But it wasn’t published!

lawbooksIn a case about the scope of a “drilling rig” exclusion in an insurance policy, a party asked the Fifth Circuit to not follow a previous unpublished opinion because it was not binding precedent. The Court disagreed, stating: “While [Appellant] is correct, we find Cash’s reasoning compelling,” and then applying the precedents cited by the opinion. Nonbinding precedent has persuasive power. Richard v. Dolphin Drilling Ltd., No. 16-30003 (Aug. 1, 2016).

Tie goes to the Fifth Circuit

  • cobb slidingBy short per curiam orders resulting from 4-4 votes, the Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s opinion that upheld an injunction of major parts of President Obama’s immigration program, Texas v. United States, 809 F.3d 134 (5th Cir. 2015), and an important opinion about the jurisdiction of Indian tribal courts, Dolgencorp v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, 746 F.3d 167 (5th Cir. 2014).
  • These rulings are a “split decision” for Judge Jerry Smith, who wrote for the panel majority in Texas while dissenting in Dolgencorp.
  • It is unfortunate that the political process has not produced a ninth Supreme Court Justice, so that the voice of the nation’s highest court could be heard on these important questions of public policy.

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).

“Please, no more Deepwater Horizon appeals.”

bplogoJustice 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).

SCOTUS takes immigration appeal.

In unsurprising but still important news, the Supreme Court has decided to review the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Texas v. United States, the challenge to President Obama’s immigration initiatives.  The order granting the petition notes: “In addition to the questions presented by the ice_logopetition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: ‘Whether the Guidance violates the Take Care Clause of the Constitution, Art. II, §3.'”

TransCanada arrives in the Fifth Circuit . . .

keystonegraphicTransCanada has sued in Houston federal court about the Keystone Pipeline, alleging that President Obama exceeded his Constitutional authority by denying the necessary permission to proceed.  While this just-filed lawsuit is a long way from Fifth Circuit review, and TransCanada has a substantial business presence in Houston, it comes as no surprise after the rejection of President Obama’s immigration policies in Texas v. United States that this challenge to executive power would be filed in this Circuit.  Here is the complaint in TransCanada v. Kerry.

Immigration Injunction Affirmed — UPDATED

ice_logoIn an opinion with enormous policy impact, the Fifth Circuit has affirmed the injunction of President Obama’s executive actions about immigration. Texas v. United States, No. 15-40238 (revised Nov. 25, 2015).  Judge Smith wrote for the 2-judge majority, joined by Judge Elrod — an unsurprising outcome, since they formed the majority in the Court’s earlier opinion that denied an interim stay.  Judge King dissented.  A petition for Supreme Court review is a certainty.  A good representative article about the decision appears in The Atlantic.

Final 2014-15 SCOTUS notes

SCOTUS1.  As the Supreme Court term wound down, it affirmed the panel opinion in Baker Botts LLP v. ASARCO, holding that under the Bankruptcy Code: “Section §330(a)(1) does not permit bankruptcy courts to award fees to §327(a) professionals for defending fee applications.” No. 14–103 (U.S. June 15, 2015).

2.  The Supreme Court also granted review of Dolgencorp Inc. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, 746 F.3d 167 (5th Cir. 2014), which addresses Indian tribal court jurisdiction over a tort claim.

Obergefell Aftermath

rainbowringsIn three opinions — one for each state in the Fifth Circuit — the Court remanded the “gay marriage” cases in light of Obergefell v. Hodges.  E.g., De Leon v. Abbott, No. 14-31037 (July 1, 2015).  Noting that the Supreme Court addressed both the Fourteenth and First Amendments in its opinion, the Fifth Circuit observed: “We express no view on how controversies involving the intersection of these rights should be resolved but instead leave that to the robust operation of our system of laws and the good faith of those who are impacted by them.”  (I was recently quoted by the Dallas Morning News about other matters related to Obergefell.)

Immigration Appeal – familiar faces

In Texas v. United States, the high-profile challenge to the Obama Administration’s immigration policies, the oral argument panel has been announced for the “merits” argument on July 10 — Judges King, Smith, and Elrod.  Of course, Judges Smith and Elrod were the two majority votes on the “preliminary stay” panel that ruled for the plaintiffs and denied a stay, strongly signalling how they will the view the issues presented in this phase of the case.

Look away, look away, look away, license plate . . .

confederate plateIn a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s 2-1 panel opinion in the “Confederate Flag License Plate Case,” :reasoning: “Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech, and thus Texas was entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring [the Sons of Confederate Veteran’s] proposed design.”  A thoughtful dissent begins: “The Court’s decision passes off private speech as government speech and, in doing so, establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that government finds displeasing.”

