No causation in 9-1-1 case

Plaintiffs alleged that a terrible crime would have been averted with a faster response to a 9-1-1 call. The Fifth Circuit, applying City of Dallas v. Sanchez, 494 S.W.3d 722 (Tex. 2016), found a lack of proximate cause (and thus, immunity applied) because “plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that any of the intervening parties would have acted differently,” including the call center operator and emergency personnel on the scene. The allegations on the general subject of response time were too speculative to satisfy Twombly (footnote 4)And “‘even if the brief delay in relaying Cook’s location ‘contributed to circumstances that delayed potentially life-saving assistance, the [delay] was too attenuated from the cause of [Cook’s] death . . . to be a proximate cause.” Cook v. City of Dallas, No. 16-10105 (March 29, 2017).

Credit Claim Credited

Recipients of Section 8 housing assistance sued mortgage originators, complaining that the originators either denied or discouraged the recipients’ credit applications by not considering their Section 8 income, in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of claims by recipients who had only inquired about, rather than actually starting, the application process, as well as claims based on Wells Fargo’s policies about the purchase of mortgages in the secondary market. It reversed as to one group of applicants, however, finding under Iqbal and the substantive law that they “plausibly alleged that AmeriPro refused to consider their Section 8 income in assessing their creditworthiness as mortgage applicants, and that they received mortgages on less favorable terms and in lesser amounts than they would have had their Section 8 income been considered.” Alexander v. AmeriPro, No. 15-20710 (Feb. 16, 2017).

No confidentiality, but no damages.

sothebys-sale-of-the-red-rothko-via-wall-street-journalHoffman v. L&M Arts arose from the sale of a 1961 Rothko painting (right) by Sotheby’s in 2010; a previous owner alleged that this sale revealed facts about her own sale, in violation of a confidentiality provision in the sales contract that said: “All parties agree to make maximum efforts to keep all aspects of this transaction confidential indefinitely.” The Fifth Circuit ruled for the defense in all respects, concluding that:

  • The original owner did not state a fraud claim against the relevant gallery, based on its alleged misrepresentation of its authority to act on behalf of an unnamed buyer, or its alleged misrepresentation about representing an entity or individual.  (Notably, the owner did not argue in the district court that equitable relief could still be appropriate without proof of damage), or its claim that the piece would “disappear” into its client’s private collection.
  • The contract did not require secrecy about the fact of the sale, based on the plain meaning of the term “aspect,” other provisions in the agreement, and the Texas policy against restraints on alienability.
  • The questions about damages associated with the alleged breach either reflected speculative bargains, incorrect damages measures, or a disgorgement theory that is not well-supported as a Texas contract remedy.

No. 15-10046 (Sept. 28, 2016).

ERISA and prudent pleading

dear_prudence_-_the_beatles_sheet_musicERISA litigation about investment management presents a tension between the administrators’ fiduciary obligations, on the one hand, and discouraging needless litigation, on the other. After the Supreme Court’s most recent guidance about an ERISA fiduciary’s “duty of prudence” in Amgen Inc. v. Harris, 136 S. Ct. 758 (2016), the Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiffs in Whitley v. BP. PLC failed to meet their pleading burden: “The amended complaint states that BP’s stock was overvalued prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion due to “numerous undisclosed safety breaches” known only to insiders. In other words, the stockholders theorize that BP stock was overpriced because BP had a greater risk exposure to potential accidents than was known to the market. Based on this fact alone, it does not seem reasonable to say that a prudent fiduciary at that time could not have concluded that (1) disclosure of such information to the public or (2) freezing trades of BP stock—both of which would likely lower the stock price—would do more harm than good. In fact, it seems that a prudent fiduciary could very easily conclude that such actions would do more harm than good.” No. 15-20282 (Sept. 26, 2016).

