Contingent fee and quantum meruit

The City of Alexandria settled a lawsuit with an electricity supplier for a $50 million recovery.  A sordid dispute then broke out among the City and various lawyers who worked on the case and asserted a contingency interest in the recovery.  City of Alexandria v. Brown, No. 12-30823 (Jan. 15, 2014).  The opinion, which affirms the district court’s resolution of the dispute, provides an overview of when “quantum meruit” principles control over the terms of a contingent fee agreement.  As to one lawyer, relevant factors included the end of her involvement relatively early in the matter, and seemingly unreliable time records during that involvement. As to another, the court noted that the contract created a “joint obligation” between him and another lawyer that became impossible of performance after he was disbarred, requiring a quantum meruit analysis.  (A related appeal was disposed of later in the year in deference to this panel opinion.)

Attorney immunity in wrongful collection case

In Ortega v. Young Again Products, the plaintiff sued a judgment creditor and its counsel, claiming that they took assets that belonged to him rather than the judgment debtor.  No. 12-20592 (Nov. 27, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit recognized that Texas extends qualified immunity to claims by a third-party against an attorney for conduct requiring the “office, professional training, skill, and authority of an attorney.”  The focus is on the type of conduct, not its merit.  Accordingly, removal of the case was proper because the attorney was fraudulently joined, and dismissal for various reasons was affirmed.

No malpractice about advice on right to jury trial

In Colonial Freight Systems v. Adams & Reese, the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a law firm on a malpractice claim and for unpaid fees.  No. 12-30853 (May 15, 2013, unpublished).  The plaintiff claimed, under Louisiana law, that the firm’s “negligent failure to advise the company of its right to a jury” was malpractice.  The Court rejected that claim because the plaintiff could only speculate about any loss resulting from that alleged failure.  (In the context of criminal law, a different framework applies because the policies at play are different, see United States v. Mendez, 102 F.3d 126 (5th Cir. 1996)).

Statements in settlement offer immune from defamation liability

A lawyer’s letter making a settlement offer contained a paragraph accusing the other side of giving a witness money for favorable testimony.  The accused party then sued for defamation.  In Lehman v. Holleman, applying Mississippi law, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that such statements are absolutely privileged from liability because they are “plainly related” to an underlying judicial proceeding.  No. 12-60814 (April 15, 2013, unpublished).

Tort Causation 101

Smith v. Christus St. Michaels presented a wrongful death claim about an elderly man, who suffered from recurrent cancer, who died from a fall in the hospital while being treated for a blood disorder.  No. 12-40057 (Nov. 13, 2012) (unpublished).  The trial court granted summary judgment under the “lost chance” doctrine, finding a lack of evidence that the man would have been likely to survive his cancer.  The Fifth Circuit reversed because it found his death was caused by a fall unrelated to his cancer or other treatment protocol.  Id. at 8. The Court also reversed a ruling that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony on causation was conclusory, finding that it “sufficiently explained how and why” as to the allegedly inadequate monitoring of the patient’s bedside at night.  Id. at 10.  The opinion provides a general nuts-and-bolts summary of Texas tort causation law.

Counsel not conflicted after reservation-of-rights letter

In the case of Downhole Navigator LLC v. Nautilus Insurance, an insured retained independent counsel after receiving a reservation of rights letter from its insurer, arguing that the insurer’s chosen counsel had a conflict at that point.    686 F.2d 325 (5th Cir. 2012).  Applying Northern County Mutual v. Davalos, 140 S.W.3d 685 (Tex. 2004), the Court found no conflict because “‘the facts to be adjudicated’ in the underlying . . . litigation are not the same ‘facts upon which coverage depends.'”  The Court did not see the recent case of Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee v. American Home Assurance Co., 261 S.W.2d 24 (Tex. 2008), which dealt with the responsibilities of insurers’ staff attorneys who defend a claim for an insured, as changing the basic analysis under Texas law.

Take-nothing on claims for professional negligence and fraud

In Amco Energy v. Capco Exploration (No. 11-20264, Jan. 30, 2012)the Court addressed two fundamental business tort issues.  The first involved a professional negligence claim about the evaluation of certain oil properties — the majority found that the professional’s contract did not extend to the matters complained of and thus created no professional duty, while the dissent “cannot fathom how one can conclude that there was no contract” for those matters.  Op. at 8, 10, 23.   The second found a contractual disclaimer of reliance that defeated a fraud claim, continuing the recent development of law on that issue in Italian Cowboy Partners, Ltd. v. Prudential Ins. Co., 341 S.W.3d 323, 333 (Tex. 2011) and LHC Nashua Partnership Ltd. v. PDNED Sagamore Nashua LLC, 659 F.3d 450, 460 (5th Cir. 2011).  Op. at 17.