No claim yet? Then no estoppel, either.

In ASARCO LLC v. Montana Resources, Inc., a case involving the interplay of a business’s bankruptcy with a later lawsuit for breach of contract by that business, the Fifth Circuit observed:

  • “[A] declaratory claim on its own typically will not preclude future claims involving the same circumstances (as noted, issue preclusion may still apply to any declaration the court issues). But in a case involving both declaratory claims and ones seeking coercive relief, the former will not serve as an antidote that undoes the preclusive force that traditional claims would ordinarily have.” (applying the “seminal case” on the point, Kaspar Wire Works, Inc. v. Leco Engineering & Machine, Inc., 575 F.2d 530 (5th Cir. 1978))
  • As to the damages claim, “ASARCO’s claim for failure to reinstate did not accrue until MRI rejected the tender in 2011. . . .  ASARCO may or may not have attempted to cure, and MRI may or may not have denied ASARCO’s reinstatement. Because the present breach of contract claim was contingent on future events, ASARCO could not have brought it during the adversary proceeding.”
  • For the same reasons, the plaintiff was not judicially estopped by allegedly inadequate disclosures during the earlier bankruptcy: “MRI cites no case requiring a party to disclose a potential claim for breach of contract when the contract had not yet been breached. This makes sense, because MRI’s position would require a debtor to scour its contracts looking for hypothetical claims that another party could maybe breach in the future.”

No. 16-40682 (June 2, 2017).

Sign, on the line.

The common situtation of a loan modification raised two general issues – (1) given the princple that “all parts of a contract should be read so that none will be rendered meaningless,” the outcome is not clear if a modification has a signature line, when companied by “contratual language [that] indicated that once the [borrowers] performed, their loan would be modified automatically and [the servicer] would be bound by the Agreement” – and (2) given that the Statute of Frauds in Texas for loan agreements generally involves oral agreements or agreements that clearly require signature by both parties, it is not clear if “the written offer itself, along with the attached Modification Agreement” would satisfy that status. Owens v. Specialized Loan Servicing LLC, No. 16-20557 (June 5, 2017).

Well, you proved liability . . .

The Fifth Circuit reversed a JNOV on liability for breach of contract in Kerr v. Mapei Corp., holding: “The jury was presented with two alternative, but plausible, accounts of the formation and authorization of a contract. The jury reasonably selected one of those alternatives.” As to consequential-type damages for lost profits for other sales, however, the Court affirmed the judgment for the defendants, finding that the plaintiff’s damages model “was not supported by any empirical analysis or any evidence outside of the [contract] relationship . . . (e.g., real-world sales, customer surveys, or current market demand).” In particular, it noted the lack of evidence that the substantial business opportunity related to the contract would recur, the fact that the contract was terminable at will, and the lack of weight for a party’s own “unsubstantiated, self-serving speculations” about future business. No. 16-10430 (May 23, 2017, unpublished).

BP settlement gets real, more or less.

The Herculean effort of settling the many lost-profits claims related to the Deepwater Horizon accident led to a claims process described by the Fifth Circuit as follows – “Somewhat simplified, and more than somewhat condensed, the claims process works as follows: The Claims Administrator compares a claimant’s financial performance prior to and after the spill. If the former is greater than the latter, BP is liable for the difference.
Causation is, in all other respects, presumed.”

Efforts to implement this process led to guidelines “requiring the Claims Administrator to move, smooth, or otherwise reallocate revenue for claimants engaged in construction, education, agriculture, and professional services. Claimants in these four industries tend to be paid in lump sums, which are capable of generating damages awards that do not comport with tort principles.”

Mindful that in an earlier dispute about these issues, the Court had reminded that “[i]n interpreting a settlement, surely some weight has to be given to what damages recoverable in civil litigation actually are,” the Court reversed the use of these particular guidelines: “[W]e decline to re-write the Settlement Agreement under the guise of contractualinterpretation. When we said . . . that the Claims Administrator should ‘process claims in accordance with economic reality,’ we assumed that doing so would comport with the text of the Settlement Agreement. . . . [, which] grants claimants the right to choose their own Compensation Period.” Lake Eugenie Land & Devel. v. BP, No. 15-30377 (May 23, 2017).

What’s in a name?

Adams LLC, formed in July 2010, bought a number of assets from Adams Produce Company, Inc., and sought to prosecute a Deepwater Horizon claim for damages suffered by Adams Inc. Unfortunately, “[a]lthough substantially alll of Adams Inc.’s assets and liabilities were transferred as part of the transaction, it is undisputed that Adams Inc. retained certain assets and liabilities. Adams Inc. and Adams LLC are two distinct entities, and the asset transfer that occurred here was not just a change in form.” BP Exploration v. Claimant ID 100169608, No. 16-30482 (March 8, 2017, unpublished).

Don’t gamble with construction liens.

The owner of the Golden Nugget casino in Lake Charles withheld $18.7 million from payments to its general contractor, who then filed a statutory lien (a “privilege” in Louisiana parlance) on the property. The relevant statute requires the contractor to file “within sixty days after the filing of the notice of termination or substantial completion of the work.” If “substantial completion” refers to an event, the contractor’s filing was not timely; if, however, it refers to a filing that certifies substantial completion, the contractor’s filing was timely, as the owner did not record such a certification. The Fifth Circuit concluded that, while the statute was ambiguous, the related provisions and the apparent industry practice supported the contractor’s position: “The [statute] places the burden on an owner to cut of potential claims when a contract has been recorded, whether it is a general contractor or a subcontractor.” Golden Nugget Lake Charles LLC v. W.G. Yates & Sons Constr. Co., No. 16-30496 (March 6, 2017).

No mistake about the mistake.

In Richard v. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the Fifth Circuit required reformation of a contract on the grounds of mutual mistake, to the detriment of non-party Liberty Mutual, acknowledging that “[c]ourts must guard against parties’ ‘attempts to make an end-run around the parol-evidence rule,’ which forecloses the use of parol evidence to interpret unambiguous terms, ‘by framing [their] argument[s] as a request for reformation.” Here, reformation was appropriate even considering the effect on Liberty Mutual, given (1) its lack of reliance on the contract, (2) the general consistency of the terms in the reformed contract with industry practice, and (3) course of performance. No. 16-30216 (March 2, 2017).

Carmack the Magnificent

Heniff Transportation, a trucking company, sued Trimac Transportation, alleging that Trimac did not properly clean a tanker-trailer, resulting in contamination and a damages claim against Heniff by its customer. Trimac argued that Heniff’s state law claims were preempted by the Carmack Amendment, a federal law that addresses actions about lost or damaged goods, arising from interstate transportation of the goods by a common carrier. The Fifth Circuit agreed, finding that washing a tanker-trailer was “plainly” such a service, directly analogous to specific examples given by the statute. This statute, not widely known outside trucking litigation, can bear significantly on UCC claims involving transported goods. Heniff Transportation v. Trimac Transportation, No. 16-40553 (Jan. 30, 2017).

NNNot the “borrower.”

NNN Realty disputed its obligations under a guaranty, noting that the definition of “borrower” in the instrument listed sixteen entities (all of which contained “NNN” in some fashion), concluding with the conjunction “and.” Thus, argued NNN, all of those entities had to be in default to trigger its obligations. The Court rejected this argument, noting the overall structure of the guaranty and related security instrument, as well as the usage of similar terms. It gave little weight to textual arguments about the definition that arose from a misplaced parenthetical. While many of the grammatical arguments – especially as to the the erroneous parenthetical – are unique to the facts of this case, the broader analysis about the interplay between a collectively-defined term and individual obligations applies in many business settings. WBCMT 2007 C33 Office 9720, LLC v. NNN Realty Advisors, Inc., No. 15-20086 (Dec. 22, 2016).

What the contract says is a “product,” is a product.

Two manufacturers of baby products (specifically, pacifiers and “sippy cups”), disputed the enforcement of a contract provision that said: “Distributor hereby acknowledges and agrees not to copy or utilize any of LNC’s . . . product design . . . without LNC’s written permission.” While “the district court imposed the requirement that the design be either confidential or protectable as intellectual property in order to fall within the definition of ‘product design,'” the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed because of the plain meaning of the terms chosen by the parties: “On its face, the clause applies to any of LNC’s product designs, which would include those in the public domain.” The court rejected arguments based on analogies and appeals to principles of (non-contractual) intellectual property law. Luv N’ Care, Ltd. v. Gruopo Rimar, No. 16-30039 (Dec. 16, 2016).

No, that’s not anticipatory repudiation.

angrymanPlaintiff sued Defendant for breach of contract, alleging a failure to deliver Defendant’s 2010 cotton crop to Plaintiff. Defendant contended that an anticipatory repudiation occurred. The Fifth Circuit reminded that the proposal of new contract terms, absent a statement of intent not to perform the present contract, does not create an anticipatory repudiation. As a counterpoint, the Court cited a Texas appellate case in which the appellant not only proposed new terms, but also “‘definitely manifested’ that he would not longer perform the terms of his original contract when he . . . drove the appellee out to a deserted county road, threatened to sue him, [and] stated that he was ‘mad enough to smash the appellee’s face in.'” Plains Cotton Cooperative Ass’n v. Gray, No. 16-10806 (Dec. 5, 2016) (unpublished).

How to avoid liability for alleged misrepresentations

vioxxThe plaintiff in Isner v. Seeger Weiss LLP alleged that counsel misrepresented the compensation that she would receive under a large Vioxx settlement. The defendants won; two features of the master settlement agreement were particularly important. First, it said that claimants would receive a payment under  “criteria to be determined by the Claim Administrator” and “according to guidelines to be established by the Claims
Administrator” — thus, “the method of calculation was . . . specifically reserved for
the decision of the Claims Administrator at a later date.” Second, under the heading “NO GUARANTEE OF PAYMENT,” the release said: “I FURTHER ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I UNDERSTAND THIS RELEASE AND THE AGREEMENT AND THAT THERE IS NO GUARANTEE THAT I WILL RECEIVE ANY SETTLEMENT PAYMENT OR, IF ANY SETTLEMENT PAYMENT IS MADE, THE AMOUNT THEREOF.” No. 15-31070 (Oct. 11, 2016, unpublished).

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).

How not to argue about extrinsic evidence

breach-of-contractIn 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 TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphiccourt 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!)

Welcome to Kuwait

kuwait mapA former employee of a defense contractor sued for unpaid benefits; the forum selection clause said: “This Contract shall be governed by and interpreted exclusively under the laws of Kuwait and all disputes between the Parties shall be resolved exclusively in Kuwait.” Noting a potential threshold issue as to whether federal or Texas law governs the “validity” of a forum selection clause (while federal law clearly governs their “enforceability”), the Fifth Circuit found it enforceable under either standard. Kuwait – where the work was done – had a stronger interest in application of its laws than Texas, and the most relevant law was a statute of repose rather than limitation, which “operates as ‘a substantive definition of, rather than a procedural limitation on, rights.'” Barnett v. Dyncorp Int’l LLC, No. 15-10757 (July 26, 2016).

