“Oh, you meant THAT knowledge . . . “

Griffin v. Hess Corp. involved a summary judgment for the defense on the statute of limitations, based on deposition admissions about the plaintiffs’ knowledge of relevant facts. Their testimony differed in response to the summary judgment motion, and the Fifth Circuit agreed that the different testimony did not raise a sufficient issue of fact: “Appellants’ explanation—that the deposition testimony was only meant to speak of what they knew in the present tense and not to their knowledge prior to the actual filing of the complaint—does not remedy or sufficiently explain the contradiction in light of the repeated questions about the particular date certain events took place concerning their royalty claims accruing from the Property. The deposition questions, as Appellees counsel repeatedly indicated and Appellants affirmed, related to the Property and royalties accruing from the production of oil on the Property.” No. 17-30165 (Nov. 3, 2017, unpublished).

Warranty of longevity ≠ Warranty about battery life.

Wildman sued about a Medtronic device implanted in his back to relieve pain, contending that the device did not last as long as the company warranted. Medtronic argued that this claim was preempted by federal law. The question, then, is whether that warranty claim imposes requirements “different from” those of the FDA – put differently, whether it would “undermine FDA regulation or reinforce it.” The Fifth Circuit found that it was not preempted, reasoning that Medtronic made a warranty of “the longevity of the entire [d]evice,” which “goes beyond what the FDA evaluated in its approval process,” as that procees focused specifically on the testing of batteries. The Court thus reversed a summary judgment for Medtronic and remanded, noting that on remand the district could consider “another argument challenging the plausibility of Wildman’s claim: that he did not allege reliance on the warranty.” Wildman v. Medtronic, Inc., No. 17-50010 (Oct. 31, 2017).

How much is a material issue of fact?

The concept of a “genuine issue of material fact” is largely unquantifiable, but occasionally a case does set a quantitative landmark. In Shirey v. Wal-Mart Stores Texas, LLC, the Fifth Circuit addressed a personal injury claim asserting that a Wal-Mart store had constructive notice of a grape on the floor, holding:

Photographic and video evidence demonstrate that the grape was, as the district court noted, almost invisible on the off-white floor. The evidence also fails to establish that any Wal-Mart employee was in proximity to the grape for a sufficient period of time. The few seconds during which the employee passed by the grape did not provide an objectively reasonable opportunity for him to see it, notwithstanding his employer’s policy that he perform visual “sweeps” for hazards. Under these circumstances, the seventeen minutes during which the inconspicuous grape was on the floor did not afford Wal-Mart a reasonable time to discover and remove the hazard.

No. 17-20298 (Oct. 30, 2017, unpublished) (emphasis added).

Standing Standard

In a reminder of the surprising complexity that can surround litigation about a party’s standing to bring a claim, in Intrepid Ship Mgmnt v. Malin Int’l Ship Repair, the Fifth Circuit noted a source of potential confusion about the applicable procedure: “Although a dismissal for lack of standing is appropriately judged under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), which allows a court to make limited findings of fact, the parties have argued this case under the standards applicable to ordinary summary judgment motions. Compare Lane v. Halliburton, 529 F.3d 548, 557 (5th Cir. 2008) (explaining that the district court can resolve disputed facts as necessary to decide a challenge to subject atter jurisdiction), withInt’l Marine LLC v. Integrity Fisheries, Inc., 860 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2017) (applying de novo review to summary judgment cases, explaining that “[s]ummary judgment is appropriate when ‘there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.’”)”. No. 16-41074 (Oct. 11, 2017) (unpublished).

Don’t jump the gun on the measure of damage.

In Hills v. Entergy Operations, Inc., a case about overtime pay for security guards, the Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment based upon a conclusion about two guards’ lack of damage. While the Court’s holding was based upon technical issues of employment law, its underlying reasoning is of broader applicability: “We reverse the district court’s summary judgment that the fluctuating workweek method applies here as a matter of law. The underlying factual issue upon which the applicabilty of that method is predicated, what the employees clearly understood, should be decided at trial in due course.” No. 16-30924 (Aug. 4, 2017). Also, in a ruling of general interest about administrative law, the Court declined to follow an interpretive letter by the Department of Labor.

No evidence; no inference.