Twombly, Insurance Coverage, and The Odyssey

scylla-and-charybdisInsurance coverage litigation provided another example of the tension between the “Scylla” of pleading — the “plead more detail” command from Twombly and Iqbal — and its “Charybids” — the principle of insurance law that “[a]ll doubts regarding the duty to defend are resolved in favor of the insured.” Fed Ins. Co. v. Northfield Ins. Co., No. 14-20633 (Sept. 16, 2016). Here, ltigation about pollution liability led to a dispute about whether a “pollution exclusion” eliminated the duty to defend. The Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment in favor of the insurer, noting: “ExxonMobil’s petition does not attach any of the petitions in the Louisiana Litigation. ExxonMobil’s petition provides very little information about the nature of the claims made in the Louisiana Litigation, for which ExxonMobil seeks indemnity and defense costs from [the insured].” As a result, “because of the breadth and generality of the allegations in ExxonMobil’s state court petition, we cannot say that all of the claims fall clearly within the exclusion.”

Twombly – remember what the substantive claim requires.

One-Does-Not-SimplyWhitlock, a truck driver, sued his employer for racial discrimination, alleging that the stated reason for discharge (running a red light at a loading dock) was pretextual. As to discriminatory discharge, “[t]he complaint fails to specify the [comparable] white employees’ work violations” and “fails to allege the white employees’ jobs” with the employer. As to hostile work environment, the complaint alleged that the workplace “was difficult [to] endure,” “caused stress related problems,” and that “[a] white employee was allowed to ride around in a pickup ruck without doing his job but given credit for the work done by African-American employees. The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal on the pleadings; this case illustrates a straightforward application of Rule 12 where the substantive law clearly dictates a certain level of detail about the claim. Whitlock v. Lazer Spot, Inc., No. 16-30139 (Aug. 15, 2016, unpublished).

ARR! The pleadings adequately allege duty!

Pirate-PNG-HDThomas v. Chevron USA involved a suit for damages after a pirate attack off the shore of Nigeria. The Fifth Circuit reversed the districr court’s denial of leave to amend; on the key issue of duty, the Court observed: “Thomas alleged that Chevron knew about of the real risk of piracy in the region and of the specific threats received by the [ship]. He alleged that despite its knowledge, Chevron requested that the [ship] take an unaccompanied support trip that would pass by the source of the recent threats. Finally, he alleged that Chevron broadcast his route information and locations over easily-accessible VHF radios, through which they could be heard by pirates known to be in the area. These allegations are sufficient to suggest that the harm suffered by Thomas was reasonably foreseeable to Chevron and that Chevron consequently owed him a duty not to subject him to the conditions he encountered . . . .” No. 15-20490 (Aug. 11, 2016).

Twombly comes to Texas — UPDATED

In a fraudulent joinder analysis, the Fifth Circuit observed: “The Mastronardis’ claims against Estrada and Marin are insufficiently pled under either the federal standard or the revised Texas standard, which now tracks the federal standard.” Mastronardi v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 15-11028 (June 29, 2016) (citing, inter alia, Tex. R. Civ. P. 91a.1). See also Int’l Energy Ventures v. United Energy Group, No. 14-20552 (March 31, 2016).

Twombly satisfied – despite too much detail –

detailsBuilding on Wooten v. McDonald Transit Associates, Inc., 788 F.3d 490 (5th Cir. 2015), the Fifth Circuit found that a pro se plaintiff had adequately pleaded an ADEA claim in Haskett v. T.S. Dudley Land Co., No. 14-41459 (May 20, 2016, unpublished). Haskett attached his employer’s response to his EEOC charge as an exhibit to his complaint, and the employer argued that the statements in that response negated Haskett’s claim. The Court disagreed: “Haskett clearly did not adopt [his employer’s] allegations to the EEOC as his own for purposes of his complaint. They are therefore still ‘unilateral’ and to the extent they are in tension with the complaint itself, they cannot control.” (citing Bosarge v. Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, 796 F.3d 435, 440 (5th Cir. 2015)).

How to Satisfy Twombly/Iqbal in a Products Liability Case

One-Does-Not-SimplyIn a significant contribution to the Fifth Circuit’s case law applying Twombly and Iqbal, the Court reversed the Rule 12 dismissal of a products liability case in Flagg v. Stryker Corp., recognizing that “in products liability lawsuits, almost all of the evidence is in the possession of the defendant.” The defendants, manufacturers of toe implants, contended that Flagg’s allegations “lack . . .details about how the implants may have deviated from specifications and performance standards” and did not “sufficiently allege an existing and non-burdensome alternative design.” The Court found sufficient detail, for the pleading stage, in Flagg’s allegations that “the shape and sizing of the implants led to the implants’ fracturing and caused them to be difficult to remove once broken,” as well as his allegation that a different alloy would have performed better. It concluded: “Perhaps after discovery Flagg will not prevail, but at a pre-discovery stage of this case, in an area of law where defendants are likely to exclusively possess the information relevant to making more detailed factual allegations, we cannot say that he is merely on a fishing expedition.” No. 14-31169 (April 26, 2016, unpublished).