Surely, you’re a surety.

shirleyAmerican Construction, the general contractor on a hotel construction project, signed a “joint check” agreement, by which it would pay its subcontractor (Cratus Development) and its supplier (Shelter Products) jointly for building materials. American’s agreement also included this term: “If Cratus Development does not start or complete work on this project, and/or becomes past due with Shelter Products, Inc. to the extent that Shelter Products, Inc. can no TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Smalllonger extend credit to Cratus Development[,] American Construction will make payments directly to Shelter Products, Inc. for all outstanding and unpaid invoices for materials delivered to the jobsite . . . . ” The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion that this language, in the overall context of the parties’ business dealings, created a suretyship by American. Shelter Products Inc. v. American Construction Hotel Corp., No. 16-30001 (July 27, 2016, unpublished).

Insurance Staredown

staredownExtensive tornado damage to a building at the University of Southern Mississippi led to a hard-fought dispute among insurers. The Fifth Circuit’s detailed affirmance of the district court’s opinion turned on this observation about the losing insurer’s postition: “Were this construction adopted, insurers who covered the same risk would be incentivized to enter into a stare-down, each waiting for the other to blink first in order to seize the opportunity to deny coverage. Such an outcome is neither reasonable nor commercially practicable.” Southern Ins. Co. v. AffiliateTexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Smalld FM Ins. Co., No. 15060742 (July 21, 2016). (The opinion also features a rare appellate shout-out to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.)

The farmer in the “sell”

farmer tractorWalker, a farmer, received a loan from Guaranty Bank, which acquired a production-money security interest in his crops. Walker then sold the crops to Agrex. Agrex applied a setoff to the sales price, based on problems in other dealings between Walker and Agrex. Guaranty then sued Agrex to recover the entire — pre-setoff — sales price. The Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for Guaranty, reviewing the applicable UCC section and commentary, under which there is “no requirement that property by ‘received’ . . . for the property qualify as proceeds,” but only “that the property be traceable, directly or indirectly, to the original collateral.” Guaranty Bank & Trust Co. v. Agrex, Inc., No. 15-60445 (revised June 6, 2016).

An assignment in time –

Among other points raised in a challenge to a foreclosure on a Texas home equity loan, the trial court observed: “the curious backPaul Nigh's 'TeamTimeCar.com' Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machinedating of the [assignment] confirms the suspicion that this document was generated to obscure the chain of title inquiry rather than to illuminate it.” In reversing the judgment below, on this point the Fifth Circuit held: “At least two Texas Courts of Appeals have considered this very question, and both have held that an assignment may have a retroactive ‘effective date.'”  Deutsche Bank v. Burke, No. 15-20201 (June 9, 2016, unpublished).

Not a running royalty

running manTo acquire rights to use patented check processing technology, Chase paid for a license which contained a “Most Favored Licensee” clause. The licensor granted a similar license to another entity for what Chase contended was a significantly lower royalty. Chase sued and won judgment for roughly $70 million. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, agreeing with Chase’s characterization of the royalty as “paid-up lump sum” rather than “running,” and thus concluding that the MFL clause could apply retroactively and require a refund. A dissent saw the clause as only applying prospectively. The opinions identify a number of practical problems that can arise in drafting sophisticated royalty agreements about intellectual property. JP Morgan Chase Bank NA v. Dixon, No. 15-40905 (May 19, 2016).

Yes, this is a messy construction case.

Rooftop_Packaged_UnitsThe parties in DFW Airport Board v. Inet Aiport Systems sued each other about problems in the installation of rooftop air conditioning units.  Key issues were “who breached first” and whether the parties had a meeting of the minds about a solution; the evidence consisted of a fast-moving, complicated exchange of emails and letters. The Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment, noting: “In these circumstances the Contract required both parties to participate in resolving defects. Any contractual modification or change order required the mutual assent of the parties, and questions of mutual assent are fact based. Sifting through the evidence to determine whether the parties reached agreement on a contractual modification is a task ill-suited for summary judgment on this record.”  Nos. 15-10390, 15-10600 (April 12, 2016).

Overserved causes of action

400_SPILL ICE CREAM CONEAppellant “Why Not LLC” (unfortunately, not the appellee, despite the perfect name for that side of an appeal) complained of a frozen yogurt franchise termination by Yumilicious. The district court granted summary judgment on Why Not’s many causes of action, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, principally on grounds relating to Yumilicious’s lack of intent and the terms of the franchise agreement. In the course of doing so, the opinion offers a primer on commonly-litigated issues about basic business torts in Texas. The Court observed that Why Not’s pleading had presented “a large serving of claims and counterclaims piled precariously together,” and concluded: “This saccharine swirl of counterclaims suggests that litigants, like fro-yo fans, should seek quality over quantity.” Yumilicious v. Barrie, No. 15-10508 (April 6, 2016). (The opinion is silent as to whether Why Not has any relation to the left fielder on Bud Abbott’s famous baseball team.)

Singapore Sting.

In the second case in a week about the seizure of maritime fuel supplies, the Fifth Circuit addressed a recurring issue in international business transactions — the incorporation of a bulk julianageneral set of standards by reference in a less-detailed, but party-specific contract. Applying Singapore law to the substantial fuel bunkers of the M/V BULK JULIANA (right), the Court concluded: “Although [the expert’s] testimony did not address the bunker delivery notes, he affirmed the incorporation of the General Terms by reference to the bunker confirmation email, which provided all the relevant terms and conditions of the contract. We recognize that neither Bulk Juliana nor the vessel was a party to the bunker confirmation email, and therefore did not have singapore flagaccess to and/or awareness of the specific document at all material times. [The expert], however, testified about the ready availability of the contractual terms via the internet, as well as the prevalence of the practices employed here with respect to sales of necessaries in the shipping industry. Importantly, [he] pointed out that [Plaintiff’s] incorporation of the General Terms was ‘commonplace in the bunkering industry worldwide, and ought to be in the contemplation of ship operators and ship-owners such as [Bulk Juliana].'”  World Fuel Services v. Bulk Juliana, Ltd., No. 15-30239 (April 1, 2016).

No fueling, there’s personal jurisdiction.

mine yours memeMalin Ship Repair sought to attach boat fuel (“bunkers” in admiralty parlance) of defendant OSA, and thus gain personal jurisdiction over OSA in a Texas federal court.  As of the attachment date, OSA had taken delivery of the boat and the fuel on it, but had not paid for the fuel or been invoiced for it.  Under the UCC, title would have passed under delivery.  Under the common law, the answer turns on the parties’ intent, and the Court concluded that “the parties contemplated a credit transaction.”  Thus, title had passed to OSA and the attachment was sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction under the applicable admiralty rule.  Malin Int’l Ship Repair & Drydock v. Oceanografia, S.A. de C.V., No. 15-40463 (March 23, 2016).

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).

Golden Triangle

220px-Golden_triangle_and_Fibonacci_spiral.svgThe Gagosian Gallery – for reasons not explained in the opinion, but doubtless interesting ones – wanted to display a work of art that featured a tower of 101 identical gold bars.  For approximately $3 million, it contracted to buy the gold from Stanford Coins and Bullion (“SCB”), owned by the now-disgraced Allen Stanford.  SCB in turn contracted with Dillon Gage, a wholesale gold supplier, to ship the gold directly to the gallery.  SCB forwarded payment to Dillon Gage, who applied to a balance that the gallery had with Dillon Gage as a result of unrelated transactions.

Before the shipment was made, however, the Stanford empire collapsed.  When the dust settled, the gallery sued Dillon Gage, alleging that it was a third-party beneficiary of its contract with SCB.  The case went to a jury trial and a verdict for Dillon Gage, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding no error in the jury instructions and sufficient evidence to support the verdict.  Page 5 of the opinion details the facts, which offer a classic illustration of the roles of knowledge and industry custom in determining contract liability.  Pre-War Art, Inc. v. Stanford Coins & Bullion, No. 15-10033 (Feb. 29, 2016, unpublished).

“Any similar law” = ambiguity

A highly technical dispute about the applicable law for an offshore salvage operation produced an insurance holding of general applicability in Tetra Technologies, Inc v. Continental Ins. Co., No. 15-30446 (Feb. 24, 2016).  The policy exclusion applied to “[a]ny obligation of the insured under a workers compensation, United States Longshoreman’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, Jones Act, Death on the High Seas Act, General Maritime Law, Federal Employers’ Liability Act, disability benefits or unemployment compensation law or any similar law . . . ”  The Fifth Circuit concluded that the “any similar law,” while referring generally to employers’ liability (since all the laws specifically named deal with that issue), was still ambiguous and meant that the exclusion would be construed against the insurer.

Over-ACHIEVER

triton achieverW&T Offshore operates pipelines and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.  It hired Triton Diving to help repair a pipeline.  Grogan, an independent contractor, fell and was injured when he went to work on a Triton vessel called the TRITON ACHIEVER.  W&T and Triton both had indemnity rights against the other, giving rise to the case of Grogan v. W&T Offshore, No. 15-30369 (Jan. 27, 2016).  The Fifth Circuit found no clear error in the district court’s conclusion that Grogan was W&T’s invitee and not Triton’s, detailing the control that W&T had over the project.  In sum: “W&T’s project was the ultimate reason for Triton and [Grogan’s] presence on the work site, and any benefit to Triton from [Grogan’s] presence was indirect .”

Hakuna Matata, no Res Judicata –

hakunamatataIn Akuna Matata Investments v. Texas Nom Limited Partnership, the panel majority found that a judgment in a state court lawsuit for breach of fiduciary duty and contract was not res judicata as to a later federal case about the winding up of the relevant partnership: “Even if Akunas’s interest was ‘bought out’ by the state court judgment and it was no longer a partner, this would have meant a de facto dissolution (since there were only two partners) and [Appellant] would have been obliged to take other steps necessary to reclaim the assets for itself alone.”  A dissent saw the two judgments as creating an impermissible double recovery: “Through protracted litigation and incomplete legal arguments, [Appellee] has fallen into an investment that defies both Texas law and common sense — a free ride.”  No. 14-51158 (Feb. 11, 2016).

High-low settlement agreement; ruling somewhere in the middle . . .