McCarty fell outside a restaurant kitchen; her subsequent lawsuit against the restaurant for premises liability failed for lack of evidence. The Fifth Circuit distinguished the Texas appellate authority she cited by observing: “The evidence in each of these cases provided context for how long the hazardous condition had existed, in the form of either a discrete and readily documented antecedent event (e.g., a rainfall) or an attribute of the hazard (e.g., a puddle’s size, from which the jury could reasonably infer how long the puddle had been growing). In this case, by contrast, no evidence would permit the jury to trace the alleged slip risk to a particular antecedent event. Nor could a jury infer from any attributes of the alleged hazard that it had been growing over any length of time.” McCarty v. Hillstone Restaurant Group, No. 16-11519 (July 18, 2017).

Absence of proof.

Duncan, a Wal-Mart employee, slipped on a mat near an ice freezer in the store. She sued for her injuries and the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defense, noting several ways in which her proof of a dangerous condition was lacking: “In Duncan’s deposition—the only evidence she and Johnson submitted in support of their claim—she repeatedly explained that she did not know how water developed under the mat on which she slipped. Duncan couldn’t say whether water had ‘somehow leaked or spilled underneath the mat’ or whether ‘something on top of the mat . . . leaked through it.’ No one at Wal-Mart told her that they knew there was water in that area before she fell, and she didn’t know whether water had ever accumulated in that area before. Duncan also said that in the four years she worked at Wal-Mart, she had never heard of the Reddy Ice machine leaking, even though she knew other appliances, like the ‘Coke machine,’ leaked. ” Duncan v. Wal-Mart Louisiana LLC, No. 16-31223 (July 14, 2017).

Not admissible, but genuine –

Lee sued for his injuries from a fall on the M/V BALTY (right). In resolving the defendant’s summary judgment motion, “[t]he district court dismissed Captain Jamison’s report solely because it was not sworn without considering Lee’s argument that Captain Jamison would testify to those opinions at trial and without determining whether such opinions, as testified to at trial, would be admissible.” The Ffith Circuit remanded for reconsideration in light of a 2010 amendment to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 that says (as summarized by Moore’s Federal Practice): “Although the substance or content of the evidence submitted to support or dispute a fact on summary judgment must be admissible . . . , the material may be presented in a form that would not, in itself, be admissible at trial.” Lee v. Offshore Logistical & Transport, LLC, No. 16-31049 (June 9, 2017).

Mopping up fact issues

In Austin v. Kroger Texas LP, the Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment for the defendant in a slip-and-fall case. On the merits, among other holdings of general interest, the Court noted:

  • “[A] janitor with fifteen years’ experience is competent to testify about the effectiveness of cleaning products and methods.”;
  • When coupled with evidence from “Kroger’s handbook” and the manager’s testimony about “the safety practice at the store,” the plaintiff raised a fact issue;
  • “[T]he fact that [Plaintiff] had successfuly cleaned a much smaller spill . . . with a dry mop does not conclusively demonstrate that Spill Magic was not necessary for [him] to safely clean a much larger and more serious spill.”

Procedurally, the Court instructed that the trial court should proceed under “the more flexible Rule 54(b)” on remand rather than “the heightened standard of Rule 59(e),” asking that it “construe the procedural rules with a preference toward resolving the case on the merits and avoiding any dismissal based on a technicality.” No. 16-10502 (April 14, 2017).

No crawfishing about this summary judgment

Several crawfishermen sued about the effects of canal dredging on the Atchafalaya Basin fisheries. As to one defendant company, the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in its favor, reviewing each of the documents cited by plaintiffs and finding that none raised a genuine issue of material fact as to actual dredging activity by that company, on the pipelines at issue in this case. As to another, the Court reversed on procedural grounds, finding that the district court should have considered a deposition transcript and responses to requests for admissions offered by the plaintiffs when (1) their proffer had a foundation in the terms of the case management order, (2) the evidence was probative, and (3) it was information obtained from that defendant.  In re Louisiana Crawfish Producers, No. 16-30353 (March 28, 2017). (The opinion notes that crawfish are known by several other names, including “yabbies,” a tidbit that was not known to this author.)

No, that’s not a genuine issue of material fact.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, on the ground of qualified immunity, in a case arising from a fatal police shooting. The district court “disregarded the testimony of [Officer] Copeland and two eyewitnesses, finding that because there was ‘no video evidence of the actual shooting[,]’ the ‘testimony of Copeland, the eyewitness, and the 9-1-1 caller . . . should not be accepted until subjected to cross examination.'” The Fifth Circuit reversed; in addition to a ground based on qualfied immunity law, the Court held that under general Rule 56 principles: ”There is no evidence to suggest that the pair was biased, and the district court specifically found that the heirs ‘[did] not offer any evidence to contradict the eyewitnesses’ statements.’ Because their testimony was ‘uncontradicted and unimpeached,’ the district court was required to give it credence. Failure to do so amounted to an inappropriate ‘credibility determination[].'” Orr v. Copeland, No. 16-50023 (Dec. 22, 2016).

