Evidence twofer

Two basic reminders about evidence appear in Eaton-Stephens v. Grapevine Colleyville ISD, an employment dispute involving a school counselor:

  1. “Eaton-Stephens also argues she should have received a spoliation inference because her computer’s contents were erased, and that, because the School District’s policy and rules required retention of the contents for several years, the only conclusion was that the action was taken in bad faith. Our cases indicate a violation of a rule or regulation pertaining to document retention is not per se bad faith and Eaton-Stephens cites no authority in support of such a per se bad faith rule.”
  2. “We agree that the district court unduly discredited some of Eaton-Stephens’s deposition testimony as conclusory. ‘A party’s own testimony is often “self-serving,” but we do not exclude it as incompetent for that reason alone.’ Even if self-serving, a party’s own affidavit containing factual assertions based on firsthand knowledge is competent summary judgment evidence sufficient to create a fact issue.”

No. 16-11611 (Nov. 13, 2017, unpublished).

Dismissal not an appropriate sanction

The trial court in Oprex Surgery v. Sonic Automotive Employee Welfare Benefit Plan dismissed Oprex’s complaint for failure to comply with a discovery order; the Fifth Circuit reversed, finding, inter alia:

  • A record of “delay or contumacious conduct” was not established when “Sonic raised no complaint, in a motion to compel or otherwise, regarding the adequacy of Oprex’s responses unitl one hour before the conference” at which dismissal occurred;
  • The time and expense of participating in conferences is not “prejudice to ‘the opposing party’s preparation for trial”; and
  • “. . . given the important due process concerns implicated by a dismissal with prejudice, the court should at leat consider the efficacy of lesser sanctions first”

No. 16-20734 (Aug. 10, 2017, unpublished).

 

Dismissal not warranted as discovery sanction

Dominguez had “a series of mishaps during discovery” in his Jones Act case. The district court ultimately dismissed his claims, but the Fifth Circuit reversed in favor of a less severe sanction. The key discovery problem was Dominguez’s failure to attend an independent medical exam, but that exam was called for because of an opinion from a medical expert offered by Dominguezz. “[E]xcluding [the expert] from the proceedings would have eliminatedd the immediate cause of delay and any prejudice to [Defendant] without dismissing Dominguez’s underlying personal injury claims in their entirety.” Dominguez v. Crosby Tugs, LLC, No. 16-31239 (Aug. 1, 2017).

How not to answer the judge’s questions.

In the case of In re Hermesmeyer, No. 16-11189 (May 2, 2017, unpublished), the Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the $500 sanction imposed by the district court as a result of the below Q-and-A between the court and counsel:

THE COURT: Okay. Let’s see. There were some—there were two objections filed, and I believe both of them were related to the possibility of a sentence above the top of the advisory guideline range. Did I read those correctly, Mr. Hermesmeyer?

MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I think they have more to do with legality of whether such a sentence would be permissible or appropriate.

THE COURT: I’m sorry, I was wondering if I’m correct in thinking that both of the objections have to do with the possibility of a sentence above the top of the advisory guideline range. What is the answer to that?

MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, just what I said.

THE COURT: I’m not sure I understand how that answered my question. I’ve asked the question again. Would you please answer the question either yes or no.

MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I would stand on what I previously said. Thank you.

THE COURT: Mr. Hermesmeyer, you get very close to being held in contempt of court. Would you answer my question?

MR. HERMESMEYER: I have no further response, your Honor.

THE COURT: Okay. Mr. Hermesmeyer, I’ve ordered you to answer my question, and you’ve refused to answer it. I conside that you’re in civil contempt of court, and also you’re in violation of one of the local rules that requires attorneys to appropriately conduct themselves and to respond and answer orders of the Court. I’m going to give you another opportunity to answer my question. And if you would like, if you decline to answer my question, I’ll give you an opportunity at this time to respond to my suggestion that you will be held in civil contempt of court and held in violation of the local rule concerning the conduct of attorneys, if you refuse to answer my question. You may proceed.

[Pause in proceedings.]

THE COURT: Okay. Apparently you’re not going to respond. I’m ordering that you are in violation of the local rule. Let me get the exact number of it.

HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, at this point I would move to withdraw from the representation of [the defendant] given the indications that the Court has made. [He] needs an attorney that’s not under the threat of civil contempt or whatever sort of contempt
that the Court is indicating at this point.