In a long-running dispute ahi_lo_1bout Transocean’s ability to recover “maintenance and cure” payments to Boudreaux, a seaman, the parties reached a “high-low” settlement agreement.  The Fifth Circuit then held — in an outcome not clearly anticipated by the parties’ deal — that Transocean had no affirmative right of recovery as against Boudreaux,but did have a right to make offsets against future payments.  Boudreaux v. Transocean Deepwater, Inc., 721 F.3d 723, 724-25 (5th Cir. 2013).  The district court treated that outcome as a “low,” which hurt Boudreaux, but the panel majority saw it as a “high” — “Because our court’s holding in Boudreaux I did not establish the viability of Transocean’s counterclaim, Boudreaux is entitled to the higher settlement amount.”  Boudreaux v. Transocean Deepwater, Inc., No. 14-30776 (Feb. 5, 2016, unpublished).

“What the Heck?” says buyer at speedy foreclosure sale

hourglassJeff Heck sought to buy property at a foreclosure sale for $63,000; given 20 minutes to obtain a cashier’s check for that amount, he did not return in time and the property was sold to another buyer.  The underlying Texas Property Code provision — the product of a surprising amount of controversy over the years — provides: “The purchase price in a sale held by a trustee . . . is due and payable without delay on acceptance of the bid or within such reasonable time as may be agreed upon[.]”  Here, Heck did not pay without delay on acceptance, and he took more time than had been agreed upon, meaning that no violation of the statute occurred.  Heck v. Citimortgage, Inc., No. 15-40964 (Jan. 29, 2016, unpublished).

No meeting of the minds = summary judgment affirmed

meeting of the mindsThe defendant appealed a summary judgment against it on a multi-million dollar claim for breach of a settlement agreement, alleging that a novation had replaced that agreement with a new bargain.  Taj Al Khairat, Ltd. v. Swiftships Shipbuilders, LLC, No. 15-30195 (Dec. 4, 2015, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, noting that while both principals of the defendant were confident about an agreement to resolve the liability under the settlement, a number of unanswered questions remained about subsequent conditions; for example, one testified that the understanding “we will settle all the past dues, and we will move forward if we can procure this contract, the SOC contract, and the performance bond.” (emphasis in opinion). (Another “conditional agreement” case is discussed today on sister blog 600Commerce.)

To achieve, perchance to dream —

achievement pictureCordero, a district sales manager for Avon, contended that she was due a $70,850 bonus for the first quarter of 2013.  Avon paid her $1,200, noting that several sales leaders who reported to her had created roughly $450,000 of fraudulent orders (although Cordero was not involved).  Nevertheless, Cordero contended that the terms “met” and “achievement” TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Smallin her compensation agreement referred to product that was “ordered, shipped, and notated on Avon’s quarterly report.”  The Fifth Circuit agreed with Avon that those terms necessarily referred to legitimate activity; otherwise, the contract did not advance a sensible business goal.  Cordero v. Avon Products, No. 15-40563 (Oct. 29, 2015, unpublished).

Not told about the mold

mold_cartoonThe Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of misrepresentation claims about the sale of a house with mold problems, finding that this disclaimer was not dispositive: “Buyer is hereby advised that mold and/or other microscopic organisms may exist at the property known as 1425 MAGNOLIA RIDGE, BOSSIER CITY, LA, 71112. . . . Buyer acknowledges and agrees to accept full responsibility/risk for any matters that may result from microscopic organisms and/or mold and to hold harmless, release, and indemnify Seller and Seller’s managing agents from any liability/recourse/damages (financial or otherwise). Buyer understands that Seller has taken no action to remediate mold. . . . The purpose of this disclaimer is to put Buyers on notice to conduct their own due diligence regarding this matter using appropriate, qualified experts[.]”  Jones v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 15-30031 (Sept. 28, 2015, unpublished).

No liquidated damages for payment default

The plaintiff in International Marine LLC v. FDT proved 33 breaches of the noncompete provisions of a contract related to the chartering of tugboats.  The district court and Fifth Circuit agreed that a liquidated damages clause applied to the last several breaches. As to the first five, however, the Court reasoned that the clause “would impose an unreasonable penalty, because due to the parties’ conduct, we know the extent of damages [Plaintiff] suffered from each of these breaches.”  It noted: “For over a century, courts have refused to award liquidated damages for contractual breaches solely involving default on payment obligations.” No. 14-31192 (Aug. 10, 2015, unpublished).

Termination fee void as penalty

MarauderA contract dispute about the management of several vessels (among them, the M/V Maurader, right) led to a holding that a termination fee was void as a penalty.  The contract required the boat owner to pay the management company “fifty percent of what [it] would have earned as a Management Fee had [the] Agreement not been so terminated,” and provided a formula for making that calculation, which in this case was $537,246.86.  “The termination fee formula, however, makes no deductions to account for the fact that [management company] would have fewer expenses in the event of termination, and [it] has not quantified the expenses that would remain.”   Comar Marine Co. v. Raider Marine Logistics LLC, No. 13-30156 (July 6, 2015).

Verdict for mortgage borrower affirmed.

Disputes between borrowers and mortgage servicers are common; jury trials in those disputes are rare.  But rare events do occur, and in McCaig v. Wells Fargo Bank, 788 F.3d 463 (5th Cir. 2015), a servicer lost a judgment for roughly $400,000 after a jury trial.

The underlying relationship was defined by a settlement agreement in which “Wells Fargo has agreed to accept payments from the McCaigs and to give the McCaigs the opportunity to avoid foreclosure of the Property; as long as the McCaigs make the required payments consistent with the Forbearance Agreement and the Loan Agreement.” Unfortunately, Wells’s “‘computer software was not equipped to handle’ the settlement and forbearance agreements meaning ‘manual tracking’ was required.”  This led to a number of accounting mistakes, which in turn led to unjustified threats to foreclose and other miscommunications.

In reviewing and largely affirming the judgment, the Fifth Circuit reached several conclusions of broad general interest:

  • The “bona fide error” defense under the Texas Debt Collection Act allows a servicer to argue that it made a good-faith mistake;  Wells did not plead that defense here, meaning that its arguments about a lack of intent were not pertinent to the elements of the Act sued upon by plaintiffs;
  • The economic loss rule did not bar the TDCA claims, even though the alleged misconduct breached the parties’ contract: “[I]f a particular duty is defined both in a contract and in a statutory provision, and a party violates the duty enumerated in both sources, the economic loss rule does not apply”;
  • Casteel – type charge issue is not preserved if the objecting party submits the allegedly erroneous question with the comment “If I had to draft this over again, that’s the way I’d draft it”;
  • The plaintiffs’ lay testimony was sufficient to support awards for mental anguish; and
  • “[A] print-out from [plaintiffs’] attorney’s case management system showing individual tasks performed by the attorney and the date on which those tasks were performed” was sufficient evidence to support the award of attorneys fees.

A dissent took issue with the economic loss holding, and would find all of the plaintiffs’ claims barred; “[t]he majority’s reading of these [TDCA] provisions specifically equates mere contract breach with statutory violations[.]”

Noncompete Nonenforceable.

An architectural firm sued a former employee and a competitor.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for the defendants in Hunn v. Dan Wilson Homes, No. 13-11297 (June 15, 2015).  As to the firm’s claim for breach of fiduciary duty, the Fifth Circuit found no error in the district court’s finding that “the plans in the AutoCAD files were the same as the physical copies of the plans that [had] already been disseminated by [Plaintiff]” to various homeowners.  A noncompete claim failed for lack of an express promise related to confidential information.  Other claims based on copyright, the Lanham Act, contract, and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act failed for similar proof problems.  Particularly as to the elements of a noncompete claim under Texas law, the opinion provides a practical summary of potential claims related to an employee’s departure, as well as several commonly-litigated factual issues related to those claims.

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).

 

General release did not include FLSA claims

Plaintiffs settled a noncompete case with their employer, TXL Mortgage, and signed a broad general release of “all claims and causes of action that were or could have been asserted in the Lawsuit and all claims and causes of action related to or in any way arising from [their] employment with TXL, whether based in tort, contract (express or implied), warranty, deceptive trade practices, or any federal, state or local law, statute, or regulation.”  Plaintiffs then sued for overtime wages under the FLSA.

The district court granted summary judgment for the employer, and the Fifth Circuit reversed, applying Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, LLC, 688 F.3d 247 (5th Cir. 2012): “To deem the plaintiffs as having fairly bargained away unmentioned overtime pay based on a settlement that involves a compromise over wages due for commissions and salary would subvert the purpose of the FLSA: namely, in this case, the protection of the
right to overtime pay. Under these circumstances where overtime pay was never specifically negotiated, there is no guarantee that the plaintiffs have been or will be compensated for the overtime wages they are allegedly due under the Act.” Accordingly, the general prohibition on settlement of FLSA claims applied, and the exception recognized in Martin did not.  Bodle v. TXL Mortgage Corp., No. 14-20224 (June 1, 2015).

Barge at large not discharged.

GD MorganConstango Operators Inc. built a pipeline beneath the Atchafalaya Channel.  Unfortunately, the Corps of Engineers neglected to forward information about that new pipeline to its Waterways Division, which supervises dredging operations. A dredging barge operated by Weeks Marine (the G.D. MORGAN, right) then hit the pipeline. The resulting trial awarded damages to Constango, with the U.S. liable for 60% and Weeks 40%, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The opinion turns largely on issues or maritime law and the applicable federal regulations, but has three features of broad general interest:

  1. An exceptionally clear definition of “extrinsic evidence” as “anything outside a contract itself,” which excluded consideration of material from the Federal Register and CFR in construing an exculpatory clause;
  2. A reminder that a duty of care can arise from common law even though regulations control and define some aspects of the parties’ dealings; and
  3. A reminder, under general tort law, that “[t]he fact that Weeks followed the custom of the dredging industry is not dispositive, because a common practice can still be negligent.”

Contango Operators, Inc. v. USA, No. 14-20265 (May 28, 2015, unpublished).

Arbitration, I presume?

TRC Environmental Corporation, the contractor on a project to decommission a power plant, sued LVI Facilities Services for breach of its subcontract with TRC.  The subcontract said that “All disputes arising under the Contract Documents will be resolved in accordance with the terms of the Project Agreement”; otherwise, they would be arbitrated.  The Project Agreement spelled out various ADR processes but did not require arbitration.  In affirming the rejection of LVI’s motion to compel arbitration, the Fifth Circuit reminded: “The Federal Arbitration Act codifies a ‘liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.’  But, this presumption applies when a court evaluates the scope of an arbitration under the second step of the arbitration analysis, not when a court is determining whether a valid arbitration agreement exists at all.”  TRC Environmental Corp. v. LVI Facility Servcs., No. 14-51269 (May 22, 2015, unpublished).

Several procedure lessons in one, tangled, package.

