Litigation continues on the Texas tollroads, most recently producing a defamation lawsuit in BancPass v. Highway Toll Administration LLC, arising from letters sent by a company’s competitors to Google and Apple. The defendant unsuccessfully argued that the letters were immune from liability by the Texas privilege associated with court proceedings.
Before the Fifth Circuit, matters began well for the defendant – the Court concluded (1) that an immediate interlocutory appeal was allowed because the Texas privilege protects from suit, not just liability, and (2) while “[c]ertainly, the district court expressed its displeasure” at this issue arising late in the proceedings, it did not formally certify the appeal as frivolous (and thus avoided a line of cases that would otherwise have undermined defendant’s appeal right). But on the merits:
“Texas caselaw is clear that our analysis must focus on the connection between the communications and the specific legal action HTA now claims that it was contemplating, rather than legal action more broadly. The letters to Google and Apple in particular put forward bare accusations of unlawful conduct that was unrelated to HTA’s later tortious interference claim and that neither directly implicated HTA’s own legal rights nor constituted legal claims that HTA had any ability to pursue.”
No. 16-51073 (July 13, 2017).
Plaintiffs alleged that a terrible crime would have been averted with a faster response to a 9-1-1 call. The Fifth Circuit, applying City of Dallas v. Sanchez, 494 S.W.3d 722 (Tex. 2016), found a lack of proximate cause (and thus, immunity applied) because “plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that any of the intervening parties would have acted differently,” including the call center operator and emergency personnel on the scene. The allegations on the general subject of response time were too speculative to satisfy Twombly (footnote 4). And “‘even if the brief delay in relaying Cook’s location ‘contributed to circumstances that delayed potentially life-saving assistance, the [delay] was too attenuated from the cause of [Cook’s] death . . . to be a proximate cause.” Cook v. City of Dallas, No. 16-10105 (March 29, 2017).
Attorney Martinez sued another law firm (“HLG”) for various torts related to the firm contacting his clients about alleged overbilling. The firm asserted absolute immiunity as a defense and the Fifth Circuit agreed, in a fact-specific holding, that the evidence “demonstrate[s] that the allegedly tortious statements at issue in this case were made in relation to a proposed arbitration and are therefore absolutely privileged under Texas law.” The firm already represented two Martinez clients in connection with the potential arbitration; the new clients did not originate contact with the firm; and all of them ultimately retained the firm. Martinez v. Hellmich Law Group, PC, No. 16-50305 (March 8, 2017, unpublished). This case joins a line of similar holdings in recent years in favor of attorney immunity.
Plaintiffs alleged that the government of Antigua was complicit in Allen Stanford’s fraudulent scheme; it defended under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. With respect to liabilty under the “commercial activity” exception to the Act, the Fifth Circuit found too attenuated a connection to the United States. As to the scheme itself, “[w]hile Antigua may have helped facilitate Stanford’s sale of the fraudulent CDs, Stanford’s criminal activity served as an intervening act interrupting the causal chain between Antigua’s actions and any effect on investors.” And as to a more specific claim based on Antigua’s failure to repay loans to Stanford, “the financial loss in this case was not directly felt by Plaintiffs, who are investors and customers of Stanford . . . The financial loss due to Antigua’s failure to repay the loans was most directly felt by Stanford who was the actual lender in the loan transactions.” Frank v. Commonwealth of Antigua & Barbuda, No. 15-10788 (Nov. 22, 2016).
The receiver for Allen Stanford’s businesses sought to recover the proceeds of large certificates of deposit from two investment entities associated with the Libyan government. The district court dismissed one of the entities pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and allowed the claim against the other to proceed. The Fifth Circuit reversed as to that entity, finding that the instruments at issue “did not require any act in the United States, much less the act of funneling money through the Stanford scheme or any Stanford entities in the United States,” and that the entity’s “commercial activity was limited to its obligations under teh . . . CDs, which . . . did not require any activity in the United States.” Janvey v. Libyan Inv. Auth., Nos. 15-10545 & 10548 (Oct. 26, 2016).
Continuing a theme in cases involving attorney liability (most notably the recent Stanford-related opinion in Troice v. Proskauer Rose, 816 F.3d 341 (5th Cir. 2015)), the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the law firm involved in a disputed foreclosure: “Under Texas law, the doctrine of qualified immunity has ‘long authorized attorneys to practice their profession, to advise their clients and interpose any defense or supposed defense, without making themselves liable for damages.” Lassberg v. Bank of America, No. 15-40196 (Aug. 23, 2016, unpublished).
Earlier this year, the Fifth Circuit largely affirmed a series of rulings about governmental immunity in litigation about flood damage from Hurricane Katrina, allowing some cases to proceed and finding the government immune as to others. On rehearing, the Court found that the “discretionary-function exemption” to the Federal Tort Claims Act created immunity even if the Flood Control Act did not. In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation at 25-26 (Sept. 24, 2012) (“Our construction of the FCA leaves undisturbed the district court’s ruling on that issue. Our application of the DFE, however, completely insulates the government from liability.”).
The Court affirmed almost all of a series of immunity rulings by the district court in the consolidated litigation against the Corps of Engineers arising from Hurricane Katrina. In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation (March 2, 2012). While most of the opinion focuses on issues unique to flood control, it provides a crisp summary of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act as to environmental impact statements, and concludes with a brief summary of the standards for mandamus relief in the federal system. Op. at 27. The Court declined to grant a writ of mandamus to stay an upcoming trial because its opinion affirmed the immunity rulings that the district court would use for that trial. (A subsequent opinion mooted the mandamus issue because it changed the disposition of the merits.)