THE COURT: I deny that motion. Rule of Criminal Procedure LCR 57.8(b) says: A presiding judge, after giving an opportunity to show cause to the contrary, may take any appropriate disciplinary action against a member of the bar for conduct unbecoming a member of the bar and failure to comply with any order of the Court. I consider that you have violated that rule in both respects. I’ll give you an opportunity—I’ve given you an opportunity to show cause why you shouldn’t be disciplined for that and you’ve declined to respond, so I’m ordering that you pay a $500 fine, and that it be paid by 2:00 today, and be paid to the office of the clerk of court here in Fort Worth.

 

Warning signs of sanctionability

In affirming sanctions for vexatious litigation in connection with bankruptcy proceedings, the Fifth Circuit noted, in particular: “Appellants’ . . . repeated attempts to litigate issues that have been conclusively resolved against them or that they had no standing to assert and by their unsupported and multiple attempts to remove . . . the trustee.” Carroll v. Abide, No. 16-30996 (March 13, 2017).

Sanctions for inadequate Rule 26 disclosures

blue-white-number-rounded-rectangle-26-roundPlaintiff accused defendant (and his employer) of sexual assault while incarcerated at a privately-run detention center. Defense counsel had recordings of calls made by the plaintiff, from the facility, suggesting that the encounters were consensual. Counsel did not identify the recordings in their Rule 26 initial disclosures, and did not make the recordings available until the plaintiff’s deposition, after questioning her about the conversations. The district court sanctioned defense counsel for inadequate disclosure and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that “some evidence serves both substantive and impeachment functions and thus should not be treated as ‘solely’ impeachment evidence” under Rule 26. Olivarez v. GRO Group, Inc., No. 16-50191 (Dec. 12, 2016).

How to measure the Rule 11 “safe harbor.”

lighthouse-harborOn September 16, 2013, Defendants obtained a magistrate judge’s report that recommended dismissal of Plaintiffs’ complaint. On September 18, Defendants served – but did not file – a motion for sanctions, stating that it would not be filed until the 21-day Rule 11(c)(2) “safe harbor” period passed. Plaintiffs objected to the report on September 30; Defendants filed their motion on October 18; and after adoption of the report and further briefing, the district imposed $25,000 in sanctions in mid-2014. The Fifth Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ challenge to the sanction based on the safe harbor period, reasoning — “Given that Plaintiffs could have formally or informally disavowed their claims during the 21-day period after Defendants served their motion, but instead elected to continue pursuing their claims, the district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting Plaintiffs’ ‘safe harbor’ argument.” Margetis v. Ferguson, No. 16-40563 (Nov. 10, 2016, unpublished).

Not what you say, but how you say it.

mae-west-quoteA steel-hulled tugboat, owned by Marquette, allided with the fiberglass-hulled SES Ekwata, rendering the Ekwata unusable. In the resulting litigation, the plaintiff won damages and an award of sanctions under the district court’s inherent power. On appeal, “Marquette asserts that the fee award was unwarranted because Marquette had a good faith basis to challenge the quantum of damages and thus in proceeding through a trial. But even if true, this fact did not justify Marquette’s intransigence on liability or the means by which Marquette defended [Plainitff’s] damages claim—namely, one expert who, according to the
district court’s findings, opined on value ‘without including any comparables, without considering the equipment on the vessel, without an accurate description of the vessel, and without reliable underlying information” and a second expert who, according to the district court’s findings, “not only failed to correct the glaringly incorrect information set forth in [the first expert’s] report, but incorporated it into his own.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Moench v. Marquette Transp. Co. (revised October 13, 2016).

Do not violate injunctions.

stopsignThe preliminary injunction said: “Plaintiffs may contact former and current . . . employees . . . of the Debtor if and only if a written request is made by Plaintiffs’ counsel to counsel for SkyPort, and counsel for SkyPort either a) agrees to the proposed contact or b) does not respond within 1 business day,” and: “Plaintiffs are temporarily enjoined from: pursuing any and all claims or causes of action, derivative or direct, against all of the Defendants.”

Nevertheless, the trial court found that Plaintiffs’ counsel and Plaintiffs’ financial advisor “continued to pursue evidence and witnesses―namely Cole [Skyport’s former president]. They encouraged Cole to pursue her own claims . . . in other courts by arranging for her counsel, providing for a “loan” for her counsel’s retainer, and pursuing financial support for the state court litigation.”