Lincoln Insurance sued several defendants, who it accused of charging excessive fees and otherwise engaging in self-dealing to the detriment of Lincoln.  Lincoln won a $16.5 million judgment against two of them for tortious interference.  In a “grab bag” of holdings after both sides appealed, the Fifth Circuit held:

  • It did not need to reach a difficult Erie issue about when a tortious interference claim accrues under Texas law, where some of the conduct occurs outside the limitations period, because the trial court found sufficient facts to establish that the discovery rule applied;
  • Voluntary dismissal of a claim in amended pleading, in response to a dismissal order “based on a technical defect or withdrawal,” waives the right to appeal that order;
  • The economic loss rule barred conversion claims where contract provisions dealt with the underlying rights and responsibilities; and
  • When a contract provision expressly created a fiduciary duty as to the handling of funds in a particular account, that duty necessarily extended that duty to the handling of those funds before their deposit (and the trial court erred in holding otherwise, requiring a remand).

The Court noted: “[A] litigation strategy with a narrower focus on certain claims and Defendants might reduce the complications, both procedural and substantive, that arose the first go-around.”  Lincoln General Ins. Co. v. U.S. Auto Ins. Servcs., Inc., No. 13-10589 (May 18, 2015).

 

A BP claim settlement: Now you see it, now you don’t —

bplogoJohnson submitted a claim about his personal injuries to the “Gulf Coast Claims Facility,” an entity created to facilitate the resolution of claims against BP about the Deepwater Horizon accident.  The GCCF recommended a settlement of roughly $2.7 million. Johnson accepted the proposal and BP allowed its 14-day appeal period to run.  During that period, however, BP made an indemnity demand on another company, who raised serious questions about the veracity of Johnson’s claim.  BP sought to set aside the settlement, and the case of Johnson v. BP Exploration & Production, Inc. ensued.  No. 14-30269 (May 15, 2015).

As to contract formation, the Fifth Circuit found that: (1) “Johnson accepted the offer in the [GCCF] Determination Letter by its own terms by timely submitting the Final Payment Election Form and agreeing to subsequently sign the Release, and because BP declined to appeal that offer within the fourteen-day period, both an offer and acceptance occurred”; and (2) the actual terms of the release were not material to the formation of the settlement agreement, and neither was its actual delivery.  However, after acknowledging the general rule that “simply couching . . . prior litigation as ‘fraudulent,'” will not support a frauduimagelent inducement claim, the Court concluded that BP had raised a question as to whether an exception applied when “the defendant subsequently uncovers previously unavailable evidence that the plaintiff was in fact not injured at all, or sustained only de minimis injuiries.”  Accordingly, the Court remanded for an evidentiary hearing about the issue of fraudulent inducement.

In Texas state court, is a TRO application an answer?

answerbuttonAmerijet sued Zero Gravity in Texas state court, seeking emergency relief about the handling of certain aircraft engines subject to their contract.  Zero Gravity responded with its own request for emergency relief. After some initial rulings by the state court, Zero Gravity removed to federal court.  Amerijet then filed a notice of dismissal under Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(a)(1)(A)(i). The matter proceeded in federal court, however, based on its jurisdiction over the TRO bond and a counterclaim for declaratory relief, as the parties tried to settle.  Their dealings culminated in the district court enjoining further litigation by Amerijet in Florida federal court, which then led to an appeal about the district court’s power over the case in light of the dismissal notice.  Amerijet Int’l, Inc. v. Zero Gravity Corp., No. 14-20521 (May 15, 2015).

Observing that a Rule 41 notice takes effect automatically if the defendant has not answered or moved for summary judgment, the Fifth Circuit found that Zero Gravity’s pre-removal filing “barely” qualified as an answer under Texas law, which meant that the notice no longer had automatic effect.  Even though the filing was styled as a TRO application (and accompanying motion to dissolve) and was not called an “answer,” the Court noted that it asserted defenses, a counterclaim for declaratory relief, and facts in support and thus met the “minimal characteristics of an answer” under Texas law  (The question whether a defendant’s pre-removal counterclaim waives the right to remove did not appear to be before the Court.)   Accordingly, the district court was not bound to dismiss the matter, and it did not abuse its discretion in enjoining parallel federal litigation under the first-to-file rule.

Goodbye, earnest money.

earnest moneyThe Songs deposited $361,200 as earnest money, toward the purchase of a $3.4 million apartment complex.  They then made the successful bid in an auction process, but backed out of the transaction and refused to close.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that the seller could keep the money.  It found that the parties’ agreement had consideration, most notably in the seller’s commitment to review, consider, and accept the Songs’ bid.  It also found that the earnest money was a proper liquidated damages award for the Songs’ termination, finding that it “is reasonable and actual damages were uncertain.”  Song v. 4170 & 4231 & 4271 Altoona Drive Holdings LP, No. 14-11059 (April 8, 2015, unpublished).

How to reject an offer — UPDATED

Continuing an earlier post about how to sign documents, the issue of effective consent again appeared in Berry v. Fannie Mae, No. 14-10474 (April 17, 2015, unpublished).  A mortgage servicer sent a trial payment plan to a borrower, which said: “This Plan will not take effect unless and until both the Lender and I sign it and Lender provides me with a copy of this Plan with the Lender’s signature.”  Rejecting an argument that the servicer’s letter acknowledging the borrower’s signature waived this language, the Court enforced it and affirmed dismissal of the borrower’s claims.  A similar analysis led to a similar result in Williams v. Bank of America, No. 14-20520 (May 7, 2015, unpublished).

“Replace” = ambiguous pipeline easement

AngusIn Angus Chemical Co. v. Glendora Plantation, Inc., an industrial facility had an easement that gave it “the right to construct, maintain, inspect, operate, protect, alter, repair, replace and change” a pipeline.  No. 14-30416 (March 24, 2015).  The company plugged and abandoned its original 12″ pipeline in favor of a new 16″ one.  The key appellate issue was whether the right to “replace” a pipeline allowed the company to simply substitute one pipeline for another, or whether it also “impl[ied] a corresponding duty to remove” the old one.  The Fifth Circuit found the term “replace” was ambiguous in this context, and that there was a material fact issue in the extrinsic evidence about which meaning should prevail.  Therefore, it reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the chemical company.  This topic — the role of extrinsic evidence in contract disputes — was most recently before the Court in a major case in the “Whoomp! There it is” litigation, and as detailed in a link from that post, frequently leads to disagreement between the trial courts and the Fifth Circuit.

Satisfied, released, and discharged.

W&MFed. R. Civ. P. 60, titled “Grounds for Relief from a Final Judgment, Order, or Proceeding,” is generally invoked to vacate a judgment because of alleged misconduct, mistake, newly-discovered evidence, or other equitable reasons.  Clause (5) of that rule also allows relief if “the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged; it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable.” That provision — and specifically, its rarely-litigated first clause — was at issue in Frew v. Janek, in which the Texas Health and Human Services Commission argued that it had fully performed under a consent decree related to the operation of a Medicaid program. No. 14-40048 (March 5, 2015).  Construing the decree “according to ‘general principles of contract interpretation,'” and declining to apply the law of the case doctrine to the interpretation of the decree by the judge who entered the order, the Fifth Circuit found no error in the district court’s ruling that the defendants had complied with the order and performed fully.

Stuck = loss

Lift Boat Nicole EymardThe L/B Nicole Eymard (right) became stuck while servicing a well in the Gulf of Mexico.  The owner of the boat sued the contractor that hired the boat, in addition to the well owner, and both were found liable for charter fees while the vessel was unable to move.  The well owner obtained indemnity from the contractor because the contractor had agreed to indemnify it for imageclaims “based upon personal injury or death or property damage or loss.”  Unpaid charter fees are a “loss” within the meaning of that language, even without proof of damage to property.  Offshore Marine Contractors, LLC v. Palm Energy Offshore, LLC, No. 14-30059 (March 2, 2015).

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s contract rights.

mrimachineSuperior MRI Services sued for tortious interference with contract; the defendant argued that Superior lacked standing because it never acquired rights under the relevant contracts, and the Fifth Circuit agreed.  Superior MRI Services, Inc. v. Alliance Imaging, Inc., No. 14-60087 (Feb. 18, 2015).  The record showed that P&L Imaging, a bankruptcy debtor, listed “MRI service agreements” on its schedule of assignments to Superior, with an assignment date of October 1, 2011.  Superior, however, did not exist as a legal entity until November 28, 2011.  No evidence showed that Superior ratified the contract after its formation, and the Court was unwilling to accept Mississippi’s approval of Superior as a vendor as evidence of a ratification.  The Court distinguished the recent case of Lexmark, Int’l v. Static Control Components, 134 S. Ct. 1377 (2014), as relating to another aspect of the standing requirement.

Untimely notice of claim, again.

In an earlier opinion, the Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment in favor of an insured, finding a fact issue as to whether late notice caused prejudice to the carrier.  “Berkley I,” Berkley Regional Ins. Co. v. Philadelphia Indemnity Ins. Co., 690 F.3d 342 (5th Cir. 2012). After further proceedings, the district court granted summary judgment to the carrier and the Court affirmed.  “Berkley II,”  Berkley Regional Ins. Co. v. Philadelphia Indemnity Ins. Co., No. 13-51180 c/w No. 14-50099 (Jan. 27, 2015, unpublished).  The key issue was whether notice to the broker sufficed to give notice the the carrier; the Court reasoned that even if the broker had a limited agency relationship with the carrier, notice of claims fell outside its scope: “Under the 2002 Agreement, Philadelphia expressly allowed [Agent] to act as an insurance broker and sell Philadelphia policies as Philadelphia’s representative, subject to Philadelphia’s approval.  The 2002 Agreement is silent as to whether [Agent] had the ability to accept notice of claims on behalf of Philadelphia.  Thus, [Agent] did not have express authority to accept notice of claims.”  For the same reasons, an implied agency theory was also rejected.

Uncertainty is not ambiguity

monopolyinsuranceThe insurance coverage case of Mt. Hawley Ins. Co. v. Advance Products & Systems, Inc. illustrates the recurring differences of opinion between the Fifth Circuit and district courts about contract ambiguity.  14-30068  (Jan. 27, 2015, unpublished).  When APS made a claim on its commercial property policy with Mt. Hawley, APS’s recovery was limited by a “coinsurance provision” that applies if it “has not insured the full value of its income.”  The parties differed on whether “income” referred to projected or actual net income; the district court found ambiguity, and the Fifth Circuit reversed: “Although APS has a point—the language used in calculating the coinsurance penalty is imprecise—it does not render the contract ambiguous.”  Based on the relationship between this provision and other parts of the policy, and the general purposes of coinsurance clauses, the Court reversed a summary judgment for the insured.

