend to a type of bag that Mexcor had established its legal entitledment to use, and observing as to the last, “catch-all” provision of the injunction: “We are hesitant to approve such open-ended language, particularly because in other contexts this court has held that such ‘obey the law’ injunction orders are not permitted.” Diageo North America, Inc. v. Mexcor, Inc., No 15-20630 (Sept. 2, 2016, unpublished). (The opinon also notes the distinction between “whisky” (distilled in Scotland) and “whiskey” (distilled in the U.S. or Ireland), although none of these countries are the source of the liquor in this case, which the parties spelled “whisky.”)
Jones, the sole shareholder of a bankrupt business, moved to intervene in a lawsuit between the trustee for the business and Bank of America — two weeks after the parties had filed a stipulation of dismissal that the district court accepted. The district court denied Jones’s motion; he appealed, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. As to the stipulation of dismissal, the appeal was untimely; as to the intervention, while Jones’s late arrival did not bar his motion outright, it heavily influenced the relevant factors against him. Sommers v. Bank of America, No. 15-20775 (Aug. 26, 2016).
For some time, the Golf Channel and the receiver for Allen Stanford’s affairs have disputed whether the Channel gave value in exchange for the purchase of roughly $6 million in advertising. The Channel contended that it did by giving exactly the advertising that Stanford ordered; the receiver disagreed, noting that Stanford was running a valueless Ponzi scheme. On certification from the Fifth Circuit, the Texas Supreme Court sided with the Channel, holding that under the Texas version of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, the Channel gave value from an objective perspective. The Fifth Circuit accepted that holding as to this case, but noted: “The Supreme Court of Texas’s answer interprets the concept of ‘value’ under TUFTA differently than we have understood ‘value’ under other states’ fraudulent transfer laws and under section 548(c) [of] the Bankruptcy Code.” Janvey v. Golf Channel, No. 13-11305 (Aug. 22, 2016).
The 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).
In an uncommon example of a successful application for an appellate stay, the Fifth Circuit stayed the EPA’s rulings about Texas’s haze reduction plans. The Court found a likelihood of success on the merits, based on, inter alia, the degree of deference required by EPA, the lack of on-point authority supporting its position, and statutory limits on its power. As to irreparable injury, the Court noted the substantial compliance costs faced by power companies (to the point of risking “unemployment and the permanent closure plants”), and the lack of any mechanism for them to recover those costs if the EPA’s rule was invalidated. The Court also noted “the threat of grid instability and potential brownouts,” as well as the potential injury from a violation of the federalism principles in the Clean Air Act. Finally, the court “agree[s] with Petitioners that the public’s interest in ready access to affordable electricity outweighs the inconsequential visibility differences that the federal implementation plan would achieve in the near future.” Texas v. EPA, No. 16-60118 (July 15, 2016).
Bankruptcy 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).
“Here, the appellants’ notice of appeal specifically designated only the district court’s September 17, 2015, order granting summary judgment for appeal, and it reveals no implied challenge to the magistrate judge’s May 2015 ruling on their motion to reset deadlines or the district court’s August 2015 ruling on their motion for an extension of time. These unmentioned orders therefore fall outside the scope of the appellants’ notice of appeal, and we lack jurisdiction to review them.” Underwood v. General Motors, No. 15-30831 (April 5, 2016, unpublished).
In the district court, Bank of America won and Fulcrum lost. Fulcrum appealed. The Fifth Circuit noticed that the pleadings identified Fulcrum as “a limited liability company organized and existing under the laws of the State of Nevada.” As that allegation does not in fact establish Fulcrum’s citizenship, the Court asked for amendment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1653 (“Defective allegations of jurisdiction may be amended, upon terms, in the trial or appellate courts.”) In response, Fulcrum alleged that is members were from Georgia, Nevada, New York, and North Carolina. Because Bank of America is also a citizen of North Carolina, and because “we find no evidence in the record, and Fulcrum has cited none, supporting Fulcrum’s recent assertions that it is a citizen of North Carolina,” the court remanded for the purpose of discovery and findings on the citizenship question. Bank of America v. Fulcrum Enterprises LLC, No. 14-20532 (March 18, 2016, unpublished).
A class sought damages from attorneys involved in Allen Stanford’s business affairs. The Fifth Circuit, reversing the district court, found the claims barred by attorney immunity under Cantey Hanger LLP v. Byrd, 467 S.W.3d 484 (Tex. 2015): “Plaintiffs alleged that, in representing Stanford Financial in the SEC’s investigation, [Attorney] Sjoblom: sent a letter arguing, using legal authorities, that the SEC did not have jurisdiction; communicated with the SEC about its document requests and about Stanford Financial’s credibility and legitimacy; stated that certain Stanford Financial executives would be more informative deponents than others; and represented a Stanford Financial executive during a deposition. These are classic examples of an attorney’s conduct in representing his client.” The Court rejected the “fraud exception” relied upon by the district court, and among arguments for other exceptions, rejected the argument that immunity only extended to litigation as not having been raised below. Troice v. Proskauer Rose LLP, No. 15-00500 (March 10, 2016).
Justice Blackmun famously declared, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (1994). In less dramatic fashion, in the 9th appeal from a ruling about the administration of the Deepwater Horizon settlement, the Fifth Circuit has declared: “If the discretionary nature of the district court’s review is to have any meaning, the court must be able to avoid appeals like this one which involve no pressing question of how the [BP] Settlement Agreement should be interpreted or implemented, but simply raise the correctness of a discretionary administrative decision in the facts of a single claimant’s case.” In re Deepwater Horizon, No. 15-30395 (March 8, 2016).
In the latest of a long line of cases about arbitration clauses in employment documents that the employer can amend at will, the Fifth Circuit reversed the grant of a motion to compel arbitration in Nelson v. Watch House Int’l, LLC: “Here, the Plan provides that Watch House may make unilateral changes to the Plan, purportedly including termination, and that such a change ‘shall be immediately effective upon notice to’ employees. Watch House’s retention of this unilateral power to terminate the Plan without advance notice renders the plan illusory under a plain reading of Lizalde [v. Vista Quality Markets, 746 F.3d 222 (5th Cir. 2014)].” The opinion details recent cases about a “savings clause” in employee manuals that limit the power to change as to present disputes, following the analysis of In re: Halliburton Co., 80 S.W.3d 566 (Tex. 2002). I am interviewed about this line of cases in this Legal News Line article.