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 Shelter Products Inc. v. American Construction Hotel Corp., No. 16-30001 (July 27, 2016, unpublished).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).
Among other points raised in a challenge to a foreclosure on a Texas home equity loan, the trial court observed: “the curious backdating 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).
To 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).
The 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).
Appellant “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.)
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 general 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 access 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).
Malin 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).
The 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).
The 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).