How to Compound Interest

interestgraphThe note said: “So long as an Event of Default remains outstanding: (a) interest shall accrue at the Default Rate and, to the extent not paid when due, shall be added to the Principal Amount . . . .” The lender said this language meant that interest should be compounded, and the lower courts agreed — in the amount of almost $5 million.  The borrower argued that this language only meant “that any unpaid interest will be added
to the principal amount as the total debt due.”  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that this reading would impermissibly make the provision redundant “because it would operate only to label the accrued interest as money owed by [borrower] to [lender], and the interest was already owed.  TCI Courtyard, Inc. v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 14-10635 (Jan. 22, 2015, unpublished).

Bond. Immigration Bond.

fromrussialoveThe case of AAA Bonding Agency v. United States Dep’t of Homeland Security involved the seldom-seen world of “immigration bonds” — a type of surety bond that allows release of an alien from custody while deportation proceedings are ongoing.  No. 14-20057 (Jan. 12, 2015, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit has previously held that “DHS may only enforce an immigration bond against a surety company or bonding agent that has received notice demanding delivery of the alien covered by the bond.”  This case involved 23 bonds where (1) AAA, the bonding agency, was liable on the bond with Surety National, an insurance company, (2) only AAA had received notice from DHS, and (3) Surety National had settled with DHS, and as part of the settlement, agreed that AAA would not be liable to DHS on these bonds if a court held that AAA’s obligation was joint and several with Surety National’s.  The Court concluded that its prior holding did not alter the joint and several liability of AAA and Surety National as set forth in the language of the bonds, and ruled for AAA.

Whoomp! Extrinisic evidence.

The same week as whoompthe en banc vote in the whooping crane litigation, the Fifth Circuit analyzed “Whoomp! (There It Is).”  The unfortunate song has been mired in copyright infringement litigation for a decade; the district court entered judgment for the plaintiff for over $2 million, and it was affirmed in Isbell v. DM Records, Inc., Nos. 13-40787 and 14-40545 (Dec. 18, 2014).  [The opinion notes: “The word “‘Whoomp!’ appears to be a neologism, perhaps a variant of ‘Whoop!,’ as in a cry of excitement.”]

The main appellate issue was a variant of a frequently-litigated topic — the role of extrinsic evidence in contract interpretation.  The assignment in question was governed by California law, which the Court found to “employ[] a liberal parol evidence rule” with respect to consideration of extrinsic evidence.  The appellant argued that the district image court erred “in interpreting the Recording Agreement without asking the jury to make any findings on the extrinsic evidence.”  The Court disagreed, finding that the record did not present “a question of the credibility of conflicting extrinsic evidence” (emphasis in original): “The only dispute is over the meaning of the Recording Agreement and the inferences that should be drawn from the numerous undisputed pieces of extrinsic evidence.  This is a question of law for the court, not for a jury.”

Waive goodbye in federal court too

As chronicled in the sister blog 600Commerce (following business cases in the Dallas Court of Appeals), the issue of whether a guarantor can waive the “fair market value” offset right provided by the Texas Property Code — a problem that arises frequently after foreclosure sales — was hotly-litigated until the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter in Moyaedi v. Interstate 35/Chisam Road, L.P,  438 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. 2014), finding that the right was waivable.

The Fifth Circuit acknowledged and applied that holding in Hometown 2006-1 1925 Valley View, LLC v. Prime Income Asset Management LLC, finding that the waiver there was even clearer than in Moyaedi.  In Moyaedi, the guarantor waived “every . . . defense”; here, the guarantor waived “any . . . offset, claim or defense,” and the guaranty also had a provision saying: “Guarantor WAIVES each and every right to which it may be entitled by virtue of any suretyship law, including any rights it may have pursuant to . . . Section
51.005 of the Texas Property Code.”  No. 14-10182 (Dec. 11, 2014, unpublished).

“Enforce” settlement does not mean “change” settlement.

Sundown Energy could access its oil and gas production facility via the Mississippi River, but had to cross Haller’s land to access it from the highway.  They litigated about Sundown’s rights and reached a settlement, which their counsel read into the record on the day set for trial.  The Fifth Circuit found that the parties had reached a settlement, which the district court had the authority to enforce pursuant to their agreement.  The Court reversed, though, as to the district court’s resolution of several logistical issues: “Here, the district court erred by imposing several terms which either conflicted with or added to the agreement read into the record by the parties. Although the parties gave the district court the authority to enforce and interpret the settlement agreement, the district court did not have the power to change the terms of the settlement agreed to by the parties.”  Sundown Energy L.P. v. Haller, No. 13-30294 et al. (Dec. 8, 2014).

How to sign documents

300px-JohnHancocksSignature.svgCan a note be endorsed with a photocopied signature?  Yes. Whittier v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No. 13-20639 (Dec. 3, 2014, unpublished) (citing Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 1.201(b)(37)) (“Signed” includes using any symbol executed or adopted with present intention to adopt or accept a writing.”)

Can a “deed of trust . . . upon a homestead exempted from execution,” which “shall not be valid or binding unless signed by the spouse of the owner,” be signed in separate but identical documents?  Yes.  Avakian v. Citibank, N.A., No. 14-60175 (Dec. 9, 2014) (citing Duncan v. Moore, 7 So. 221, 221-22 (Miss. 1890)) (“There is much force in the imageargument of defendant’s counsel that the statute does not require a joint deed of husband and wife for the conveyance of the husband’s homestead . . . that the substantial thing is the written evidence of such consent; and that this may be as certainly shown by a separate instrument as by signing the deed of the husband.”)

Lois civiles actuellement en force dans le territoire d’Orléans

napoleon lawmakerIn tour de force reviews of Louisiana’s Civil Code and civilian legal tradition, a plurality and dissent — both written by Louisiana-based judges — reviewed whether a 1923 deed created a “predial servitude” with respect to a right of access.  The deed at issue said: “It is understood and agreed that the said Texas & Pacific Railway Company shall fence said strip of ground and shall maintain said fence at its own expense and shall provide three crossings across said strip at the points indicated on said Blue Print hereto attached and made part hereof, and the said Texas and Pacific Railway hereby binds itself, its successors and assigns, to furnish proper drainage out-lets across the land hereinabove conveyed.”

The analysis involved citation to the Revised Civil Code of Louisiana of 1870 (the Code in effect at the time of conveyance), the 1899 treatise Traité de Droit Civil-Des Biens, and the 1893 work, Commentaire théorique & pratique du code civil.  Despite the arcane overlay, the opinions turn on practical observations.  The plurality notes that the deed uses “successors and assigns” language only with respect to drainage — not access — while the dissent observes that a “personal” access right, limited only to the parties to the conveyance and that does not run with the land, is impractical.  Franks Investment Co. v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., No. 13-30990 (Dec. 2, 2014).

How to stipulate

A mortgage servicer sued two individuals, alleging a conspiracy to defraud; the defendants argued that the servicer lacked standing because the notes in question were not properly conveyed.  The case settled during trial, and as part of the settlement “the parties stipulated to several facts, including the fact that the Trusts were the owners and holders of the Loans at issue.”  An agreed judgment followed.  BAC Home Loans Servicing, L.P. v. Groves, No. 13-20764 (Nov. 3, 2014, unpublished).

The defendants then moved to vacate under FRCP 60(b), arguing that the plaintiff lacked standing.  The district court denied the motion and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  It first noted that “the court will generally enforce valid appeal waivers, [but] a party cannot waive Article III standing by agreement . . .”  Further noting that “parties may stipulate to facts but not legal conclusions,” the Court held: “That is exactly what happened here.  [Defendants] conceded facts that establish [plainitiff’s] status; thus, the district court appropriately reached the resulting legal conclusion that [plaintiff] has standing.”

Yankee Doodle went to town, filing an interpleader.

cagneyEnCana Oil & Gas hired Seiber as a general contractor, who in turn hired Holt and TAUG as subcontractors.  Seiber failed to make timely payments.  EnCana interpleaded the funds at issue, and Seiber then filed for bankruptcy — before entry of a final order in the interpleader case. Holt Texas, Ltd. v. Zayler, No. 13-41153 (Nov. 3, 2014).

Holt and TAUG alleged that they had materialmen’s liens under Texas law that removed the funds from Seiber’s bankruptcy estate; Seiber’s bankruptcy trustee argued that the filing of the interpleader action “automatically satisfied its liability to Seiber, thus transferring legal possession of the funds to Seiber and the bankruptcy estate.”

The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the trustee and reversed the bankruptcy court, reasoning: “If this were so, the interpleader would be the final judge of its own legal obligations relative to the dispute, by depositing a sum solely determined by it, washing its hands of any relationship to the dispute and walking away whistling Yankee Doodle.”

How to ratify a contract by cashing a check

Uretek USA developed a process for pavement repair, which it sublicensed to Uretek Mexico under an agreement signed in 2003.  In 2010, the principals of the two companies met to try and resolve disputes about that agreement and other business dealings. During the meeting, the parties initialed an amended sublicense agreement, and Uretek USA accepted four checks from Uretek Mexico with these amounts and memo lines:

  1. $10 “As per First Amendment to Sublicense Agreement”
  2. $76,950.90 for “Full Payment on Technical Assistance”
  3. $225,471.05 for “Full Payment on Royalties”
  4. $10 for “Full Release [Uretek USA] to [Uretek Mexico]

Uretek USA later sued to dispute the enforceability of the amendment.  The jury found that Uretek USA ratified it by conduct, principally by cashing these checks.  While Uretek USA made several arguments against that finding on appeal, the number of checks and specificity of the notations on them was sufficient to sustain the verdict.  Uretek (USA), Inc. v. Ureteknologia de Mexico S.A. de C.V., No. 13-20430 (Oct. 29, 2014, unpublished).

Oil well blowout; no coverage for remediation costs.

Pioneer suffered an oil well blowout and paid millions to restore order.  It sued for reimbursement under its umbrella policy and the Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for the insurer, based largely on the broad language of the relevant exclusions.  Pioneer Exploration LLC v. Steadfast Ins. Co., No. 13-30802 (Sept. 22, 2014).  Pioneer argued that the “owned, rented or occupied” exclusion did not apply to a mineral lease.  The Court disagreed, noting that the mineral lease gave Pioneer some control over surface land, and that the broad language of the exclusion reached activity associated with oil production (citing Aspen Ins. UK, Ltd. v. Dune Energy, Inc., No. 10-30335 (5th Cir. Nov. 8, 2010, unpublished)).  Further, noting that Louisiana law allowed debate as to whether an “owned property” exclusion reached remediation costs incurred to minimize liability to third parties, the Court found that this exclusion “specifically excludes containment costs” (reviewing Norfolk Southern Corp. v. California Union Ins., 859 So. 2d 167 (La. App. 2003)).”  Finally, as to another exclusion, the Court found that the insured could not meaningfully allocate expense “between controlling costs and plugging costs.”