No credit? NoLa.

us-treasury-bondsThe financially unfortunate City of New Orleans, saddled with a “just above junk” credit status, hired Ambac to provide insurance for its municipal bonds.  Ambac’s AAA rating slipped after the 2008 financial crisis, causing New Orleans to incur tens of millions of dollars in additional debt service and refinancing costs.  The City sued Ambac on several legal theories for not maintaining a high credit rating.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed their dismissal: “[T]he resolutions that the City so heavily relies upon show only that the City purchased a bond insurance policy from a highly rated insurer, which, at the time of issuance, lessened the perceived credit risk of the City’s bonds.  Any alleged representation by Ambac to provide a larger credit enhancement is foreclosed by the clear language of the Policy.”  New Orleans City v. Ambac Assurance Corp., No. 15-30532 (March 2, 2016).

No scienter about labor problems

Diodes_Inc_logoIn Local 731 Pension Trust Fund v. Diodes, Inc., the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of securities claims related to the alleged nondisclosure of labor problems at a Shanghai manufacturing plant, finding a failure to adequately allege scienter.  Most basically, the Court observed — “It is important to note the curious nature of the Fund’s claims. To recap the relevant facts: during the class period, Diodes repeatedly warned investors of a labor shortage that would affect its output in the first two quarters of 2011; Diodes accurately warned the precise impact this labor shortage would have on its financial results, not once, but twice. Yet the Fund contends that more disclosure was required.” The Court went on to reject arguments about the unique knowledge of the relevant executives, the company’s decision to make an early product shipment (noting this would have made the labor problem worse and more apparent), and circumstances of an insider’s stock sales.  No. 14-41141 (Jan. 13, 2016).

Don’t dismiss sua sponte

75thrngrgt-suasponteIn Century Surety Co. v. Blevins, the district court dismissed two causes of action related to handling of insurance claims, and then sua sponte dismissed three other related causes of action — breach of contract, estoppel, and vicarious liability.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, reminding: “While the district court has great discretion in how it manages its cases, in the Fifth Circuit litigants must — with certain exceptions – be given notice and an opportunity to respond before a district court dismisses claims sua sponte.”  No. 14-31131 (Aug. 18, 2015).

The building blocks of pleading SOX

bricks blocksWallace sued Tesoro Corporation for retaliation, alleging he was fired for activity protected by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  he district court dismissed.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, finding that Wallace had not exhausted his administrative remedies as to his claims about Tesoro that he did not present to OSHA.  Wallace v. Tesoro Corp., No. 13-51010 (July 31, 2015).  The Court reversed as to other claims dismissed on the pleadings, holding:

  • As to the objective reasonableness of Wallace’s belief about an accounting practice — “The basis for that belief in this case, including the level and role of Wallace’s accounting expertise and how that should weigh against him, are grounded in factual disputes that cannot be resolved at this stage of the case.”
  • As for Wallace’s reasonable belief that a fraud was occurring, Rule 9(b) is not implicated because “an employee who is providing information about potential fraud or assisting in a nascent fraud investigation might not know who is making the false representations or what that person is obtaining by the fraud; indeed, that may be the point of the investigation.”
  • Wallace adequate pleaded the basis for his reasonable belief that Tesoro was not making proper SEC disclosures, and that Tesoro acted with the requisite mental state (primarily by detailing the steps he took to inform Tesoro management).  The opinion provides more detail about the specific allegations made by Wallace.

How Not to Plead “How”

BM-700Plaintiff’s FCA claims about billing for aircraft parts were dismissed for failure to comply with the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), in that:

  • it is not sufficient to argue that certain federal regulations must have been contained in the relevant contract, because by their terms, they do not automatically apply;
  • neither nondisclosure of a part’s history, nor the subsequent failure of a plane containing that part, establishes that a false claim was made about it; and
  • speculation about a company’s billing practices does not adequately establish when the company actually submitted the allegedly false claims.