The “light most favorable” is not a searchlight.

guidinglightIn response to a summary judgment motion in a suit for unpaid overtime, plaintiff Garcia offered affidavit testimony that he “was told” certain favorable salary information. The record was unclear as to who told him that information. On appeal from an adverse ruling, the Court noted: “Garcia first argues that the district court erred by discounting, as hearsay, Garcia’s statement in his affidavit about what he was ‘told,’ because ‘taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Garcia, a party-opponent told Garcia this information.’ However, courts are not required to view evidence presented at summary judgment in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party on the question of admissibility; rather, ‘the content of summary judgment evidence must be generally admissible,’ and ‘[i]t is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment’ for the truth of the matter asserted.” Garcia v. U Pull It Auto Truck Salvage, Inc., No. 16-20257 (Sept. 15, 2016, unpublished).

Fact issue raised about boat repairs

boatOTM, the owner of two boats, alleged a poor repair job by Diversified. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant and the Fifth Circuit reversed, observing: “OTM concedes it has not attempted to prove the ‘precise cause’ of the engines’ malfunction; instead, it maintains it presented sufficient evidence to create the requisite
genuine dispute of material fact for whether the claimed substandard overhauls by Diversified caused the engines’ breakdown. . . . [A]t this stage, OTM is not required to prove exactly which part failed, or disprove that ‘the vessels’ other deteriorating parts or operator error’ was not the cause of the vessels’ breakdown . . . . ” Operaciones Tecnicas Marinas, SAS v. Diversified Marine Services, LLC, No. 15-30932 (Aug. 5, 2016, unpublished). The opinion illustrates the interaction between the requirements of Rule 56 and the requirement of Daubert case law that an expert adequately exclude alternative causes.

Fact issue in employment dispute

scintilla posterNicholson worked for Securitas, a security staffing company. She sued about her reassignment from a position as a receptionist at a Securitas customer. The Fifth Circuit partially reversed a summary judgment for Securitas, noting: “If Securitas failed to follow its usual practices in responding to a client’s desire to have an employee removed, such a deviation can support Nicholson’s claim that the company should have known of the alleged discrimination.” Nicholson v. Securitas, No. 15-10582 (July 18, 2016).

“Who knew? A puddle?!”

slipGranados slipped and fell on a puddle in Wal-Mart. The evidence showed that “[p]rior to the slip, a Wal-Mart employee named Mercedes Acosta had been mopping the store’s checkout area. According to video surveillance of the incident, she briefly mopped the entrance of the aisle in which Granados slipped about five minutes prior to the incident, coming within approximately five feet of the puddle’s location with her torso generally facing it. At her deposition, Acosta testified that although she normally looks for puddles and other hazards while cleaning, she did not see the puddle in which Granados slipped when she mopped the aisle. No other witness testified to seeing the puddle. However, an assistant manager at the store who viewed the puddle after Granados slipped testified that someone actively looking for hazards ‘should have noticed the puddle from approximately five feet away if it were present.” Unfortunately for Granados, this evidence did not establish actual knowledge of the puddle, and also did not establish constructive knowledge under Texas law, which emphasizes how long the puddle has been in place (a fact as to which she had no proof). Granados v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 15-10837 (June 30, 2016, unpublished).

Maybe a fact issue, but not a material one.

lienFannie Mae foreclosed on an apartment complex, in part because its management allowed six liens to attach to the property in breach of the loan documents. Self, a guarantor sued for the remaining deficiency, sought discovery about the validity of the liens. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that this request was not a reason for continuance of a ruling on Fannie Mae’s summary judgment motion: “[E]ven if Self could establish that the liens were paid off or expired, such information would not negate his failure to timely secure the release of record of the liens or otherwise timely cure the liens as required under the plain and unambiguous language in the parties’ loan documents.” Fannie Mae v. Self, No. 15-20466 (July 6, 2016, unpublished).

Twombly satisfied – despite too much detail –

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

A guarantor “waives” goodbye –

awkward_wave_star_trekDickson guaranteed a large debt owed by Community Home Financial Services. Community went into bankruptcy, disputing the extent and validity of its obligations to its lenders. Unfortunately for Dickson, his guaranty not only waived all defenses to enforcement, and stated that it created an obligation independent of Community’s, but also said it was not changed “by the partial or complete unenforceability or invalidity” of the guaranteed obligation. He also disputed the amount owing, but the Fifth Circuit agreed that the affidavit evidence he submitted “contained only another set of allegations” and did not preclude summary judgment against him. Edwards Family Partnership LP v. Dickson, No. 15-60683 (April 29, 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).

