Scope of discovery requests

Duoline Technologies v. Polymer Instrumentation presents an unusual appellate review of a discovery order, arising from an ancillary proceeding to enforce a subpoena for a Pennsylvania case.  No. 13-50532 (March 5, 2014, unpublished).  Plaintiff Duoline sought to depose Joseph Schwalbach, a former employee, about the business dealings between his new company and Defendant Polymer.  Among other rulings, the district court limited the document requests and deposition scope to events during Schwalbach’s employment by Duroline.  The Fifth Circuit noted that some evidence supported the plaintiff’s theory of a connection between the businesses, and that logically, plaintiff’s theory relied upon events after Schwalbach left his job at Duoline.  The Court did not find an explanatory affidavit from Schwalbach to be dispositive.

Ring in the New Year with mortgage servicing

Waltner v. Aurora Loan Services LLC welcomes the New Year with three bread-and-butter issues in business litigation.  No. 12-50929 (Dec. 31, 2013, unpublished).  First, a party’s failure to answer on time does not require the “drastic remedy” of a default judgment, especially when a plaintiff shows no prejudice from the failure to timely answer.  The granting of a default judgment is a discretionary ruling by the district court.  Second, damages for lost use of property are not reliance damages that can be recovered with a promissory estoppel claim.  Rather, they are consequential losses — a form of expectation damages.  Finally, while Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(g)(2) says that a court “must strike” unsigned discovery responses “unless a signature is promptly supplied” after the error is identified, the district court has discretion in determining what is “prompt” and in what weight to give the lack of prejudice to the opposing party.

If ordered not to destroy emails, don’t destroy emails.

Twenty-four plaintiffs sued Citgo for alleged violations of the overtime pay laws.  The court’s second discovery order warned against destruction of personal emails by the plaintiff.  Then, after two evidentiary hearings, the court dismissed the claims of seventeen plaintiffs for violating that order (but not of an eighteenth), entering specific factual findings for each plaintiff.  Four more were then dismissed after another hearing and sets of findings.  Moore v. Citgo Refining & Chemicals Co., Nos. 12-41175 and 12-41292 (Nov. 12, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion, noting the clarity of the discovery order, the hearing of live testimony, and prejudice to Citgo (loss of the ability to show that the plaintiffs were sending personal emails “on the clock,” which had proven relevant in one of the cases that was not dismissed).  The Court also reversed and rendered for $50,000 in costs, finding that the district court’s reduction of taxable costs to $5,000 because of Citgo’s size and resources was not grounded in the applicable rule.

Timing matters.

In Cutler v. Stephen F. Austin State University, the defendant sought interlocutory review of an order requiring it to appear for a deposition under Fed. R. Civ. P. 30(b)(6).  No. 12-41393.  The Fifth Circuit found the appeal moot because the depositions had already taken place.  The defendant argued that the appeal was not moot because the depositions may be used at an upcoming trial.  The Court responded: “This court does not have jurisdiction to issue advisory opinions regarding decisions of the district court that have not been made at a trial that has not been held.”

No general jurisdiction in TX over defense contractor

The defendant in Bowles v. Ranger Land Systems did not have a bank account, registered agent, or office in Texas.  No. 12-51255 (June 16, 2013, unpublished).  As a defense contractor, the company had a handful of employees at three Army bases in Texas, but that presence was not substantial enough to create general jurisdiction.  (citing Johnston v. Multidata Systems Int’l Corp., 523 F.3d 602, 612-13 (5th Cir. 2008) (presence of two employees, who reported to out-of-state supervisor, was “certainly a regular contact with Texas” but was “not substantial enough to create a general business presence in Texas”)).  The Fifth Circuit also found no abuse of discretion in denying further jurisdictional discovery based on these allegations.

Race to courthouse; arbitration wins

The plaintiffs in AFLAC v. Biles sued in state court, alleging that AFLAC paid death benefits to the wrong person, and that the signature on the policy application was forged.  No. 12-60235 (April 30, 2013).  AFLAC moved to compel arbitration in the state court case and simultaneously filed a new federal action to compel arbitration. The state court judge denied AFLAC’s motion without prejudice to refiling after discovery on the issue of the signatures’ validity.  In the meantime, the federal court granted AFLAC’s summary judgment motion and compelled arbitration after hearing expert testimony from both sides on the forgery issue.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that Colorado River abstention in favor of the state case was not required, and that the order compelling arbitration was allowed by the Anti-Injunction Act because it was “necessary to protect or effectuate [the federal] order compelling arbitration.”  The Court also found no abuse of discretion in the denial of the respondents’ FRCP 56(e) motion, since it sought testimony that would only be relevant if the witness admitted outright to forgery.