United States ex rel Gage v. Davis S.R. Aviation, LLC, No. 14-50704 (July 14, 2015).

False Claims Act Liability Upheld – UPDATED

windThe plaintiffs/relators in United States ex rel Rigsby v. State Farm contended that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, State Farm improperly skewed its claims handling process in favor of finding flood damage, as “wind policy claims were paid out of the company’s own pocket while flood policy claims were paid with government funds.”  They won at trial and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that – notwithstanding earlier investigations – they were “paradigmatic . . . whistleblowing insiders” as to this specific claim who qualified as “original sources.”  The Court went on to find sufficient evidence of falsity and scienter, and reversed a discovery ruling that would not have allowed the plaintiffs to investigate the facts of other potentially false claims. ” 794 F.3d 457 (5th Cir. 2015). The Supreme Court granted review and affirmed on an issue about violation of the FCA’s sealing requirement.

On second thought, the pleadings weren’t that bad.

On rehearing, the Fifth Circuit vacated its earlier panel opinion in Wooten v. McDonald Transit Associates, 775 F.3d 689 (5th Cir. 2015), which reversed a default judgment because of inadequate underlying pleadings, and replaced it with an opinion affirming the default judgment.  The new opinion holds that “[a]lthough Wooten’s complaint contained very few factual allegations, we conclude that it met the low threshold of content demanded by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 because it provided McDonald Transit with fair notice of Wooten’s claims.”  No. 13-11035 (June 10, 2015).  The Court thus continues to reserve the question left open in Nishimatsu Construction Co. v. Houston Nat’l Bank, 515 F.2d 1200 (5th Cir. 1975): “We do not consider here the possibility that otherwise fatal defects in the pleadings might be corrected by proof taken by the court at a hearing.”

Inadequate pleading of scienter

Guaranty Bank  resized-750The plaintiffs in Owens v. Jastrow sued officers of Guaranty Bank for securities fraud, alleging that their SEC filings and public comments misstated the vulnerability of the bank’s mortgage-related holdings.  No. 13-10928 (June 12, 2015).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal in a detailed opinion, holding, procedurally, that:

  • “A district court may best make sense of scienter allegations by first looking to the contribution of each individual allegation to a strong inference of scienter, especially in a complicated case such as this one.  Of course, the court must follow this initial step with a holistic look at all the scienter allegations”; and
  • “Group pleaded” allegations were properly disregarded, although the Court declined to adopt “a strict rule requiring outright dismissal for any group or puzzle pleading[.]”

And on the merits:

  • Knowledge of undercapitalization showed motive and opportunity, but does not by itself establish scienter;
  • “Defendants’ disclosure of the ‘red flags’ [cited by Plainitiffs] and candidness about the uncertainly underlying its models neutralize any scienter inference from ‘red flags'”; and
  • “An inference of severe recklessness is more likely when a statement violates an objective rule than when GAAP permits a range of acceptable outcomes.”

Therefore: “Considered holistically, plaintiffs’ allegations of knowledge of Guaranty’s undercapitalization, a large misstatement, red flags, and ignorance of internal warnings, do not raise a strong inference of severe recklessness that is equally as likely as the competing inference that [Defendants] negligently relief on the AAA ratings and believed that Guaranty’s internal models were accurate.”

Pleading 101 – Don’t forget “Who” . . .

Estes sued JP Morgan Chase, alleging violations of the Texas Constitution with respect to a home equity loan.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal on a basic ground: “Estes’s complaint fails to allege any connection between himself and JPMC except that Estes ‘notified [JPMC] that the original promissory note had not been returned,’ and that ‘[m]ore than 60 days have passed since plaintiff notified [JMPC] of its failure to cancel and return the promissory note.’  Considering the allegations in Estes’s complaint, and taking those allegations as true, Estes has not alleged that JPMC possessed the Note at the relevant time. He also has not alleged that he made payments to JPMC, nor has he alleged any other facts from which the Court could reasonably infer that the Note was made payable to “bearer” or to JPMC, as the definition of “holder” set forth in Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 1.201 requires.”  Estes v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. 14-51103 (May 20, 2015, unpublished).

