2 RICO holdings and 1 general observation –

brasher-img9-perschke-o-bgBonnie Pereida’s estate successfully brought RICO claims against a dealer in rare coins, arguing that it systematically deceived Ms. Pereida about the quality of the coins she bought from it. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the estate that the RICO claim survived her, finding that “RICO’s remedial purpose predominates” over its penal purposes. But, it reversed as to the proof of a “pattern of racketeering activity,” finding that the relevant time period was too short and did not qualify as “open-ended.” It noted that on remand, the plaintiff could potentially still elect a remedy in common-law fraud where this problem would not arise.

During that analysis, the Court offered a telling general comment: “[Plaintiff] contends that the Defendants waived this challenge to the ‘pattern’ element by raising it for the first time in their motion for a new trial. It should have been raised, he argues, in a motion for summary judgment so he would have known that this was a contested issue. The argument says a lot about modern civil litigation in which summary judgment, rather than trial, has become the focus. But when a case does go to trial, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove every element.” Malvino v. Dellniversita, No. 15-41435 (Oct. 20, 2016) (emphasis added).

Never mind – class IS allowed about alleged pyramid scheme

pyramidIn Torres v. S.G.E. Management LLC, the en banc Fifth Circuit reversed a panel opinion about a class action involving an alleged pyramid scheme. The case alleged RICO claims about the multi-level marketing program associated with Stream Energy; the panel rejected class certification, finding that individual causation issues would predominate at trial.

The en banc court disagreed, reasoning: “The Defendants’ challenge to predominance rests on their belief that th[e] causation element will require individualized proof. But that premise . . . is at odds with recent decisions from the Supreme Court and this court emphasizing that RICO claims predicated on mail and wire fraud do not require first-party reliance to establish that the injuries were proximately caused by the fraud.” Accordingly, “[b]ecause pyramid schemes are per se mail fraud, which include inherent concealment about the deceptive payment scheme, one who participates in a pyramid scheme can be harmed ‘by reason of’ the fraud regardless of whether he or she relied on a misrepresentation about the scheme.” Additionally, the Court concluded that “if the Plaintiffs prove that Ignite is a fraudulent pyramid scheme, they may use a common inference of reliance to prove proximate causation under RICO.”

This is a significant ruling from a court that is generally considered hostile to class actions, in an area of the economy – multi-level marketing programs – that involves millions of participants. No. 14-20129 (Sept. 30, 2016) (en banc).

 

RICO 101

rico graphicAllstate sued a group of chiropractic clinics and law firms under RICO, alleging that they conspired to send them fraudulent bills for unnecessary services.  Allstate won a 7-figure judgment at trial.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, reviewing some basic RICO principles after recent Supreme Court rulings:

  • “Although the evidence proving the two will sometimes coalesce, the government still has to satisfy the organizational metric of the enterprise (including continuity and common purpose) and the statutorily enumerated predicated offenses.  There is thus no impermissible collapsing of the distinction between the enterprise and the pattern of racketeering.”  (applying a plain error standard of review)
  • “[M]ail fraud and its place in RICO framework are different from a case alleging common-law fraud, and one of the differences is the lack of a reliance requirement.” Here, “[r]egardless of how proximate cause is sliced, Allstate proved it.  There is no plausible argument that the insurers were unforeseeable victims or otherwise wronged by the caprice of chance.”
  • As to damages, distinguishing a similar case that found inadequate proof that all paid-for services were unnecessary, the Court held: “There is no such deficiency here.  The court instructed the jury, in awarding damages, to distinguish between the portions of the bills generated for unreasonable or unnecessary services and those not generated for those services. Allstate had experts examine all of the files, not just a representative sample, and one of those witnesses testified that Allstate had internally itemized the elements of each settlement.”

Allstate Ins. Co. v. Plambeck, No. 14-10574 (Sept. 17, 2015).

RICO pointers

A set of “kaleidoscopic claims” about the Houston ISD’s contracting process produced several RICO holdings of note in Ramirez Group v. Houston ISD, No. 13-20753 (May 18, 2015):

  • To show the requisite injury, “[a] plaintiff need not show that the other party would have been obliged to confer a benefit, only that the other party would have conferred the benefit.”  This can be shown by a substantial drop in work assignments coupled with other suspicious activity.
  • The Houston ISD is immune from suit under RICO, because a governmental entity cannot form the requisite criminal intent, and because municipal entities enjoy common law immunity from punitive damages.
  • Official immunity does not extend to a school trustee accused of acting “wholly outside the legitimate scope” of his duties by allegedly accepting bribes.
  • The requisite mental state for tortious interference can be shown “[w]here only a limited number of . . . contractors would be selected, [so] all of the participants in the scheme ‘knew the interference was substantially certain to occur as a result of the conduct.'”

No RICO, but maybe retaliation.

clkZastrow, owner of an auto repair shop, testified in an arbitration about problems with a CLK sedan sold by Mercedes Greenway.  He later sued Mercedes Greenway himself, alleging that it “threatened him to prevent him from testifying and then, with the assistance of [a lawyer], retaliated against him by refusing to sell him auto parts after he gave his deposition.”   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his RICO claims, finding (1) no pattern of racketeering activity, (2) no continuity of racketeering activity, and (3) no enterprise separate from the alleged racketeering activity.  It reversed dismissal of Zastrow’s claim for retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 — while noting that “[w]e are skeptical” about its merits, the Court found that the defendant had not fully engaged the burden-shifting analysis that governs this type of claim.    Zastrow v. Houston Auto Imports Greenway Ltd., No. 14-20359 (June 12, 2015).

MERS and RICO

Plaintiffs alleged that the members of MERS violated RICO by making fraudulent statements about the legal effect of mortgages nominally recorded in the name of MERS. Welborn v. Bank of New York Mellon, No. 13-30103 (March 5, 2014, unpublished).  The district court dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) on the ground that Plaintiffs impermissibly sought to enforce the Trust Indenture Act by way of a RICO action.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, but on the alternative ground that Plaintiffs had not pleaded a RICO injury to their “business or property.”  The alleged injuries — “loss of recording fees and general damage to the integrity of public records” arose “not . . . from commercial activity, but rather from the provision of a public service — that is, a governmental function.”

Res judicata from arbitration

The parties arbitrated whether certain offshore oil dealings violated RICO.  Grynberg v. BP, PLC, No. 12-20291 (June 7, 2013, unpublished).  The arbitrator found that the claimant did not establish damage and dismissed that claim, noting that he lacked authority to determine whether any criminal violation of RICO occurred. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a subsequent RICO lawsuit on the grounds of res judicata, finding that the arbitrator’s ruling was on the merits and not jurisdictional.

Withdrawal of Fifth Amendment Assertion

In Davis-Lynch, Inc. v. Moreno, a company sued two individuals (among others) alleging RICO violations.  (No. 10-20859, Jan. 10, 2012)  The individuals asserted the Fifth Amendment in their answers, and then withdrew those assertions after the plaintiff filed a summary judgment motion.  The Court allowed one of those withdrawals, stating: “[A] party may withdraw its invocation of the Fifth Amendment privilege, even at a late stage in the process, when circumstances indicate that there is no intent to abuse the process or gain an unfair advantage.”  (Op. at 11)  It affirmed the denial of the other, noting that it was done at the “eleventh-hour” before the close of discovery.   (Op. at 12)  On the merits, the Court reversed a summary judgment for the plaintiff, finding deficiencies with the plaintiff’s allegations and proof of racketeering injury and activity.  (Op. at 13-20)  The Court cautioned against entry of “[a]n order that essentially amounts to a default judgment” in the summary judgment context.  (Op. at 21)