No claim yet? Then no estoppel, either.

In ASARCO LLC v. Montana Resources, Inc., a case involving the interplay of a business’s bankruptcy with a later lawsuit for breach of contract by that business, the Fifth Circuit observed:

  • “[A] declaratory claim on its own typically will not preclude future claims involving the same circumstances (as noted, issue preclusion may still apply to any declaration the court issues). But in a case involving both declaratory claims and ones seeking coercive relief, the former will not serve as an antidote that undoes the preclusive force that traditional claims would ordinarily have.” (applying the “seminal case” on the point, Kaspar Wire Works, Inc. v. Leco Engineering & Machine, Inc., 575 F.2d 530 (5th Cir. 1978))
  • As to the damages claim, “ASARCO’s claim for failure to reinstate did not accrue until MRI rejected the tender in 2011. . . .  ASARCO may or may not have attempted to cure, and MRI may or may not have denied ASARCO’s reinstatement. Because the present breach of contract claim was contingent on future events, ASARCO could not have brought it during the adversary proceeding.”
  • For the same reasons, the plaintiff was not judicially estopped by allegedly inadequate disclosures during the earlier bankruptcy: “MRI cites no case requiring a party to disclose a potential claim for breach of contract when the contract had not yet been breached. This makes sense, because MRI’s position would require a debtor to scour its contracts looking for hypothetical claims that another party could maybe breach in the future.”

No. 16-40682 (June 2, 2017).

Null estoppel

Reviewing the requirements for the application of judicial estoppel, the Fifth Circuit reversed the resolution of a case about insurance coverage of attorneys fees in Aldous v. Darwin Nat’l Assurance Co., No. 16-10537 (March 16, 2017). The Court found that the district court misapplied judicial estoppel when it “unjustifiably read the [key] supplemental declaration in isolation,” and made several “small antecedent errors” leading up to that ruling, including its reading of the relevant earlier decision.

Not estopped against Pop.

stopsignThe parties to McCloskey v. McCloskey disputed whether a debt was non-dischargeable as a child support obligation. Rejecting the application of the somewhat protean doctrine of judicial estoppel, the Fifth Circuit held: “Bankruptcy courts must ‘look beyond the labels which state courts—and even parties themselves—give obligations which debtors seek to discharge.’  A party may argue in bankruptcy TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphiccourt that an obligation constitutes support even if she has urged to the contrary in state court. Therefore, appellees are not judicially estopped from bringing this claim.” No. 16-20079 (Oct. 31, 2016, unpublished). (Compare the recent case of Galaz v. Katona, which applied judicial estoppel in a bankruptcy case based on inconsistent statements made in earlier state court litigation about ownership interests. No. 15-50919 (Oct. 28, 2016, unpublished).

Estopped by nondisclosure in bankruptcy.

stopsignThe Allens filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection; during the pendency of that case, they sued Mrs. Allen’s employer for injuries allegedly suffered in the workplace.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer, finding the three elements of judicial estoppel satisfied by the Allens’ failure to disclose the personal injury suit in the bankruptcy – (1) inconsistent positions, (2) one of which was accepted by a court, and (3) lack of inadvertence by the Allens. The Court also found that the overall balance of equities weighed against the Allens, given the importance of full disclosure to the bankruptcy process.  The Court modified the judgment to be without prejudice so the Allens’ trustee could pursue the suit if he or she so desired (although acknowledging potential limitations issues).  Allen v. C&H Distributors, Inc., No. 15-30330 (Dec. 23, 2015).  The opinion is of broad interest because of its detailed analysis of judicial estoppel under the general three-part test, rather than a more truncated version sometimes employed in bankruptcy cases.