“I’ll wait here while Jim objects to all relevant rulings.”

marlin_perkinsMutual of Omaha obtained a summary judgment against Prospect, who complained under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d) that it needed “additional electronic discovery related to allegedly backdated documents produced by Mutual.”  The Fifth Circuit declined to enter that wild kingdom, observing: “[T]he magistrate judge denied Prospect’s motion to compel that electronic discovery, and Prospect did not object to the denial. That means that the electronic discovery was not ‘susceptible of collection within a reasonable time frame’ —Prospect was never
going to get it—so it cannot support Prospect’s Rule 56(d) motion.”  Prospect Capital v. Mutual of Omaha, No. 15-20345 (April 13, 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.)

Revised opinion in Daubert case about pharmacy

pharmacy_logo_for_webThe Fifth Circuit issued a revised opinon in Kovaly v. Wal-Mart Stores, No. 14-20697 (Sept. 22, 2015, unpublished).  The new opinion reaches the same result — reversal of the Daubert exclusion of an expert about the standard of care for a Texas pharmacist asked to issue a 72-hour emergency prescription.  It provides more detail about the expert’s analysis, eliminating some uncertainty in the original opinion about the role of Texas regulations in the expert’s work: “Brooke specifically analyzed how the various regulations overlap and how the history of the regulations led to the codification of particular exceptions but not others.  He explained that his opinion was based not only on the regulations but also on their history, accepted practice, and pharmacist training.”

(12 ÷ 30) = Fact Issue = Summary Judgment Reversed

40_percent_off_light_redA security company required that its employees travel to a designated break location at lunchtime, substantially eating into their 30-minute lunch break.  The Fifth Circuit reversed summary judgment for the company on FLSA claims, reasoning:  “Unlike a requirement that the employee stay in uniform, or even one that may result in the employee having to perform a duty on rare occasions, a jury could find that preventing the employee from eating—ostensibly the main purpose of the break—for twelve out of thirty minutes during every break is a meaningful limitation on the employee’s freedom. The travel obligation thus cannot be deemed a mere ‘inconvenience’ as a matter of law.”  Naylor v. Securiguard, Inc., No. 14-60637 (Sept. 15, 2015).  Whether the “40 percent rule” carries over to other areas of summary judgment practice remains to be seen, but Naylor still stands as a cogent and highly readable review of a basic part of the modern workplace.

How to create a fact issue in a credit reporting case.

creditreportAfter completing her Chapter 13 plan, Juliana Jett owed roughly $35,000 on her mortgage, with $0 past due.  Her Experian credit report, however, erroneously showed it as discharged with a $0 balance, which Jett alleged caused her to be denied refinancing. She complained to Experian four times, who in turn sent an “automatic credit dispute verification form” to American Home Mortgage Servicing each time.   She sued under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, alleging that “[i]n each instance, American Home tried to correct the information but returned a blank [Consumer Information Indicator] field so Experian did not process the updates.”  The Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment for the servicer as to Jett’s negligence claim, noting that this evidence allowed an inference that “American Home knew that Jett’s information was being reported inaccurately and attempted to correct it.”  The adequacy of the servicer’s procedures was an issue to be resolved at trial.  Jett v. American Home Mortgage Servicing, Inc., No. 14-10771 (June 10, 2015, unpublished).

Every dog has its day.

Only in New Orleans.  During Mardi Gras, a form of folk art takes discarded beads and twists them into a dog shape, also known as a “bead dog.”  A seller of king cakes obtained a trademark for its mascot based on that image (below left), and sued a jewelrymaker who sold necklaces and earrings that also drew upon that image (below right).

haydel dog

The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the nola dogjewelrymaker, reasoning:

1.  The bakery’s “Mardi Gras Bead Dog” mark was descriptive of its products;

2.  The mark was not inherently distinctive, and thus may be protected only if it had acquired secondary meaning;

3.  Under the applicable seven-factor test, the bakery failed to establish that the mark had acquired secondary meaning; and .

4.  While a dog itself cannot be copyrighted, its distinctive collar could potentially be, but on this record the Court concluded that no reasonable juror could find the collars to be “substantially similar in protectable expression.”

Other related state law claims were also dismissed.  Nola Spice Designs, LLC v. Haydel Enterprises, Inc., No. 13-30918 (April 8, 2015).