Don’t gamble with construction liens.

The owner of the Golden Nugget casino in Lake Charles withheld $18.7 million from payments to its general contractor, who then filed a statutory lien (a “privilege” in Louisiana parlance) on the property. The relevant statute requires the contractor to file “within sixty days after the filing of the notice of termination or substantial completion of the work.” If “substantial completion” refers to an event, the contractor’s filing was not timely; if, however, it refers to a filing that certifies substantial completion, the contractor’s filing was timely, as the owner did not record such a certification. The Fifth Circuit concluded that, while the statute was ambiguous, the related provisions and the apparent industry practice supported the contractor’s position: “The [statute] places the burden on an owner to cut of potential claims when a contract has been recorded, whether it is a general contractor or a subcontractor.” Golden Nugget Lake Charles LLC v. W.G. Yates & Sons Constr. Co., No. 16-30496 (March 6, 2017).

No mistake about the mistake.

In Richard v. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the Fifth Circuit required reformation of a contract on the grounds of mutual mistake, to the detriment of non-party Liberty Mutual, acknowledging that “[c]ourts must guard against parties’ ‘attempts to make an end-run around the parol-evidence rule,’ which forecloses the use of parol evidence to interpret unambiguous terms, ‘by framing [their] argument[s] as a request for reformation.” Here, reformation was appropriate even considering the effect on Liberty Mutual, given (1) its lack of reliance on the contract, (2) the general consistency of the terms in the reformed contract with industry practice, and (3) course of performance. No. 16-30216 (March 2, 2017).

Sorry, the policy limits apply there too.

Federal Insurance agreed to pay defense costs in ongoing commercial litigation against its insureds, subject to its position that under the policy, payment of defense costs deplete the policy limits. The relevant clause said: “[T]he Limit of Liability under the Fiduciary Coverage Section is $1 million, subject to a $1 million aggregate limit, and a $10,000.00 Retention, with Defnse Costs eroding or depleting those limits.” The Fifth Circuit agreed with Federal, rejecting arguments based on the limit potentially implicating conflict-of-interest concerns for counsel, and policy issues raised by applicable state statutes in the health care area. In sum: “Under Mississippi law, insurance policies are to be enforced according to their provisions.” Federal Ins. Co. v. Singing River Health System, Ni. 15-60774 (March 1, 2017).

A failure to Communicat-R

Litigation about the intellectual property rights to the name “Communicat-R” (here, applied to a specialized type of whiteboard) led to a jury trial. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding no abuse of discretion in this instruction: “Trademarks can be abandoned through non-use. A trademark is abandoned if it is proven by a preponderance of the evidence, that (1) the use of trademark was discontinued; and (2) an intent not to resume such use.” The Court rejected a request for additional language about “excusable nonuse,” finding that it would either be redundant or not entirely accurate in the context of this case. The Court also rejected sufficiency challenges to liability and damages, illustrating the operation of the federal standard for the grant of a new trial. Vetter v. McAtee, No. 15-20575 (March 1, 2017).

Hot Potatoes

Gatheright bought sweet potatoes from Clark, paying with two post-dated checks. When they were returned for insufficient funds, Clark instituted criminal proceedings against Gatheright, which were ultimately dismissed after Gatheright spent several weeks in jail. Gatheright then sued Clark for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Clark, observing that “$16,000 in bad checks . . . [is] a sum greater than what the Mississippi Supreme Court has previously found would prompt a reasonable person to institute criminal proceedings.” Based on that observation, the Court rejected arguments about whether a post-dated check was a proper basis for a “false pretenses” prosecution in Mississippi, and about the effect of Gatheright’s filing for personal bankruptcy. Gatheright v. Clark, No. 16-60364 (Feb. 23, 2017, unpublished).

Summary of circuit split about “cross-appeal” rule –

It is well-settled nationally that “an appellate court may not alter a judgment to benefit a nonappealing party” because “it takes a cross-appeal to justify a remedy in favor of an appellee.” Greenlaw v. United States, 554 U.S. 237, 244–45 (2008). The Fifth Circuit treats that principle as jurisdictional. See, e.g., Amazing Spaces, Inc. v. Metro Mini Storage, 608 F.3d 225, 250 (5th Cir. 2010) (“[T]his circuit follows the general rule that, in the absence of a cross-appeal, an appellate court has no jurisdiction to modify a judgment so as to enlarge the rights of the appellee or diminish the rights of the appellant.”) Some other Circuits, however, take a different view. See, e.g., Am. Roll-On Roll-Off Carrier LLC v. P&O Parts Baltimore, Inc., 479 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2007) (“This circuit views the cross-appeal requirement as one of practice, rather than as a strict jurisdictional requirement.”) (Thanks to my LPCH colleague Russ Herman for pointing this out.)

Credit Claim Credited

Recipients of Section 8 housing assistance sued mortgage originators, complaining that the originators either denied or discouraged the recipients’ credit applications by not considering their Section 8 income, in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of claims by recipients who had only inquired about, rather than actually starting, the application process, as well as claims based on Wells Fargo’s policies about the purchase of mortgages in the secondary market. It reversed as to one group of applicants, however, finding under Iqbal and the substantive law that they “plausibly alleged that AmeriPro refused to consider their Section 8 income in assessing their creditworthiness as mortgage applicants, and that they received mortgages on less favorable terms and in lesser amounts than they would have had their Section 8 income been considered.” No. 15-20710 (Feb. 16, 2017).

A house divided against itself cannot transfer.

Just before filing for bankruptcy, Mr. Wiggins signed a “Partition Agreement” in which he and his wife divided their ownership of their home into two separate property interests. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the bankruptcy court’s conclusion that this was a fraudulent transfer: “When it became clear that Mr. Wiggains would file bankruptcy to satisfy his outstanding debts, the couple entertained various options and made their best estimate on ultimate financial benefits by having only Mr. Wiggains file after the Partition Agreement was recorded. Allowing Mrs. Wiggains to sidestep the statutory limits for homestead exemptions and obtain approximately $500,000 in proceeds that otherwise are for creditors would lay waste to the provisions of the Bankruptcy Code involved here.” Wiggains v. Reed, No. 15-11249 (Feb. 14, 2017).

Potential new Fifth Circuit judges

Texas Lawyer reports that six candidates are under consideration for the two vacancies on the Fifth Circuit – “Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett; U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor of Fort Worth; former Texas solicitor general James Ho; Andy Oldham, a deputy general counsel to Gov. Greg Abbott; Michael Massengale, a justice on Houston’s First Court of Appeals; and Brett Busby, a justice on Houston’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals” – the full story appears here.

A picture is worth a thousand words –

Press coverage of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court has noted his intelligent and accessible writing style, including use of a sentence diagram (left) in a criminal case that turned on what elements of the crime required proof of intent. In the same spirit, in dissent from the denial of en banc rehearing in a highly technical case about protection of the dusky gopher frog (right), Judge Edith Jones used a pair of Venn diagrams to illustrate her view of how the Endangered Species Act should operate (below left), contrasted with the panel opinion’s (below right). Markle Interests v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, No. 14-31008 (Feb. 14, 2017).