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.”

Borrowers’ pleading survives Twombly

While affirming the dismissal of the borrowers’ other claims related to a foreclosure, the Fifth Circuit reversed as to a claim for wrongful foreclosure, reasoning: “Under Texas law, a claim for wrongful foreclosure generally requires: (1) ‘a defect in the foreclosure sale proceedings;’ (2) ‘a grossly inadequate selling price;’ and (3) ‘a causal connection between the defect and grossly inadequate selling price.’ In their Third Amended
Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that JPMC failed to comply with the notice procedures required for a foreclosure sale,and that, as a result, they lost the opportunity to obtain cash or to find a buyer for the Property before JPMC foreclosed. Plaintiffs also specifically allege that the Property sold for a grossly inadequate sales price.”  Guajardo v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. 13-51025 (Jan. 12, 2015, unpublished) (citations omitted).  Notably, while the pleading describes the type of notice required and avers that it did not occur, it does not provide detail about the sales price and why it was not adequate.

Mortgages and Twombly to start 2015 — UPDATED

Two rulings for mortgage servicers offer points of general interest to start the New Year:

1.  This allegation does not satisfy Twombly, with respect to the intent requirement of the Texas fraudulent lien statute: “the transactions by the Defendants jointly and severally were designed to defraud the Plaintiff out of her property.” The Fifth Circuit found that “this allegation is, at most, a legal conclusion that [Defendant Law Firm] acted with the requisite intent; it lacks any ‘factual content’ that would ‘allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the intent element was met.”  Trang v. Taylor Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp., No. 14-5028 (Jan. 7, 2015, unpublished).

2.  Footnote 1 of the Trang opinion reviews the apparent split in authority on whether a lien assignment falls within the scope of that statute.

3.  A borrower seeking refinancing of a mortgage loan is not a consumer under the Texas DTPA.  “[T]he refinancing that Perkins sought from BOA is “directly analogous to the [auto] refinancing services sought by the claimant in Riverside [National Bank v. Lewis, 603 S.W.2d 169 (Tex. 1980)].”  Perkins v. Bank of America, No. 14-20284 (revised March 4, 2015).

False Claims complaint stays afloat

island cutterThe United States sued Bollinger Shipyards, alleging that it submitted false claims in connection with upgrades on the Coast Guard’s 110-foot patrol ships (right).  The gist of the complaint was that “Bollinger eventually submitted the highest of three [strength] calculations (5,232) to the Coast Guard, while employing in its internal documents the middle calculation (3,037).”  As to these strength measurements and their review by an independent agency, an internal email said, “adverse results could cause the entire conversion to be an uneconomical solution” and expressed concern that “we BLOW the program.”  United States v. Bollinger Shipyards, Inc., No. 13-31301 (Dec. 23, 2014).

While the parties disputed the proper interpretation of this evidence, and the district court agreed with the defendants, the Fifth Circuit reversed: “Rule 12(b)(6) does not require the United States to present its best case or even a particularly good case, only to state a plausible case” that Bollinger acted “in reckless disregard of the truthy or falsity” of the measurements.  The Court also held: “The government knowledge defense is not appropriate at the motion to dismiss stage, which requires us to draw all inferences in favor of the United States.  It is more proper at the summary judgment or trial stage as ‘a means by which the defendant can rebut the government’s assertion of the “knowing” presentation of a false claim.'”

SCOTUS reverses CTA5 on Twombly, 9-0

In the 9-0 per curiam opinion of Johnson v. City of Shelby, the Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s dismissal of a civil rights claim for failure to cite the applicable statute: “Our decisions in [Twombly and Iqbal] are not in point, for they concern the factual allegations a complaint must contain to survive a motion to dismiss.  A plaintiff, they instruct, must plead facts sufficient to show that her claim has substantive plausibility.  Petitioners’ complaint was not deficient in that regard.  Petitioners stated simply, concisely, and directly events that, they alleged, entitled them to damages from the city.  Having informed the city of the factual basis for their complaint, they were required to do no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement of their claim.”  No. 13-1318, 574 U.S. ___ (Nov. 10, 2014).  Law360 has covered the case.  Here is the actual pleading at issue.