Return of the one-satisfaction rule

This summer, the Fifth Circuit declined to apply the Texas “one satisfaction rule” in a fraudulent transfer case, where the plaintiff had also settled a contract dispute with the seller of the business involved in the transfer.  GE Capital Commercial, Inc. v. Worthington National Bank, No. 13-10171 (June 10, 2014).  The court returned to the one-satisfaction rule in Structural Metals, Inc. v. S&C Electric Co., in which the jury awarded roughly $300,000 for a breach of warranty (measured as the difference in value between the goods as received, and the goods as warranted).  The plaintiff also received an insurance payment for fire damage involving the goods.  Again, the Court declined to apply the rule, finding that the plaintiff had suffered two distinct injuries.  No. 13-50332 (Oct. 6, 2014, unpublished).  Interestingly, in both cases, the Court focused on the one-satisfaction rule rather than the closely-related doctrine of the collateral source rule.

The building fell down. Someone should pay.

Boxcars Properties, the operator of an apartment complex, sued its neighboring landowners West Hills Park and Home Depot in Texas state court, complaining about development activity that led to a “lack of lateral support” and made the complex uninhabitable. Williams v. Home Depot, Inc. (Sept. 22, 2014, unpublished).  Boxcars settled with Home Depot and obtained a $2.4 million verdict against West Hills, which then filed for bankruptcy.

West Hills sought indemnity from Home Depot, and the district court and Fifth Circuit rejected its request.  The indemnity provision contained an exclusion for “the tortious acts of . . . other parties” — such as West Hills.  Noting that “[t]he express negligence doctrine alone may be sufficient to deny [debtor’s] claim,” the Court decided on the basis of issue preclusion, agreeing with the district court that “the negligence finding was essential to the judgment because only that finding allowed for the damages for improvements to land included in the state court verdict.”

Contract terminated, goods sold, no unjust enrichment.

In Ferrara Fire Apparatus, Inc. v. JLG Industries, Inc., the Fifth Circuit returned to ground surveyed by the American Law Institute’s Restatement (Third) of Restitution, which the Court recently visited in cases about a faithless employee and the payment of benefits to a seaman.  Here, Gradall Industries manufactured a specialized boom called the “Strong Arm,” designed for firefighting, and Ferrara Fire Apparatus contracted to serve as its exclusive sales representative.  The relationship soured, Gradall terminated the contract, and Ferrara sued.  Ferrara obtained judgment for unjust enrichment for $1 million.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding no evidence of “an absence of justification or legal cause for the enrichment” as required by Louisiana law: “Gradall was simply competing in the market, which it was entitled to do after ending its exclusive contract with Ferrara.”  No. 13-30600 (Sept. 9, 2014, unpublished).

Payment excused, unambiguously

CAP agreed to sell a security to VPRO.  Their contract said: “The purchase price is $400,000 and this amount is to be paid to you within 10 business days from the date of transfer of the [security t]o: CITIBANK NY DTC 908 Account 089154 CSC73464, Further Credit to: [CAP], Beneficiary Deposit Account NR. 840 BSI SPA San Marino.” Collective Asset Partners, LLC v. Vtrader Pro, LLC, No. 13-20619 (Aug. 15, 2014, unpublished).

CAP hired a broker, who successfully transferred the security to the DTC account but, because the broker provided inaccurate information, failed to transfer it on to the San Marino account.  VPRO refused to pay.  CAP sold the security to another buyer for $175,069.41 and sued VPRO for the difference.

Applying Texas law, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that VPRO unambiguously had no payment obligation until both transfers occurred, noting both the “Further Credit to” language in the contract, and the fact that the broker in fact tried to make both transfers.

 

Defense win affirmed on billion-dollar bankruptcy trustee claim

The trustee of a litigation trust formed from the bankruptcy of Idearc, Inc. sued its former parent, Verizon, alleging billions of dollars in damages in connection with its spinoff.  After a bench trial and several other orders, the district court ruled in favor of defendants, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed in U.S. Bank, N.A. v. Verizon Communications, No. 13-10752 (revised Sept. 2, 2014).

The opinion, while lengthy, still only hints at the complexity of the case, and much of its analysis is fact-specific.  Some of the issues addressed include:

1.  A bankruptcy litigation trust does not have a right to jury trial on a fraudulent transfer claim, when the defendant creditor has filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy court must resolve whether a fraudulent transfer occurred to rule on that claim (analyzing and applying Langemkamp v. Culp, 498 U.S. 42 (1990), in light of Stern v. Marshall, 131 S. Ct. 2594 (2011)).

2.  In the context of determining whether the district court reviewed an earlier ruling correctly, on pages 26-27, the Court provided crisp definitions of the basic concepts of dictum and holding.

3.  In the course of rejecting an argument about the refusal to admit several pieces of evidence, the Court noted that the trustee “does not discuss how each specific piece of evidence was likely to affect the outcome of the trial, in light of all the evidence presented.”

4.  A defense expert, without experience in the particular industry, was still qualified to speak to valuation methodology in the bench trial, and “we cannot reverse the district court for adopting one permissible view over the other.”

5.  The Court thoroughly reviewed the fiduciary duties owed from a parent to a subsidiary under Delaware law, while affirming the district court’s conclusions about causation associated with their alleged breach.

 

 

Did emails about payment modify the settlement agreement?

One party to a settlement made the last installment payment several weeks late, triggering an acceleration clause that led to more liability.  Celtic Marine Corp. v. James C. Justice Co., No. 13-30712 (July 29, 2014).  The parties had this email exchange after the last payment was due and before it was made, which the party in default said modified the agreement:

A (1-5-2013):  Are we being paid the $91,666.66 to settle this once and for all?  I have lost faith in the agreement from your side.

A (1-7-2013): Are you paying us the $91,666.66 today?

B(1-7-2013): Fri

A (1-7-2013): o/n check correct and can’t u do it Thurs for Friday devl?

The Fifth Circuit held that this exchange did not modify the agreement, for several reasons: (1) the parties had not agreed to conduct transactions by electronic means [citing Louisiana’s version of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act], (2) prior contracts had been “typed agreements physically signed,” and (3) factually, the email that talks about payment “to settle this for once and for all” was 1 of 15 demands for payment in a “one-sided” set of communications.

Return to Royalties

After recently reviewing the phrase “computed at the mouth of the well,” the Fifth Circuit returned to oil royalties in Potts v. Chesapeake Exploration LLC, No. 13-10601 (July 29, 2014).  The lease fixed the royalty as a percentage of “the market value at the point of sale,” and would be “free and clear of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production and marketing of oil and gas production . . . ”  Since Chesapeake’s sales of gas occured at the wellhead, this language allowed it to deduct a reasonable post-production cost for delivering the gas from the wellhead under Heritage Resources, Inc. v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996).  The Court said that its conclusion was not affected, under the terms of this lease, by the fact that Chesapeake sold to an affiliate.  The Court also rejected a procedural argument about whether Heritage was binding precedent after the Texas Supreme Court’s 4-4 vote on rehearing.   

Be careful settling claims covered by insurance.

A 1404(a) dispute was affirmed in Empire Indemity Ins. Co. v. N-S Corp., where “almost all non-party witnesses and all sources of proof needed to determine whether damages were covered by Empire’s policy are in, or around, Texas, and subject to the district court’s compulsory subpoena power.”  No. 13-40426 (June 12, 2014, unpublished).  On the merits, an aggrieved car wash operator sued its parts supplier and won a verdict for over $3 million.  Several months later, the parts supplier and its primary carrier settled with the plaintiff, all parties mutually released all claims against each other, and the parts supplier assigned its claims against its excess carrier to the plaintiff.  The excess carrier won summary judgment and the Fifth Circuit affirmed: “Following a release, the releasor cannot sue the releasee’s insurer ‘because the release precludes the prerequisite determination of [releasee’s liablity.'”  (quoting Angus Chem. Co. v. IMC Fertilizer, Inc., 939 S.W.2d 138 (Tex. 1997)).

Expensive royalties

Chesapeake’s lease obliged it to pay the Warrens a royalty based on “the amount realized by Lessee, computed at the mouth of the well.”  A lease addendum said the royalty “shall be free of all costs and expenses related to the exploration, production, and marketing . . . including, but not limited to, costs of compression, dehydration, treatment and transportation.”  Warren v. Chesapeake Exploration LLC, No. 13-10619 (July 16, 2014).

The addendum went on to say that “Lessor will, however, bear a proportionate part of all those expenses imposed upon Lessee by its gas sales contract to the extent incurred subsequent to those that are obligations of Lessee.”  The Warrens contended that this sentence defined certain shared expenses which should not have been deducted from the royalty.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the Rule 12 dismissal of their complaint, finding that the sentence only referred to “the cost of delivering marketable gas to a sales point other than the mouth of the well.”  (distinguishing Heritage Resources, Inc. v. NationsBank, 939 S.W.2d 118 (Tex. 1996)).

The Court reversed, however, as to another pair of plaintiffs with a different lease addendum.  Noting simply that it was different, the Court found that their claim should not have been dismissed, as “[i]t is not apparent from the face of the complaint or its attachments that they could not conceivably state a cause of action.”

Only consider parol evidence when you consider it.

In Bluebonnet Hotel Ventures, LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., the Fifth Circuit considered whether there had been an “[e]rror that vitiates consent” because of a “failure of cause” about an interest rate swap agreement, so as to allow its cancellation under Louisiana contract law.  No. 13-30827 (June 6, 2014).  In the course of affirming summary judgment for the bank, the Court declined to consider emails written around the time of contracting, noting: “Under Louisiana law, courts may only consider parol evidence when a contract is ambiguous.” To illustrate the sharp edge that separates holdings in the area of extrinsic evidence, cfFruge v. Amerisure663 F.3d 743 (5th Cir. 2011) ( applying Louisiana law and holding: “Parol evidence is admissible to show mutual error even though the express terms of the policy are not ambiguous.”) (citations omitted).

Out of the frying pan of Rule 12, into the fire of Rule 56

First case: Highland Capital sued Bank of America for the alleged breach of an oral contract to sell a $15.5 million loan.  After the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of this claim under Rule 12(b)(6), it affirmed summary judgment for the defendant in Highland Capital Management LP v. Bank of America, No. 13-11026 (July 3, 2014). Highland relied upon standard terminology promulgated by an industry association, while the Bank pointed to evidence showing that, in this specific transaction, the Bank was not familiar with that terminology and not want it to control.  “Although industry custom is extrinsic evidence a factfinder can use to determine the parties’ intent to be bound, its value is substantially diminished where, as here, other evidence overwhelmingly shows that the persons involved in the dealings were unaware of those customs.”    The Court also rejected an alternative theory that a prior transaction that involved the terminology continued to govern the parties’ relationship, noting: “Whether a prior contract had a binding effect on the procedures available for future contract-formation is a legal question.”

