In City of San Antonio v. Hotels.com, the Fifth Circuit reversed an $84 million judgment for several cities, against online hotel reservation services, relating to the collection of local occupancy taxes. The holding turned entirely on the force of an intermediate Texas appellate opinon under the Erie doctrine. In its reasoning, the Fifth Circuit rejected a number of arguments against following that opinion, including: (1) the scope of the record before the courts; (2) the analytical framework used by the Texas court; and (3) the precise language of the relevant ordinance. The Court was satisfied with the general principles relied upon by the Texas opinion, as well as its resolution of “absurd result” arguments made in both cases. No. 16-50479 (Nov. 29, 2017). The Dallas Morning News has a good summary of the issues and history of this long-running litigation.
In a return trip to the Fifth Circuit, the defamation case of Block v. Tanenhaus again sidestepped the question of whether state anti-SLAPP laws apply in federal courrt, allowing that elephant to remain in the Erie room for awhile longer. Here, assuming that the Lousiana state law applied, the panel reversed and remanded the dismissal of a professor’s claim that the New York Times misquoted him. Jess Krochtengel summarizes the underlying Erie question and its implications in a recent Law360 article. No. 16-30966 (Aug. 15, 2017).
Guilbeau bought real property and sued Hess Corporation for alleged contamination resulting from oil and gas drilling done several years before. Acknowledging that the Louisiana Supreme Court had not ruled on the precise issue presented – whether the “subsequent purchaser” rule applied to mineral interests – the Fifth Circuit concluded that Louisiana law would bar Guilbeau’s claim. A consensus of Louisiana intermediate courts, applying the most analogous authority from that state’s Supreme Court, reasoned “that while mineral rights in the lessee are real rights, a lessor’s rights, including the right to sue for damages, are personal and do not automatically transfer with the property” absent an assignment. Guilbeau v. Hess Corp., No. 16-30971 (April 18, 2017).
In Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC v. Berry, a dispute about a home equity loan, the Fifth Circuit confirmed that “we now must follow the Texas Supreme Court’s holding in [Wood v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., 505 S.W.3d 542 (Tex. 2016)] that no statute of limitations applies to a borrower’s allegations of violations of section 50(a)(6) of the Texas Constitution in a quiet title action, rather than our prior holding in [Priester v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013)].” In so doing, the Court reminded that “the issues-not-briefed-are-waived rule is a prudential construct that requires the exercise of discretion,” and addressed the applicability of Wood notwithstanding the appellant not discussing the case in its opening brief, noting that the underlying issues had been briefed, and that the Court had received supplemental briefing on the pure question of law presented about the application of Wood. No. 16-10604 (March 29, 2017).
Gatheright bought sweet potatoes from Clark, paying with two post-dated checks. When they were returned for insufficient funds, Clark instituted criminal proceedings against Gatheright, which were ultimately dismissed after Gatheright spent several weeks in jail. Gatheright then sued Clark for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Clark, observing that “$16,000 in bad checks . . . [is] a sum greater than what the Mississippi Supreme Court has previously found would prompt a reasonable person to institute criminal proceedings.” Based on that observation, the Court rejected arguments about whether a post-dated check was a proper basis for a “false pretenses” prosecution in Mississippi, and about the effect of Gatheright’s filing for personal bankruptcy. Gatheright v. Clark, No. 16-60364 (Feb. 23, 2017, unpublished).
1. Does a lender or holder violate Article XVI, Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii) of the Texas Constitution, becoming liable for forfeiture of principal and interest, when the loan agreement incorporates the protections of Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii), but the lender or holder fails to return the cancelled note and release of lien upon full payment of the note and within 60 days after the borrower informs the lender or holder of the failure to comply?
2. If the answer to Question 1 is “no,” then, in the absence of actual damages, does a lender or holder become liable for forfeiture of principal and interest under a breach of contract theory when the loan agreement incorporates the protections of Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii), but the lender or holder, although filing a release of lien in the deed records, fails to return the cancelled note and release of lien upon full payment of the note and within 60 days after the borrower informs the lender or holder of the failure to comply?
The Texas Supreme Court answered both questions “no” in Garofolo v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, No. 15-0437 (Tex. May 20, 2016). Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s contract claim in Garofolo v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, No. 14-51156 (Oct. 3, 2016, unpublished).
