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).
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).
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).
Plaintiff 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).
The 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).
Hoffman 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).
In 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 court 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!)
A 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).
American 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 longer 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).
Extensive 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. Affiliated 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.)
Walker, 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).