Second case:  As with the previous case, WH Holdings LLC v. Ace American Ins. Co. was remanded for development of a factual record, this time for extrinsic evidence about a contract ambiguity.  No. 13-30676 (June 26, 2014, unpublished).   And as with the previous case, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment, finding that seven pieces of extrinsic evidence were either not relevant to the specific contract issue, or “equally consistent with both” readings.

How to (not) litigate “CONFIDENTIAL” designations under an agreed protective order

The agreed protective order said:  “At any time after the delivery of documents designated ‘confidential,’ counsel for the receiving party may challenge the confidential designation of any document or transcript (or portion thereof) by providing written notice thereof to counsel for the opposing party.”  The producing party then has 15 days to seek protection; if it does not do so, “then the disputed material shall no longer be subject to protection as provided in this order.”  Moore v. Ford Motor Co., No. 13-40761 (June 20, 2014).

Pursuant to the order, Ford produced four boxes of documents related to Volvo safety issues.  These communications ensued:

  • On May 11, 2004, plaintiffs’ counsel emailed to challenge the confidentiality designations of several documents.
  • On June 4, Ford’s counsel asked for Bates numbers.
  • On June 23, plaintiffs’ counsel responded, expanded on the confidentiality argument, and said it “will begin passing them out to any and everyone that is interested”
  • In July, plaintiffs’ counsel asked: “what’s the word . . . on confidentiality?”
  • The next day, Ford’s counsel withdrew its designations as to some documents, said it was “evaluating your claims” as to others, and “expects you to abide by the terms of the Protective Orders in the meantime”
  • Plaintiffs’ counsel responded: “I gave Ford adequate time.  I am sending the materials out.  Thanks for trying.”  (He did not specify what “materials”)
  • On February 22, 2005, plaintiffs’ counsel asked for an update on the “confidentiality issue”
  • On March 8, 2005, Ford responded that “in the spirit of cooperation” it would “officially de-designate from the Protective Order” specified other documents.

In 2012, documents surfaced in other litigation that Ford had produced pursuant to the above protective order; while the opinion does not specify what they were, it seems clear that they were documents which Ford had not formally “de-designated.”  Ford moved to enforce the protective order and the district court agreed, finding no “clear written notice . . . challenging the confidential designation of these documents.”

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the 15-day period ran from the first email, and Ford thus waived its designations by not moving for protection.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding the protective order ambiguous on this issue, and stating: “This interpretation may well be the better reading without more, but the parties understanding of these agreed orders bears upon the interpretation, and the actions of both parties strongly suggest” otherwise, noting the lengthy dialogue between the parties.    Noting that “[a]lthough on de novo review a different outcome may obtain,” the Court found the district court’s conclusion that no waiver occurred to not be clearly erroneous.

A dissent, among other arguments, noted that (1) the 15-day provision only requires that confidentiality be “in dispute,” (2) Ford drafted the agreement so any ambiguity should be construed against it, and (3) Ford had the burden to establish confidentiality.  The dissent concluded the majority opinion undermined “efficient resolution of discovery disputes” by allowing “Ford . . . to undermine this purpose through vague, non-responsive answers.”

Still preempted.

The plaintiff in McKay v. Novartis, Inc. challenged the dismissal on preemption grounds, by an MDL court in Tennessee, of products liability claims about drugs made by Novartis. No. 13-50404 (May 27, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit rejected an argument about inadequate time to get certain medical records, noting that the plaintiffs “sought formal discovery of evidence that was available to them through informal means” (citing other cases from the Court on that general topic), and also observing that two years passed from the filing of suit until Novartis sought summary judgment.  The Court also affirmed the MDL court’s grant of summary judgment on Texas state law grounds about a breach of warranty claim, finding inadequate notice; as an Erie matter: “the majority of Texas intermediate courts have held that a buyer must notify both the intermediate seller and the manufacturer.”

Posttrial, focus with the right lens

In Songcharoen v. Plastic & Hand Surgery Associates, the district court denied cross-motions for summary judgment about the meaning of a contract and had a trial as to the terms it believed to be ambiguous.  No. 13-60315 (April 2, 2014, unpublished).  Even though both matters present a common issue of law, because “the ‘evidence’ presented at pretrial may well be different from the evidence presented at trial,” the Court reviewed the issue through review of the denial for judgment as a matter of law.  The Court reminded: “because Rule 50 motions for judgment as a matter of law are not required following a bench trial, reviewing a district court’s denial of summary judgment is appropriate following a bench trial.”  (citing Black v. J.I. Case Co., 22 F.3d 568, 570 (5th Cir. 1994), and Becker v. Tidewater, Inc., 586 F.3d 358, 365-66 n.4 (5th Cir. 2009)).

Ouch.

The defendant in Advanced Nano Coatings, Inc. v. Hanafin “entered into an employment agreement with [plaintiff] in which [defendant] agreed to devote 100% of his professional time and effort to [plaintiff] or its subsidiary . . . .”  No. 13-20109 (Feb. 19, 2014, unpublished).  “The district court . . . found that Hanafin breached his fiduciary obligations . . . a finding Hanafin does not dispute on appeal.”  Quoting ERI Consulting Engineers v. Swinnea, 318 S.W.3d 867, 872 (Tex. 2010), the Fifth Circuit noted that under Texas law, “if the fiduciary . . . acquires any interest adverse to his principal, without a full disclosure, it is a betrayal of his trust and a breach of confidence, and he must account to his principal for all he has received.” The Court then held: “Accordingly, [defendant’s] breach of fiduciary duties obligates him to repay everything he gained by virtue of his position, including payments for his salary and any expenses he may have incurred.”

How much to pay-per-view

A restaurant showed the pay-per-view broadcast of a boxing championship without the approval of the holder of the licensing rights.  J&J Sports Productions, Inc. v. Mandell Family Ventures, LLC, No. 13-10485 (May 2, 2014).  The licensor sued the restaurant under the Federal Communication Act, and the district court granted summary judgment to the licensor for $350 in statutory damages and $26,730.30 in attorneys fees.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, reviewing two issues.  First, as to the licensor’s claim under section 553 of the Act, the Court found a fact issue as to whether the restaurant had been “specifically authorized . . . by a cable operator” to make the showing, which would bring the restaurant within a statutory safe harbor.  The Court reviewed affidavit testimony of the cable company that at least showed “the Defendants did not steal, intercept, or obtain the broadcast under false pretenses.”  Second, the Court rejected a claim based on section 605 of the Act, finding it limited to radio communications only (thereby siding with the Third Circuit in a split with the Seventh about the applicability of that section to cable television).

 

Prudential standing previewed . . .

The Fifth Circuit released a slightly revised opinion in Excel Willowbrook LLC v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, No. 12-20367 (revised April 24, 2014), a dispute about the FDIC’s rights upon assigning the assets of a failed bank.  Of particular interest is the new footnote 34, which observes: “[T]he continued vitality of prudential ‘standing’ is now uncertain in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377 (2014).  See id. at 1388 (‘[A] court . . . cannot limit a cause of action . . . merely because “prudence” dictates.’).”

Certification Twofer

1.  The Fifth Circuit vacated its panel opinion in Sawyer v. duPont to certify two questions to the Texas Supreme Court — paraphrased slightly, they were (1) whether an at-will employee can sue for fraud for loss of employment, and (2) whether a 60-day “cancellation-upon-notice” collective bargaining agreement would change a “no” answer to (1).  The Texas Supreme Court has now answered those questions: “no” as to the basic question about a fraud claim arising from at-will employment, and “in the situation presented, no” to the second question about the effect of the CBA.  “The Employees argue that it would contravene public policy to allow an employer to benefit from its duplicity, but public policy is not better served by allowing contracting parties to circumvent their agreement.”  No. 12-0626 (Tex. April 25, 2014).  (The Fifth Circuit formally adopted that reasoning and affirmed on June 11, 2014).

2.  Similarly, the Court vacated its panel opinion in Ewing Construction v. Amerisure Insurance Corp. to certify the question whether a CGL policy’s “Contractual Liability Exclusion” would reach a contract in which a contractor commits to work in a “good and workmanlike manner.”  The Texas Supreme Court answered “no”: “[A] general contractor who agrees to perform its construction work in a good and workmanlike manner, without more, does not enlarge its duty to exercise ordinary care in fulfilling its contract, thus it does not ‘assume liability’ for damages arising out its defective work so as to trigger the Contractual Liability Exclusion.”  No. 12-0661 (Tex. Jan. 17, 2014).  The opinion has been called a “significant reassurance” to policyholders in the construction business.

Be careful what you plead for.

The plaintiff in Jonibach Management Trust v. Wartburg Enterprises sued the defendant for breach of an oral contract; specifically, an agreement to exclusively market the plaintiff’s products in the US.  No. 13-20308 (April 24, 2014).  The defendant made three counterclaims, two of which were dismissed because they relied on an additional oral modification to the contract and could not satisfy the Statute of Frauds.  The third survived before the Fifth Circuit, however, as it was essentially the mirror image of the plaintiff’s claim — contending that the plaintiff wrongfully supplied goods to other distributors.  Among other reasons for that conclusion, the Court noted that the plaintiff’s “pleadings and testimony regarding the initial contract . . . constitute judicial admissions,” and reviewed the elements of such an admission.

Nonmagical gravel pit

At issue in Hess Management Firm, LLC v. Bankston were the damages arising from the termination of a contract about the operation of a gravel pit (sadly, not a magical gravel pit of rule-against-perpetuities lore).  No. 12-31016 (April 18, 2014).  The dispute was whether damages were capped at 180 days — the contract term for adequate notice of closure — or whether the closure of the pit was post-breach activity that is not relevant to damage calculation.  The Fifth Circuit sided with the bankruptcy court and reversed the district court’s enlargement of the damages, concluding: “A contrary result would defeat the maxim of placing a non-breaching party in the same position they would have been had breach not occurred, and award [plaintiff] more than their expectation interest.”

Fact issues about promissory estoppel

The Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment on a construction subcontractor’s promissory estoppel claim in MetroplexCore, LLC v. Parsons Transportation, No. 12-20466 (Feb. 28, 2014).  The Court noted the specificity of the statements made to it by representatives of the general contractor, the parties’ relationship on an earlier phase of the project, and specific communications describing reliance.  The Court relied heavily on the analysis of a similar claim in Fretz Construction Co. v. Southern National Bank of Houston, 626 S.W.2d 478 (Tex. 1981).

Acceleration is not prepayment

The question in Bank of New York Mellon v. GC Merchandise Mart LLC was whether the acceleration of a note triggered a $1.8  million prepayment penalty, when the debtor had ceased making payments on the note.  No. 13-10461 (Jan. 27, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment in favor of the debtor: “The plain language of the contract does not require the payment of the Prepayment Consideration in the event of mere acceleration. Quite the opposite, in fact: the plain language plainly provides that no Prepayment Consideration is owed unless there is an actual prepayment, whether voluntary or involuntary.”