Still More Marshall Mandamus

saturn rocketMore mandamus news of Trinity Industries, the Fifth Circuit, and the Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas. Recall that last October, the Fifth Circuit issued an unusual mandamus ruling that denied Trinity’s request for relief on the eve of trial in a high-profile qui tam case, but expressed concern that the federal government had “found the defendant’s product sufficiently compliant with federal safety standards and therefore fully eligible, in the past, present and future, for federal reimbursement claims.” The case went forward, the jury returned a large verdict against Trinity, and a later mandamus petition by Trinity was unavailing.  Judgment has not yet been entered.

The same players have returned to a similar stage. In January 2015, in a product liability case arising from a North Carolina automobile accident, Trinity moved to transfer venue from the Marshall Division. As discovery deadlines approached, Trinity filed an emergency stay application on May 6, and after hearing no response, sought mandamus relief from the Fifth Circuit on May 15.  Later that day, the trial court ordered a transfer to North Carolina, mooting the mandamus petition.

Now it was the trial court’s turn to comment, adding an unusual “addendum” to its opinion. The trial court pointed out that it was already in the process of drafting an order to transfer venue when Trinity filed its mandamus petition. The court further noted that “Trinity has stumbled in its race for credibility” by seeking mandamus intervention, and counseled greater patience from litigants in the future in light of crowded docket conditions.

These events, aside of their dramatic nature, highlight a practical and important challenge of “rocket dockets.” Busy dockets, coupled with tightly compressed discovery schedules, can force counsel into “Catch-22” situations. Counsel either advises their clients to endure extensive, fast-paced litigation activity that they believe is in the wrong place, or risk the ire of courts by “bugging” them for dispositive rulings.

(This blog’s author represents Trinity but not in either matter referred to above.)

Immigration panel announced — UPDATED

The panel has been announced for Friday’s arguments in “the immigration case,” Texas v. United States:  Judges Smith, Elrod, and Higginson.  Like the recent panel in Crane v. Johnson (No.14-10049, April 2, 2015), this panel draws from the major “wings” of the Court – a senior Reagan appointee, a recent Bush appointee (both from Texas) and the second-newest appointee by Obama.

The similarity of panel makeup suggests the potential for a similar result.  Interestingly, while Judge Smith is a strong separation-of-powers conservative (consider his dissent in the en banc False Claims Act case of Riley v. St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, 252 F.3d 749 (5th Cir. 2001)) he is also a strong voice for judicial action when there is jurisdiction; for example, he has led the Court toward expanded pretrial oversight of district courts in opinions such as In re: Radmax.  Judge Higginson, while new, has a record of thorough opinions that comport with the majority view of legal issues (consider his recent opinion in the False Claims Act case of United States ex rel. Shupe v. Cisco Systems, Inc., 759 F.3d 379 (5th Cir. 2014)).  The panel will give the plaintiffs a full hearing but may well find problems with their standing theories.

At the risk of reading one tea leaf too many, it is worth noting that Judge Elrod dissented from the denial of en banc rehearing in Radmax, as well as a recent panel opinion that granted mandamus relief on a forum issue, In re Lloyd’s Register North America, Inc., No. 14-20554 (Feb. 24, 2015).  The analogy between the Court’s mandamus jurisdiction and the justiciability issues in Texas v. United States is not powerful – and indeed, Judge Smith was on the opposite side of both matters from Judge Elrod – but it does suggest a healthy concern for judicial constraint.

Immigration showdown looms

highnoonThe district court has denied an interim stay of its injunction against the Obama Administration’s immigration policies; the Fifth Circuit has recently rejected, on standing grounds, a comparable case; and oral argument is set for April 17 before the Fifth Circuit on an appellate motion to stay the injunction.  I was recently interviewed by Law360 about the matter and anticipate announcement by the Court of the panel for the April 17 argument in the near future.

Immigration appeal — game on.

With a stay motion still pending in the district court, the United States has asked the Fifth Circuit for an emergency stay of the recent ruling that enjoins President Obama’s immigration program.  No. 15-40238.  A short clerk’s order, which does not reveal the identity or involvement of any judge “behind the curtain,” has set a response date of March 23.  Law360 has written a good article with more detail about the current status in the district court.

En banc review denied, barely, in high-profile whistleblower case

In November, a Fifth Circuit panel affirmed the NLRB’s $30,000 award in a retaliation case based on the employer’s handling of a whistleblower.  Halliburton Co. v. Administratve Review Board, U.S. Dep’t of Labor, No. 13-60323.  The full court has now denied the petition for en banc review, by the close margin of 7 judges for review and 8 against.  A 3-judge dissent criticizes the “ad hoc nature” of the panel opinion and warns that it will lead to confusion about what specific conduct can amount to a materially adverse employment action in the context of a retaliation claim.