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.
In Dodds v. Terracon Consultants, the Fifth Circuit accepted an interlocutory appeal about whether a terminated employee had a Sabine Pilot claim when he also had a statutory remedy. After oral argument, the Court decided that the appeal had been improvidently accepted, as there was a fact issue about whether the employee had actually been fired for violating the law. An adverse finding on that issue would moot the legal issue. The Court also noted that certification — a possible resolution of the federal appeal — is only available “if the certifying court is presented with determinative questions of Texas law.” No. 15-20313 (Feb. 17, 2016, unpublished).
The Texas anti-SLAPP law (the “TCPA”) imposes a number of deadlines that can fit awkwardly with federal practice. The panel majority in Cuba v. Pylant concluded that when no hearing is held on a TCPA motion as required by the statute (hearings being common in Texas state practice but not in federal court), appeal-related deadlines that start from the hearing date do not begin to run. A dissent said: “Applying an Erie analysis, I conclude that the TCPA is procedural and must be ignored.” Nos. 15-10212 & -10213 (Feb. 23, 2016).
Bechuck 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).
Continuing to rhyme with “-ata,” the Fifth Circuit rejected an attempt to create appellate jurisdiction in Luvata Grenada LLC v. Danfoss Industries S.A. de C.V., No. 15-60477 (Feb. 11, 2016). Luvata Grenada sued Danfoss US and Danfoss Mexico. Danfoss Mexico won a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, after which Luvata and Danfoss US stipulated to a voluntary dismissal without prejudice. “However, it is well settled in this circuit that parties cannot manufacture appellate jurisdiction by agreeing to dismiss remaing claims without prejudice. . . . The parties did not obtain a Rule 54(b) certification from the district court, and they cannot achieve the same result by ‘self help.'”
The district court abstained under the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine in deference to a FERC proceeding. On the threshold question of appellate jurisdiction, the Court concluded that Hines v. D’Artois, 531 F.2d 726 (5th Cir. 1976) was still good law, and allowed it to consider an otherwise-interlocutory appeal: “[T]he district court’s order resulted in Occidental being ‘effectively out of court’ and therefore functioned as a final decision.” On the merits, the Court remanded with instructions to not stay the court case indefinitely, but to instead stay for 180 days and assess the status then. Occidental Chem. Corp. v. Louisiana Public Service Comm’n, No. 15-30100 (Jan. 4, 2016).
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.
In 2013, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed the NLRB and held that “an employer does not engage in unfair labor practices by maintaining and enforcing an arbitration agreement prohibiting employee class or collective actions and requiring employment-related claims to be resolved through individual arbitration.” D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013). The NLRB, not bound in other jurisdictions by that holding, reaffirmed its original holding in the D.R. Horton case in another matter involving Murphy Oil. Unfortunately for the NLRB, the venue rules for review of its decisions allowed Murphy to appeal to the Fifth Circuit, which – unsurprisingly – again reversed the NLRB. As in the prior case, the Court did not reverse as to a requirement that the employer clarify its documents to be clear that employees were not waiving the right to make Board charges. Murphy Oil USA, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 14-60800 (Oct. 26, 2015).