The Fifth Circuit affirmed a substantial award of sanctions, reflecting the attorneys fees incurred to rectify the situation. The Court rejected defenses based on whether (1) the award was civil or criminal in nature, (2) fees alone could be the basis of the sanction awarded, (3) the injunction no longer was in effect, (4) the alleged violations were inadvertent, and (5) the individuals sanctioned were not subject to the order. Goldman v. Bankton Fin. Corp., No. 15-2-243 (Oct. 12, 2016, unpublished).

New Orleans snowball fight. Yes, that’s right.

1264570-mr_freeze_06Icy litigation about the “sno-ball” market in New Orleans led to a series of sanctions motions, requiring the Fifth Circuit to evaluate the potential chilling effect of sanctions. (The opinion cites this informative article about the technical development of shaved-ice treats.) The Court held:

  1. “If SnoWizard made material misrepresentations about the validity of various trademarks and patents [in other litigation], Southern Snow should have introduced those claims during its litigation over the validity of those trademarks and patents during the trial”;
  2. Alleged “obstructive acts” during those proceedings “are not criminal conduct” and thus “cannot act as a predicate offense for a civil-RICO claim”;
  3. Dismissal without prejudice is not a sufficient predicate for a later malicious prosecution claim; and
  4. Conversely, the various sanctions and damages theories advanced were “no so obviously foreclosed by precedent as to make them legally indefensible.”

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_SmallThe Court concluded: “”The parties could have shaved down the overwhelming costs in time, expense and scarce judicial resources that this litigation has consumed it they could have abandoned their unrelenting desire to crush the opposition.” Snow Ingredients, Inc. v. Snowizard, Inc., No. 15-30393 (Aug. 15, 2016). (The opinion echoes the similiarly frosty relations between the parties in the recent case of  Yumilicious v. Barrie, involving a dispute about frozen yogurt franchises.)

Produce the texts.

yunomemeThe district court required the plaintiff in an FLSA case to submit her phone to a forensic examiner. It then awarded significant sanctions when the defendants’ “inspection revealed that the text messages in question were not on [Plaintiff’s] phone, that the mobile application allegedly containing such text messages was not on the phone, and that the phone appeared to have been reset or newly activated only three days before the forensic inspection.” The Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion; footnote 2 of the opinion details several unsuccessful explanations and counterarguments offered by the plaintiff, which had no traction here but could be of interest in a future e-discovery dispute involving similar issues. Timms v. LZM, LLC, No. 15-20700 (July 5, 2016, unpublished).

Schedler’s List

voter graphicContinuing a line of cases involving careful scrutiny of injunctions by the Fifth Circuit, the Court again took issue with an order in Scott v. Schedler. The district court required Tom Schedler, Louisiana’s Secretary of State, to “maintain in force and effect his or her policies, procedures, and directives, as revised, relative to the implementation of the [National Voter Registration Act of 1993] with respect [to] coordination of the [Act] within Louisiana.” Schedler objected that the order was not sufficiently specific and the Fifth Circuit agreed: “[T]he injunction refers generally to the defendant’s policies without defining what those policies are or how they can be identified.” Noting that “[w]e are sensitive, of course, to the district court’s difficult position” in drafting a specific injunction without “dictating with intricate precision” state policy, the Court reviewed case law in the area and offered some guidance for remand. No. 15-30652 (June 15, 2016). While arising in the civil rights context, and not involving an effort to hold the Secretary in contempt, this opinion follows naturally from several other recent cases (link above) that have found insufficient specificity to justify sanctions.

Yes, inherent power does reach that –

bplogoAfter an investigation by special master Louis Freeh, the district court administering the Deepwater Horizon claims process imposed sanctions on a law firm that had exploited a relationship with a former staff attorney for the program. Among other arguments, the firm argued that the district court could not invoke its inherent power, because the program was not a court proceeding. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, noting that the district court had retained jurisdiction over administration of the program in the order that created it, so its “inherent authority to police seroius misconduct before it extended to the [program] over which it retained continuing and exclusive jurisdiction.” The Court distinguished Positive Software Solutions v. New Century Mortgage Corp., 619 F.3d 458 (5th Cir. 2010), which reversed a sanctions award about an arbitration, and FDIC v. Maxxam, Inc., 523 F.3d 566 (5th Cir. 2008), which involved “a proceeding that was not before the district court and did not challenge [its] authority.” In re Deepwater Horizon, No. 15-30265 (June 2, 2016).