 

Borrowers’ claim does not survive Twombly, after all —

After initially holding that the borrowers’ complaint survived a Twombly challenge as to whether the “grossly inadequate sales price” element of a wrongful foreclosure claim had been properly pleaded, the Fifth Circuit reversed field and issued a revised opinion that affirms dismissal: “We agree with the district court that Plaintiffs’ wrongful foreclosure claim should be dismissed, but for a different reason—Plaintiff’s abandoned the claim on appeal. In challenging the district court’s dismissal, Plaintiffs did not argue that their wrongful foreclosure claim should survive because they adequately pleaded a grossly inadequate sales price. They only argued that the claim should survive because they need not plead that element at all. However, our precedent requires this element in all but a specific category of cases that does not include the instant case.”   Guajardo v. JP Morgan Chase, No. 13-51025 (March 10, 2015).

How to plead a retaliation claim — UPDATED

Richardson alleged that he was terminated, in violation of Louisiana’s whistleblower statute, for revealing fraudulent time records and overbilling.  The district court granted summary judgment and the Fifth Circuit reversed.  Richardson v. Axion Logistics, No. 14-30306 (revised March 23, 2015).  Applying the Twombly “plausibility” standard, the Court found adequate pleading about his employer’s knowledge of the alleged misconduct, as well as the timeline of events leading up to his termination.  The pleading itself is available for review here; the specific paragraphs identified by the Court as to the employer’s knowledge are highlighted in yellow, and those identified about his termination in orange.

Parts is Parts.

imageFelder’s Collision Parts sells aftermarket parts for GM cars; it sued GM and several dealers in original equipment manufactured parts made by GM, alleging that they ran a pricing and rebate program (with the unfortunate name of “Bump the Competition”) that amounted to predatory pricing.  The district court dismissed and the Fifth Circuit affirmed in Felder’s Collision Parts, Inc. v. All Star Advertising Agency, No. 14-30410 (Jan. 27, 2015).

Under the program, a dealer would offer a price significantly lower than the ordinary aftermarket part price.  Felder’s argued the dealer was pricing beneath average variable cost — and thus engaging in predatory pricing — and offered an example of a dealer selling a part for $119 that it bought from GM for $135.  The defendants pointed out that a key part of the program was a rebate to the dealer from GM based on sales, and including that rebate in the “cost” calculation turned the seeming $15 loss in this example into a 14% profit.

The Fifth Circuit agreed:  “The price versus cost comparison focuses on whether the money flowing in for a particular transaction exceeds the money flowing out. The rebate undoubtedly affects that bottom line for All Star by guaranteeing that it makes a profit on any Bump the Competition sale. That undisputed fact resolves the case, as a ‘firm that is selling at a shortrun profit maximizing (or loss-minimizing) price is clearly not a predator.'” The Court acknowledged: “Felder’s no doubt is having a tougher time selling aftermarket equivalent parts for GM vehicles  . . . But antitrust law welcomes those lower prices for consumers of collision parts so long as neither GM nor its dealers is selling parts at below-cost levels.”   (Or, “parts is parts . . . “)

Plausible claim that servicer breached first

whosonfirstThe district court dismissed a borrower’s breach of contract claim against a mortgage servicer because the borrower was in substantial arrears, and “as a general principle . . . an individual in breach cannot bring a cause of action for breach against another contracting party.”  The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that the borrower had alleged plausible claims that the servicer breached first; specially, that “the misapplication of [the borrrower’s] payments to an escrow account, resulting in default . . . constituted a material breach,” and that “Chase’s rejection of her mortgage payments, even if not a material  breach, rendered performance impossible and that, as a result, any subsequent breach does not bar her claim.”  Peters v. JP Morgan Chase, No. 13-50157 (Jan. 23, 2015, unpublished).

The actual pleading is available here, the key averment appears in paragaph 8: “According to the information received from the bank, Defendant believes Plaintiff is over $50,000 in arrears. According to the accounting done by Plaintiff, Plaintiff only owes $31, 437.30. Only $15,000 of this amount is on past due payments. Plaintiff believes that the disparity between the two figures is due to the fact that Chase has misapplied her payments under the mortgage to escrow fund, thereby causing her to be in default under the mortgage.”