Tugging and barging into judicial estoppel

A barge accident caused a large oil spill in the Mississippi River.  In the first lawsuit about the incident, the district court placed liability solely on the tugboat operator, noting the (valid and enforceable) charter agreement between it and the barge owner.  In a later case, the barge owner contended that the agreements were void ab initio because the tugboat operator entered without intent to perform.  Gabarick v. Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., No. 13-30739 (May 21, 2014).  The Fifth Circuit agreed that the new position was barred by judicial estoppel. Key to its analysis was that while the barge owner’s positions were in the alternative in the first action, which would not create estoppel: “Once a court has accepted and relied upon one of a party’s several alternative positions, any argument inconsistent with that position may be subject to judicial estoppel in subsequent proceedings.”  The Court also concluded that the district court’s decision to stay the second case so the first could proceed did not compel an argument choice in that case that would make the application of judicial estoppel inequitable.

“Goose and gander” rule resolves international discovery dispute

In long-running litigation and arbitration about alleged environmental contamination in Ecuador, Chevron obtained discovery from U.S. courts several times under 28 U.S.C. § 1782 on the basis that a “foreign or international tribunal” was involved.  Republic of Ecuador v. Connor, No. 12-20122 (Feb. 13, 2013).  Chevron then successfully resisted a § 1782 application on the ground that the arbitration was not an “international tribunal.”   The Fifth Circuit applied judicial estoppel and reversed, asking: “Why shouldn’t sauce for Chevron’s goose be sauce for the Ecuador gander as well?  The Court dismissed a jurisdictional issue by characterizing § 1782 as a grant of administrative authority.  It then rejected Chevron’s arguments that judicial estoppel could not apply to legal issues and that reliance by earlier courts on Chevron’s position had not been shown.  The opinion reminds that: “Because judicial estoppel is an equitable doctrine, courts may apply it flexibly to achieve substantial justice.”  (quoting Reed v. City of Arlington, 650 F.3d 571 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc), and citing New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 752 (2001)).  (The “goose-and-gander” saying traces to an early collection of English proverbs.)

Judicial estoppel did not bar creditor’s bankruptcy claim

After reviewing the application of judicial estoppel in the bankruptcy context as to a debtor’s claim in Love v. Tyson Foods, 677 F.3d 258 (5th Cir. 2012), the Court applied the doctrine to a creditor’s claim in Wells Fargo v. Oparaji, No. 11-20871 (Oct. 5, 2012).  After carefully reviewing the elements of that doctrine in this circuit, the Court found that Wells did not adopt “plainly inconsistent position[s]” in the debtor’s two bankruptcies, observing that a creditor is not required to include all accrued liability in every revised proof of claim.  The Court also found that the debtor’s failure to follow the plan in his first bankruptcy barred him from now invoking the equitable remedy of judicial estoppel based on those proceedings.

Judicial estoppel of debtor’s claims

The defendant in Love v. Tyson Foods complained that an employee’s wrongful discharge claim was barred by judicial estoppel because it was not properly disclosed in the employee’s personal bankruptcy, and the Court agreed, rejecting the employee’s contention that the disclosure issues were inadvertent.  No. 10-60106 (April 4, 2012).  The Court provided a thorough summary of how the Fifth Circuit defines the judicial estoppel doctrine, reminding that because the doctrine protects the judicial system rather than litigants, detrimental reliance is not ordinarily an element.   A detailed dissent criticized the majority for how it addressed the burden of proof and for how it applied the doctrine in the context of broader bankruptcy policies, noting earlier Circuit authority in the area.

No evidence of injury in FELA case — flip side to long-running Daubert debate

The Fifth Circuit has had a  about the application of Daubert, and its effect on the roles of judge and jury.  In Huffman v. Union Pacific Railroad, the Court moved to the other end of the technical spectrum, and analyzed the sufficiency of evidence in a FELA case about a former railway worker’s alleged on-the-job injuries.  No. 09-40736 (March 13, 2012)  After thorough analysis of the worker’s allegations, the Court held that expert testimony on causation was not necessary to support a jury finding for the worker, but found that the worker had not presented enough evidence about the type of injury to satisfy even that standard.  Op. at 21-22.   Judge Southwick wrote for the majority, joined by Judge Owen, and Judge Dennis dissented.  The case analyzes FELA precedent but is of substantially broader interest on general causation issues.  The Court also briefly analyzed and rejected a judicial estoppel argument.  Op. at 7-8.