Hays, a cardiologist suffering from epilepsy, sued HCA for wrongful discharge as a result of mishandling his illness. The Fifth Circuit agreed that his tortious interference claim against HCA had to be arbitrated, because its viability depended on reference to the employment agreement between him and the specific hospital where he worked. It also affirmed on the theory of “intertwined claims estoppel,” making an Erie guess that the Texas Supreme Court would recognize this theory, and concluding that “Hays’s current efforts to distinguish amongst defendants and claims are the archetype of strategic pleading intended to avoid the arbitral forum, precisely what intertwined claims estoppel is designed to prevent.” Hays v. HCA Holdings, No. 15-51002 (Sept. 29, 2016).
The Fifth Circuit recently denied en banc review — by a “photo finish” 8-7 vote — of Passmore v. Baylor Health System, which concluded that Texas’s expert report requirements for medical malpractice cases were procedural and did not apply in federal court under the Erie doctrine. A dissent argued that this vote was inconsistent with the recent en banc opinion in Flagg v. Stryker Corp. that analyzed a comparable requirement of Louisiana law.
For some time, the Golf Channel and the receiver for Allen Stanford’s affairs have disputed whether the Channel gave value in exchange for the purchase of roughly $6 million in advertising. The Channel contended that it did by giving exactly the advertising that Stanford ordered; the receiver disagreed, noting that Stanford was running a valueless Ponzi scheme. On certification from the Fifth Circuit, the Texas Supreme Court sided with the Channel, holding that under the Texas version of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, the Channel gave value from an objective perspective. The Fifth Circuit accepted that holding as to this case, but noted: “The Supreme Court of Texas’s answer interprets the concept of ‘value’ under TUFTA differently than we have understood ‘value’ under other states’ fraudulent transfer laws and under section 548(c) [of] the Bankruptcy Code.” Janvey v. Golf Channel, No. 13-11305 (Aug. 22, 2016).
Presenting a textbook Erie problem, Passmore sued Baylor Regional Medical Center about his back surgeries in federal court based on bankruptcy jurisdiction. The defendants obtained dismissal on the expert report requirements in section 74.351 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. Reviewing the requirements of that statute, the requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governing discovery, and district court opinions on the matter, the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding: “Section 74.351’s regulation of discovery and discovery-related sanctions sets it apart from the pre-suit requirements in the cases cited by the defendants and brings it into direct collision with Rules 26 and 37.” Passmore v. Baylor Health Care System, No. 15-10358 (May 19, 2016).
After a bad start in the Fifth Circuit, the Golf Channel ultimately prevailed in the Texas Supreme Court in a fraudulent transfer case against the Allen Stanford receiver. The Channel ran advertisements for Stanford’s golf business in exchange for payments of roughly $6 million. The issue was whether the “value” of those ads, for purposes of the Channel’s defenses under TUFTA, “became valueless based on the true nature of the debtor’s business as a Ponzi scheme or the debtor’s subjective reasons for procuring otherwise lawful services.” The Texas Supreme Court ruled for the Channel, finding that “TUFTA does not contain separate standards for assessing ‘value’ and ‘reasonably equivalent’ value based on whether the debtor was operating a Ponzi scheme. . . . “[V]alue must be determined objectively at the time of the transfer and in relation to the individual exchange at hand rather than viewed in the context of the debtor’s entire enterprise, . . . the debtor’s perspective, or . . . a retrospective evaluation of the impact it had on the debtor’s estate.” Janvey v. Golf Channel, No. 15-0489 (Tex. Apr. 1, 2016).
In another case that defly manuevers around the thorny Erie issues presented by state anti-SLAPP laws, the Fifth Circuit reminded that Louisiana’s law imposes a burden that “is the same as that of a non-movant opposing summary judgment under Rule 56.” (applying Lozovyy v. Kurtz, No. 15-30086 (5th Cir. Dec. 29, 2015)). The Court assumed the law would apply, but noted: “We do not conclusively resolve today whether Article 971 applies in diversity cases.” Block v. Tanenhaus, No. 15-30459 (March 7, 2016).