A suit too far . . .

Stickerline-elsa-let-it-goUnsuccessfully, Plaintiff sued about the foreclosure on his home in state court in 2008, and again in federal court in 2012. The Fifth Circuit said he was “WARNED that further frivolous litigation will result in substantial sanctions under Rule 38 or this court’s inherent sanctioning power and will include monetary sanctions and restrictions on access to federal court.” Then, he filed a 60(b) motion, which he also lost, and which he also appealed. The Court dismissed his appeal as frivolous, sanctioned him $500, and barred him from future litigation about the foreclosure without leave of court. Fantroy v. First Financial Bank, No. 15-10975 (May 13, 2016, unpublished). (Some time ago, I TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Smallwrote an article called “Loud Rules” with Wendy Couture about the nuances of this kind of judicial warning.)

Sanction affirmed.

Mole.

The case of In re Mole involved continuing fallout from proceedings involving impeached judge Thomas Porteous. Mole was accused of hiring an attorney who “had no useful experience in the type of litigation” at hand in an attempt to have Judge Porteous recuse himself. In disciplinary proceedings before the Eastern District of Louisiana, the first judge to hear the matter declined to sanction Mole, but the full court – reviewing the same record – suspended him for a year. The Fifth Circuit found that the en banc Eastern District could rule differently from the initial judge without giving it deference, and that sufficient evidence supported the sanction — in particular, “the $100,000 severance fee in the retention letter incentivizes the prospect of a recusal.” No. 15-30647 (May 4, 2016).

Fees to defendant under the Lanham Act —

ezgif.com-resize-349Baker sued DeShong under the Lanham Act about use of the phrase “HIV Innocence Group,” in connection with advocacy programs for individuals accused of infecting others with HIV. DeShong won and sought an award of attorneys fees. The Fifth Circuit concluded that after Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness, 134 S. Ct. 1749 (2014) (a patent case, but analogous to the similar Lanham Act provision), an award of fees to a defendant was not limited to bad faith and did not require a “clear and convincing” showing. To qualify as an “exceptional” case that justifies a fee award, the court should consider a “nonexclusive’ list of ‘factors,’ including ‘frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both in the factual and legal components of the case) and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence.” Baker v. DeShong, No. 14-11157 (May 3, 2016).

Investigation in business dispute does not violate FCRA

jake gittesThe plaintiffs in Hall v. Phenix Investigations were also defendants in contentious state court fraudulent transfer litigation.  They alleged that a private investigation firm violated the FCRA in its work in that litigation.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case on the pleadings, finding that “the report was commissioned for use in ongoing commercial litigation, which is not a qualifying purpose of the FCRA even it may potentially be used for such a purpose someday.  And, “[e]ven assuming that filing a lawsuit to collect on a judgment could constitute the collection of a consumer account within the meaning of the FCRA, there is no collection of a consumer account here because the judgment arose from a commercial transaction.”  No. 15-10533 (March 29, 2016, unpublished).

“Show me the note” becomes sanctionable, after being shown the note.

Mortgage-Note-FL11In a wrongful foreclosure case, the borrower alleged that PNC Bank had not proved its ownership of the note.  Then, “an attorney representing [defendants] showed an attorney employed by [Barrett-Bowie’s law firm] the original blue ink note signed by Barrett-Bowie. The Firm’s attorney acknowledged that the note was indorsed from the original lender to First Franklin Financial Corporation and from First Franklin Financial Corporation to PNC Bank. The Firm’s attorney retained a copy of the original note and reported what she had seen to her colleagues at the Firm.”  Nevertheless, the firm filed two more pleadings repeating the standing allegations, and in response to a summary judgment motion — while not directly disputing the servicer’s proof of standing in response — asked that the court “deny [the servicer’s ]motion ‘in its entirety’ and argued that genuine issues of material fact existed ‘on elements in each of Plaintiff’s remaining causes of action.'”  An award of Rule 11 sanctions against the plaintiff’s firm was affirmed in Barrett-Bowie v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc., No. 14-11249 (Nov. 25, 2015, unpublished).