“True, complete, and exact” is different than “not false.”

The parties in Silver Dream LLC v. 3MC Inc. settled a copyright dispute about jewelry sales “by agreeing, among other things, that the [individual defendants] would provide affidavits disclosing details of the infringing items.”  No. 11-30968 (March 18, 2013, unpublished).  The defendants warranted the affidavits would be “true, complete, and exact” but the agreement allowed termination only if the affidavits were discovered to be false within a year.  The plaintiff took issue with the “qualified nature” of the affidavits as a reason to terminate the settlement, but the district court and Fifth Circuit stressed that the cancellation right was limited to a “false” statement. The plaintiff’s proof of alleged affirmative falsehoods in the affidavits was found to lack specificity.  The Fifth Circuit also found no abuse of discretion in denying a motion for continuance to depose the individual defendants, noting delay in the request and a lack of specificity about what the plaintiff planned to establish.

Sanctions for postjudgment conduct

The judgment debtors in Seven Arts Pictures v. Jonesfilm were found in civil contempt for failure to answer postjudgment discovery and other issues about enforcement of a judgment.  No. 11-31124 (Feb. 18, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that the district court had general personal jurisdiction over the debtors, that the debtors had waived arguments about the orders by not timely and properly objecting below, and that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding $21 thousand in attorneys fees.  While the holdings on jurisdiction, waiver, and attorneys fees draw heavily from the specific facts of the case, the legal framework used is of broad applicability.  Footnote 7 acknowledges the unusual procedural posture of the jurisdiction issue, which had not been raised until after the notice of appeal was filed.

“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.)

No interlocutory appeal of discovery order

The appellant in All Plaintiffs v. Transocean Offshore (the MDL relating to Deepwater Horizon) challenged an order requiring him to submit to a psychiatric exam and supply medical records as part of the procedure.  No. 12-30237 (Jan. 3, 2013, unpublished).  Following Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter, 130 S. Ct. 599 (2009), the Fifth Circuit held that the collateral order doctrine did not allow appeal of this interlocutory discovery order.  Any erroneous effect on the merits of the case could be reviewed on appeal of final judgment, and even if that review was “imperfect[]” to remedy the intrusion on his privacy interest, the harm was not so great as to justify interlocutory review of the entire class of similar orders.  A concurrence noted that while mandamus review was theoretically possible, this party had not requested it as an alternative to direct appeal, and had not made a sufficiently specific showing of harm to obtain mandamus relief.

No port for $26 million arbitration award in shipping dispute

Denied enforcement of a $26 million arbitration award in China’s Fujian Province (that court finding the award invalid because an arbitrator was imprisoned during the proceedings), the plaintiff sought recognition in the Eastern District of Louisiana.  First Investment Corp. of the Marshall Islands v. Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding,  No. 12-30377 (Dec. 21, 2012, revised Jan. 17, 2013). The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal for lack of personal jurisdiction with three holdings: (1) the recent case of Goodyear Dunlop Tires v. Brown, 131 S. Ct. 2846 (2011), removed doubt as to whether foreign corporations could invoke due process protection about jurisdiction; (2) the New York Convention did not abrogate those rights; and (3) no “alter ego” relationship among the relevant companies was shown that could give rise to jurisdiction.  In a companion case, the Court affirmed a ruling that denied jurisdictional discovery based on “sparse allegations” of alter ego.    Covington Marine v. Xiamen Shipbuilding, No. 12-30383 (Dec. 21, 2012); cf.Blake Box v. Dallas Mexican Consulate, No. 11-10126 (Aug. 21, 2012) (reversing jurisdictional discovery ruling).

Abuse of discretion to not allow response to motion to quash

Texas Keystone v. Prime Natural Resources began as an application for U.S. discovery in support of an English court case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1782.  After review of that statute and its relationship with Fed. R. Civ. P. 26 once discovery is ordered, the Court found an abuse of discretion when the trial court granted the respondents’ Motion to Quash without a response from the party requesting discovery.  Id. at 10-13 (citing Sandsend Financial Consultants v. FLHBB, 878 F.2d 875 (5th Cir. 1989) and Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, 392 F.2d 812 (5th Cir. 2004)).  The Court’s analysis of section 1782, intended to guide the district court on remand, also provides general background for future discovery requests in the Circuit under that statute.