The Texas anti-SLAPP law (the “TCPA”) imposes a number of deadlines that can fit awkwardly with federal practice. The panel majority in Cuba v. Pylant concluded that when no hearing is held on a TCPA motion as required by the statute (hearings being common in Texas state practice but not in federal court), appeal-related deadlines that start from the hearing date do not begin to run. A dissent said: “Applying an Erie analysis, I conclude that the TCPA is procedural and must be ignored.” Nos. 15-10212 & -10213 (Feb. 23, 2016).
Cameron International, a main defendant in the Deepwater Horizon cases, successfully sued Liberty Insurance to help cover its substantial settlement costs. After affirming on the merits, the Fifth Circuit certified this question to the Texas Supreme Court: “Whether, to maintain a cause of action under Chapter 541 of the Texas Insurance Code against an insurer that wrongfully withheld policy benefits, an insured must allege and prove an injury independent from the denied policy benefits?” Cameron International Corp. v. Liberty Ins. Underwriters, Inc., No. 14-31321 (Nov. 19, 2015).
Cardoni v. Prosperity Bank, an appeal from a preliminary injunction ruling in a noncompete case, involved a clash between Texas and Oklahoma law, and led to these noteworthy holdings from the Fifth Circuit in this important area for commercial litigators:
- Under the Texas Supreme Court’s weighing of the relevant choice-of-law factors, Oklahoma has a stronger interest in the enforcement of a noncompete than Texas, “with the employees located in Oklahoma and employer based in Texas”;
- As also noted by that Court, “Oklahoma has a clear policy against enforcement of most noncompetition agreements,” which is not so strong as to nonsolicitation agreements;
- The district court did not clearly err in declining to enforce a nondisclosure agreement, given the unsettled state of Texas law on the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine; and
- “[T]he University of Texas leads the University of Oklahoma 61-44-5 in the Red River Rivalry.”
No. 14-20682 (Oct. 29, 2015).
Employees of the Stanford Financial Group sought coverage for attorneys fees incurred in defending federal criminal charges. The district court held the policy ambiguous and found coverage under the contra proferentem doctrine. The insurer sought reversal based on the “sophisticated insured” exception to that doctrine under Texas law. (A previous panel certified the question whether this exception existed in Texas to the Texas Supreme Court, who declined to answer it by resolving that case on other grounds.) Concluding that if Texas were to recognize the exception, it would apply a “middle-ground approach,” the majority affirmed: “Absent any information about the content of the negotiations, how the contracts were prepared, or other indicators of relative bargaining power, [the insurer] did not present evidence that the insured did or could have influenced the terms of the exclusion.” A dissent would have sidestepped saying anything about the exception, preferring to affirm on the ground that the policy unambiguously provided coverage. Certain Underwriters at Lloyds v. Perraud, No. 14-10849 (Aug. 12, 2015, unpublished).
Cox Operating incurred significant expenses in cleaning up pollution and debris at its oil-and-gas facilities after Hurricane Katrina. Its insurer disputed coverage. After a lengthy trial, the district court awarded $9,465,103.22 in damages and $13,064,948.28 in penalty interest under the Texas Prompt Payment Act. The Fifth Circuit affirmed in Cox Operating LLC v. St. Paul Surplus Lines Ins. Co., No. 13-20529 (July 30, 2015).
After finding that the one-year reporting requirement in Cox’s policy was not an unwaivable limitation on coverage, the Court confronted a “disturbing inconsistency” about the Act. On the one hand, the penalty-interest provision applies generally “[i]f an insurer that is liable for a claim under an insurance policy is not in compliance with this subchapter.” On the other hand, of the Act’s variously deadlines, only one expressly ties its violation to the penalty provision. The Fifth Circuit found for the insured, finding “the construction urged by St. Paul . . . would seem to transform all but one of the Act’s deadlines from commands backed by the threat of penalty interest to suggestions backed by nothing at all.”