I’m a doctor, not a spoliator.

mccoyGuzman sued Celadon Trucking for personal injuries.  On May 9, 2011, Celadon’s counsel asked him to undergo an independent medical exam.  On May 27, Guzman said in his deposition that he intended to undergo back surgery. Celadon later contended that his surgery constituted spoliation of evidence, and requested an adverse jury instruction. The Fifth Circuit affirmed its denial, noting: “After [Celadon’s counsel] received this disclosure in the deposition, they made no request to be informed of his surgery date, nor did they ask that he delay surgery pending his examination. Only after the examination was completed did [they] assert that the surgery had meaningfully altered evidence.  While the timing of Guzman’s surgery may seem strange, there is no evidence to suggest that he acted in a manner intended to deceive [Celadon] or that he undertook the surgery with the intent of destroying or altering evidence.”  Guzman v. Jones, No. 15-40007 (Oct. 22, 2015).

Bad trip

The district court removed a bankruptcy trustee after he sought to bill a family trip to New Orleans to the estate, noting two past situations where the court had an issue with the trustee’s practices.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, rejecting several challenges to that ruling based primarily on the consideration of the past situations, holding: “The district courts and in turn the bankruptcy courts are the keepers of the temple. These courts rely on the bar to abide by its strict rules and norms of conduct. Bankruptcy practice presents many tasks attended and girded by strict identity of duty and diligence by its officers. The courts below were only minding their role: not to end, but to redirect a distinguished presence at the bar, and to give sustenance to necessarily demanding norms of practice. That this is expected does not diminish its importance.”  Smith v. Robbins, No. 14-20588 (Sept. 25, 2015).

Contempt finding vacated, again.

Continuing a series of opinions that vacated findings of contempt – most recently in Waste Management v. Kattler, 776 F.3d 336 (5th Cir. 2015) – the Fifth Circuit vacated a contempt finding against an attorney for allegedly encouraging his client to make inappropriate online postings.  Test Masters Educational Services v. Singh Educational Services, No. 13-20250 (Aug. 21, 2015).  Applying Waste Management, the Court found inadequate notice from a show-cause order that only named the client.  On the merits, agreeing that the relevant injunction against the client bound the attorney, the Court found no clear and convincing evidence that he personally had violated the injunction.

Evidentiary standard key to disciplinary proceeding — UPDATED

The Eastern District of Texas suspended attorney Robert Booker for three years.  While a magistrate issued a report, which was reviewed and adopted unanimously by the Eastern District Judges, the Fifth Circuit held: “[W]e cannot discern from the record whether the district court specifically found that Booker acted in bad faith under the clear and convincing evidence standard.”  Accordingly, the Court remanded for the district court to “specify whether it finds that Booker has committed any ethics violation based on clear and convincing evidence and whether Booker acted in bad faith in committing any such violations.”  In re: Booker, No. 14-41194 (Aug. 3, 2015, unpublished).  (Subsequently, the Fifth Circuit affirmed on the merits.)

Ouch.

The Fifth Circuit remanded to calculate an attorney fee award when: “At nearly every turn, this Department of Labor investigation and prosecution violated the department’s internal procedures and ethical litigation practices. Even after the DOL discovered that its lead investigator conducted an investigation for which he was not trained, concluded Gate Guard was violating the Fair Labor Standards Act based on just three interviews, destroyed evidence, ambushed a low-level employee for an interview without counsel, and demanded a grossly inflated multi-million dollar penalty, the government pressed on. In litigation, the government opposed routine case administration motions, refused to produce relevant information, and stone-walled the deposition of its lead investigator.”  Gate Guard Services v. Perez (Secretary, Department of Labor),  No. 14-40585 (July 2, 2015, unpublished).

No appeal of referral to disciplinary committee

In Zente v. Credit Management, L.P., an attorney sought to appeal the district court’s referral of a Rule 11 matter to the Western District of Texas disciplinary committee.  The Fifth Circuit found that he had no standing: “In accordance with the cases from our sister circuits, we conclude that a referral of attorney conduct to a disciplinary committee, absent a specific finding of misconduct, is not a sanction that confers standing to appeal.  Thus, [Attorney] has standing to appeal in the instant case only if the district court’s referral to the Admissions Committee was accompanied by a specific finding of misconduct.  In the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the court made no finding of misconduct. The district court made no findings like those that courts have found conferred standing to appeal. It made no factual findings or legal conclusions regarding the alleged misconduct, and made no implied or explicit finding that [Attorney] violated any ethical rule or canon. No. 14-50910 (June 15, 2015).