FDIC and Twelfth-Century England — UPDATED

After WaMu failed, the FDIC conveyed its assets and liabilities to Chase.  Several landowners sought to enforce lease terms against Chase by virtue of that conveyance. The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for them in Excel Willowbrook LLC v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA, 758 F.3d 592 (5th Cir. 2014).  First, the Fifth Circuit “reluctantly” followed two other Circuits which found that a “no-beneficiaries” clause in the FDIC’s assignment extinguished the landlords’ rights, noting its own belief that the lease requirements were more in the nature of primary obligations.  But the Court then agreed with the district court that the landlords were in privity of estate with Chase and could enforce the leases for that reason, characterizing the FDIC’s argument to the contrary as “ignor[ing] eight centuries of legal history,” and expressly disagreeing with an Eleventh Circuit case to the contrary.  As for concerns about expansive liability for FDIC assignees, the Court observed: “The FDIC can avoid its present plight in future cases by drafting contractual provisions for the right it seeks to claim.”  The Court re-examined this “obscure but heavily litigated consequence of the largest bank failure in U.S. history” in Central Southwest Texas Development, LLC v. JPMorgan Chase, No. 12-51083 (March 2, 2015), resolved largely on procedural grounds.

Ring in the New Year with mortgage servicing

Waltner v. Aurora Loan Services LLC welcomes the New Year with three bread-and-butter issues in business litigation.  No. 12-50929 (Dec. 31, 2013, unpublished).  First, a party’s failure to answer on time does not require the “drastic remedy” of a default judgment, especially when a plaintiff shows no prejudice from the failure to timely answer.  The granting of a default judgment is a discretionary ruling by the district court.  Second, damages for lost use of property are not reliance damages that can be recovered with a promissory estoppel claim.  Rather, they are consequential losses — a form of expectation damages.  Finally, while Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(g)(2) says that a court “must strike” unsigned discovery responses “unless a signature is promptly supplied” after the error is identified, the district court has discretion in determining what is “prompt” and in what weight to give the lack of prejudice to the opposing party.

Any = Any

The parties’ agreement said: “Upon payment of the Lease Termination Fee, TTE will not longer have any obligations under Section 9.1A.”  The district court found that the structure of the agreement meant that provision did not apply to all of the relevant buildings.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed: “While such a divisions may be analytically satisfying, it is unsupported by any other language in the MOU, such as, for example, a paragraph heading identifying a particular provision as only relating to one warehouse.”  APL Logistics Americas, Ltd. v. TTE Technology, Inc., No. 13-10352 (Dec. 13, 2013, unpublished).

Quasi-estoppel and checks

Among other issues in Farkas v. GMAC Mortgage LLC, a borrower disputed whether he had received proper notice of the servicer’s identity, arguing that only the current mortgagee could send effective notice.  No. 12-20668 (Dec. 2, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed a judgment against him on the grounds of quasi-estoppel, noting: “The duration and regularity of these continued payments to mortgage servicers who had not been identified by current mortgagees constitute acquiescence to the validity of notice of transfer from one mortgage servicer to the next.  The equitable relief afforded by quasi-estoppel assures that a party’s position on a given issue is more than a matter of mere convenience but is instead a stance to which it is bound.”

Related Demolitions

Seventy property owners sued St. Bernard Parish, alleging that it wrongfully demolished their properties in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (which flooded virtually every structure in that hard-hit area).  The Parish’s insurer disputed coverage.  Lexington Ins. Co. v. St. Bernard Parish Gov’t, No. 13-30300 (Dec. 6, 2013, unpublished).  Among other arguments, the insurer argued that there was no coverage because the policy had a $250,000 retention limit per occurrence, and each demolition (none of which involved more than that amount) should be viewed as a separate occurrence.  The district court and Fifth Circuit ruled for the Parish.  The Fifth Circuit noted that the limit applied “separately to each and every occurrence . . . or series of continuous, repeated, or related occurrences,” and that the phrase “related” has a broad meaning in the insurance context, covering logical or causal connections between acts or occurrences.   Here: “[T]he acts alleged in the underlying actions are related because they all resulted from St. Bernard’s ordinance condemning those properties that remained in disrepair following Hurricane Katrina. The fact that the properties in the underlying action were demolished at different times, in varying degrees, and at different locations, does not mean that these acts are not related.”

Additional term, outcome de-term-inative.

The plaintiff in Weeks Marine Inc. v. Standard Concrete Products Inc. fell from a crane during a bridge construction project.  No. 12-20610 (Dec. 6, 2013).  He sued Weeks Marine, the general contractor, who in turn sought indemnity from Standard Concrete, the manufacturer of the “concrete fender modules” for the project.  The district court granted summary judgment for the manufacturer and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  A broader indemnity obligation in the original purchase order was limited by the additional terms and conditions to “actual damages relating to workmanship of Seller’s (Standard Concrete) product.”  Accordingly, the plaintiff’s claims, related to a steel component of the product made by another company, were not covered: “The steel modules are a component that Standard Concrete used to make its product; they are not the product itself. Standard Concrete’s products are the pre-cast concrete fender modules. The common usage of ‘product’ distinguishes this term from components, tools, and equipment used in the manufacturing process.”

No guaranty

The Fifth Circuit continued its conservative approach to the construction of guaranties in McLane Foodservice Inc. v. Table Rock Restaurants, LLC, No. 12-50980 (Nov. 15, 2013).   In 1997, an investor in a restaurant chain guaranteed the chain’s debts to PFS, a division of Pepsioco.  Years later, McLane became the owner of PFS’s operations after a series of sales transactions.  In 2010, a customer of McLane called Table Rock went out of business, owing McLane over $400,000, and sought to collect on the original guaranty. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that the guaranty only reached credit extended by PFS, that McLane was not an “affiliate” of PFS, and that “successors and assigns” language in the guaranty could not expand the scope of the underlying guaranty obligation.

Ambiguity = coverage

A subcontractor’s policy excluded “property damage” to “your work.”  An endorsement added the general contractor as an additional insured “only with respect to liability for . . . ‘property damage’ . . . caused, in whole or in part, by . . . [y]our acts or omissions.”  “The policy defined “you” and “your” with reference to the subcontractor and the endorsement did not purport to modify that definition.  State Farm Auto Ins. v. Harrison County, No. 13-60001 (Sept. 16, 2013, unpublished).  The insurer argued that the additional insured could only “stand[] in shoes no larger than those worn by the primary policyholder.”  The Fifth Circuit did not disagree, but found that this specific endorsement created ambiguity when read along with the original policy, and thus affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of coverage.

Acceptable Affidavits

In an unpublished opinion that happened to come out the same day as the slightly-revised “robosigning” opinion of Reinagel v. Deutsche Bank, the Fifth Circuit briefly reviewed the requirements for a summary judgment affidavit in a note case.  RBC Real Estate Finance, Inc. v. Partners Land Development, Ltd., No. 12-20692 (Oct. 30, 2013, unpublished).  As to foundation, the affidavit purported to be based on personal knowledge, and said that “[a]s an account manager at RBC[, the witness] is responsible for monitoring and collecting the . . . Notes.” “Therefore, [he] is competent to testify on the amounts due . . . .”  As to sufficiency, the Court quoted Texas intermediate appellate case law: “A lender need not file detailed proof reflecting the calculations reflecting the balance due on a note; an affidavit by a bank employee which sets forth the total balance due on a note is sufficient to sustain an award of summary judgment.”

Bankruptcy Code v. Civil Code

CHS Inc. v. Plaquemines Holdings LLC presented the interaction of the Bankruptcy Code and an old section of the Louisiana Civil Code (involving cases from 1849, 1828, and 1913).  No. 13-30028 revised (Nov. 26, 2013).  The Louisiana Code provision provides: “When a litigious right is assigned, the debtor may extinguish his obligation by paying to the assignee the price the assignee paid for the assignment, with interest from the time of the assignment.”  As the Fifth Circuit noted: “The law is aimed at preventing unnecessary litigation by reducing the ability of third parties to buy and sell legal claims for profit.”   CHS, part owner of a tract of land along with a bankrupt company, attempted to redeem that company’s interest after it was sold as part of a dissolution case required by the bankruptcy.  The Court found that the sale, conducted pursuant to bankruptcy court orders, fell within a “judicial sale” exception to the Code provision that prevented CHS from using it here.  

Loose end cleaned up in mortgage servicing cases

On October 29, the Fifth Circuit released a revised opinion in Reinagel v. Deutsche Bank, N.A., 722 F.3d 700 (5th Cir. 2013), which rejected a borrower’s claims about alleged “robosigning” (and in the process, discussed the “show-me-the-note” argument under Texas law, for the sole purpose of adding a footnote to acknowledge Martins v. BAC Home Loans Servicing LP, 722 F.3d 249, 255 (5th Cir. 2013), which expressly addressed and rejected that argument.

How Not to Create a Fact Issue About a Contract

In Vinewood Capital LLC v. Dar Al-Maal Al-Islami Trust, “[t]he only evidence offered by Vinewood in support of the alleged oral contract between Vinewood and DMI for DMI to invest $100 million in real estate [was] Conrad’s deposition testimony and affidavit.”  No. 12-11103 (Oct. 8, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit reminded: “[A] party’s uncorroborated self-serving testimony cannot prevent summary judgment, particularly if the overwhelming documentary evidence supports the opposite scenario.” (citing Vais Arms, Inc. v. Vais, 383 F.3d 287, 294 (5th Cir. 2004)).Therefore, “[a]s the district court concluded, Conrad’s self-serving testimony is belied by the parties’ contemporaneous written communications and written agreements and is therefore insufficient to create an issue of fact.”

Released.

The district court awarded attorneys fees for a lawsuit filed in breach of a release, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  Dallas Gas Partners v. Prospect Energy Corp., No. 12-20496 (Oct. 7, 2013).  Among other arguments, appellants contended that even if they were bound by the release, they did not breach it because they were not named plaintiffs in the offending action.  Admitting that they funded the lawsuit, and directed the plaintiff entity to bring the suit, they argued that those actions did not violate the agreement not to “institute, maintain or prosecute any action . . . ”  The Court found that “maintain” meant financial support.

Unjust Enrichment 101

A borrower claimed that a mortgage servicer was unjustly enriched when it obtained an expensive “force-placed” insurance policy on the property.  Baxter v. PNC Bank, No. 12-51181 (Sept. 26, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit reminded that a remedy based on restitution or unjust enrichment is not ordinarily available when an express contract deals with the same subject matter.  Here, the deed not only allowed the purchase of force-placed insurance, but warned that the ” “cost of the [forced-placed] insurance might significantly exceed the cost of insurance that [Baxter] could have obtained.”