An earlier panel opinion found the Golf Channel liable for $5.9 million under the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“TUFTA”), even though it delivered airtime with that market value, because the purchaser was Allen Stanford while running a Ponzi scheme. Accordingly, the airtime had no value to creditors, despite its market value. On rehearing, the Fifth Circuit vacated its initial opinion and certified the controlling issue to the Texas Supreme Court: “Considering the definition of ‘value’ in section 24.004(a) of the Texas Business and Commerce Code, the definition of ‘reasonably equivalent value’ in section 24.004(d) of the Texas Business and Commerce Code, and the comment in the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act stating that ‘value’ is measured ‘from a creditor’s viewpoint,’ what showing of ‘value’ under TUFTA is sufficient for a transferee to prove the elements of the affirmative defense under section 24.009(a) of the Texas Business and Commerce Code?” Janvey v. The Golf Channel, No. 13-11305 (June 30, 2015).
Three counties sued MERS (“Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc.”) for violations of various statutes related to the recording of deeds of trust (the Texas equivalent of a mortgage). In a nutshell, MERS is listed as the “beneficiary” on a deed of trust while the note is executed in favor of the lender. “If the lender later transfers the promissory note (or its interest in the note) to another MERS member, no assignment of the deed of trust is created or recorded because . . . MERS remains the nominee for the lender’s successors and assigns.” The counties argued that this arrangement avoided significant filing fees. The Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for MERS, finding (1) procedurally, that the Texas Legislature did not create a private right of action to enforce the relevant statute and (2) substantively, that the statute was better characterized as a “procedural directive” to clerks rather than an absolute rule. Other claims failed for similar reasons. Harris County v. MERSCORP Inc., No. 14-10392 (June 26, 2015).
Building on In re Deepwater Horizon, ___ S.W.3d ___, 2015 WL 674744 (Tex. Feb. 13, 2015), in Ironshore Specialty Ins. Co. v. Aspen Underwriting, the Fifth Circuit addressed whether the following insurance policy provision limited the excess insurer’s obligations to a $5 million that the insured was obliged to provide under another contract: “The word ‘Insured,’ wherever used in this Policy, shall mean . . . any person or entity to whom [Insured] is obliged by a written ‘Insurance Contract’ entered into before any relevant ‘Occurrence’ and/or ‘Claim’ to provide insurance such as is afforded by this Policy.” The Court found that it did, even though the contract at issue in Deepwater Horizon had additional provisions that bore on this question. No. 13-51027 (June 10, 2015).
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”;
- A 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[.]”
Dan Peterson sued his former employer, Bell Helicopter Textron, for age discrimination under the TCHRA. The jury found that age was a motivating factor in his termination, but also found that Bell would have terminated him even without consideration of his age. The district court awarded no damages, but imposed an injunction on Bell about future age discrimination, and awarded Peterson attorneys fees of approximately $340,000. The Fifth Circuit reversed. Noting that the TCHRA allowed an injunction even in light of the unfavorable causation finding, the Court found that plaintiff’s request came too late, as Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(c) “assumes that a plaintiff’s entitlement to relief not specifically pled has been tested adversarially, tried by consent, or at least developed with meaningful notice to the defendant.” Here, Bell showed that it would have tried the case differently had it known an injunction was at issue. Accordingly, the fee award was also vacated. Peterson v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., No. 14-10249 (June 4, 2015). A revised opinion honed the opinion’s analysis as to a potential alternative ground of fee recovery; the same day it issued, the full Court denied en banc review over a lengthy dissent.
1. Whether an insurer can be liable for a bad-faith failure-to-settle claim when it never received a firm settlement offer. (The Fifth Circuit noted that a revised statute imposed “an affirmative duty . . . to make a reasonable effort to settle claims,” drawing into question prior case law in the area.) The Louisiana Supreme Court said: “Having determined that the plain language supports the existence of a cause of action in favor of the insured under [the revised statute], we answer this question affirmatively.”
2. Whether an insurer can be liable for “misrepresenting or failing to disclose facts that are not related to the insurance policy’s coverage” — namely, the status of a claim and related settlement negotiations. The answer: ” An insurer can be found liable under [the statute] for misrepresenting or failing to disclose facts that are not related to the insurance policy’s coverage; the statute prohibits the misrepresentation of ‘pertinent facts,’ without restriction to facts ‘relating to any coverages.'”
Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit remanded for further proceedings in Kelly v. State Farm, No. 12-31064 (May 29, 2015, unpublished).
The same week as the 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 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.”
In 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).