Thanks to Mary Douglass and the Bar Association of the Fifth Federal Circuit for the chance to give a commercial litigation update at the 2017 Appellate Advocacy Seminar in New Orleans; here is the PowerPoint that I used for the presentation yesterday.
Former Texas Solicitor General Jim Ho and Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett have been nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Texas Lawbook features a thorough discussion of the nominations, as does the Dallas Morning News. From Louisiana, President Trump has also nominated Stuart Duncan and U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt; The Advocate has a good summary of their backgrounds.
In Mainali v. Covington Specialty Ins. Co., the Fifth Circuit addressed “whether a payment made to comply with an appraisal award, which in most if not all cases is going to be paid after the 60-day window [set by the Texas Prompt Payment statute], is subject to [a statutory] penalty.” In an Erie analysis, the Court followed intermediate Texas authority that held such a payment was not subject to those statutory penalties, observing: “Covington was not trying to avoid payment of the claim; it was invoking a contractually agreed to mechanism for assessing the amount it owed.” No. 17-10350 (revised Sept. 27, 2017).
TDX Energy v. Chesapeake Operating begins with an entertaining – and accurate – summary of the challenge presented by oil and gas overproduction. Brought forward into today’s market and the parties’ dispute, at issue was a Louisiana statute, under which an operator can forfeit the right to deduct drilling costs on an “unleased oil and gas interest” – defined as one “upon which the operator or producer has no valid oil, gas, or mineral lease. (Here, the relevant interests were leased to TDX but not the operator, Chesapeake.) The Fifth Circuit elected to follow a Lousiana intermediate court opinion that it found to be consistent with the applicable canons of interpretation, and concluded that “The most natural reading of [the two relevant sections together] is that operators forfeit their right to contribution when they fail to send timely reports to lessees with oil and gas interests in lands upon which the operator has no lease . . . .” 857 F.3d 253 (5th Cir. 2017).
After removing a dispute about a home equity loan foreclosure, Deutsche Bank argued that a state court order that had vacated an earlier order allowing the foreclosure was invalid. The homeowner argued that review was precluded by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; the Fifth Circuit disagreed. The doctrine did not apply because (1) the “vacating order” was not final under Texas law, and (2) was void under Texas law because the state court had no authority to enter it under the specific state rules of procedure applicable to foreclosures. Unfortunately for the homeowner, the original order authorizing the foreclosure was not final either, allowing review of the merits and affirmance of summary judgment for the Bank. Burciaga v. Deutsche Bank Nat’l Trust Co., No. 16-40826 (Sept. 18, 2017).
The four-part venue test adopted by the Eastern District of Texas after the Heartland opinion was short-lived, as the Federal Circuit granted mandamus relief in In re Cray, noting: “[O]ur analysis of the case law and statute reveal three general requirements relevant to the inquiry: (1) there must be a physical place in the district; (2) it must be a regular and established place of business; and (3) it must be the place of the defendant.”
The Fifth Circuit affirmed an award of $232,809.92 in costs on an unsuccessful FCA claim, noting: “The district court acknowledged that [Defendant]’s invoices were not detailed but explained that, given nearly three million pages of copies [Defendant] produced for its defense in this case,it would have been impossible for [Defendant] to explain each page’s usefulness.” It also allowed recovery for “costs relating to (1) TIFF image conversion, (2) scanning, (3) formatting electronic documents, and (4) PDF conversion – per [28 U.S.C.] § 1920(4), which allows recovery for ‘exemplification’ and ‘making copies’ of case materials.” In a similar vein, the Court credited the district court’s explanation that the statute “allow[s] a prevailing party to recover the costs of complying with an opposing party’s request to reformat electronic documents or scan hard copies of documents.” United States ex rel King v. Solvay Pharmaceuticals, Inc., No. 160259 (Sept. 12, 2017).
The parties in IQ Products Co. v. WD-40 Co.disputed whether an arbitration agreement was limited to “propane/butane-propelled produicts” or also “carbon dioxide-propelled products.” The party who prevailed in the arbitration relied mainly on the parties’ subsequent conduct to justify the broader reading, and the Fifth Circuit agreed (applying California law): “Considering . . . ‘the words used . . . as well as extrinsic evidence of such objective matters and the surrounding circumstances under which the parties negotiated [and] entered into the contract; the object, nature and subject matter of the contract; and the subsequent conduct of the parties . . . WD-40’s assertion is . . . not wholly groundless.” No. 16-20595 (Sept. 13, 2017).
The high-profile dispute between Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott and the NFL Players’ Association, on the one hand, and the NFL on the other, has reached the Fifth Circuit after the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction against Elliott’s suspension by the league. The NFL has moved for an interim stay; the successful plaintiffs have responded; and a motions panel of the Court will consider that issue in the week ahead.
In AMA Discount, Inc. v. Seneca Specialty Ins. Co., the Fifth Circuit rejected an interlocutory appeal on a question of bad faith claims handling under Louisiana insurane law, noting that a potentially conflicting district court decision had recently settled on appeal, and the parties actually disputed the application of law to fact rather than the controlling legal standard. The Court acknowledged that this ruling differed from that of a prior motions panel, but observered that at this stage, the case “has the benefit of full briefing and a completed record.” The Court concluded: “Perhaps an interlocutory certification would ‘materially advance the termination’ of this litigation. If that were the decisive question, of course, there would be few roadblocks to interlocutory appeals of legal issues.” No. 16-31158 (Sept. 11, 2017, unpublished).
- The panel majority in Veasey v. Abbott concluded that a stay was warranted during the appeal of an injunction against certain “voter ID” laws, focusing on the likelihood-of-success element of the standard four-part test: “As the State explains, each of the 27 voters identified – whose testimony the plaintiffs used to support their discriminatory-effect claim – can vote without impediment under SB 5. The State has made a strong showing that htis reasonable-impediment procedure remedies plaintiffs’ alleged harm and thus forecloses plaintiffs’ injunctive relief.”
- A dissent disagreed as to the elements of the four-part test, and the overrarching concept of “preserving the status quo”: “Neither side would be irreparably harmed by continuing to operate under the same election procedures they have been operating under for more than a year. If a stay is granted at all, then it should be comprehensive. In other words, the correct approach would be to stay both the district court’s order and the new legislation.” No. 17-40884 (Sept. 5, 2017).
2017 has not been kind to the administrative state, and neither was Burgess v. FDIC, No. 17-60579 (Sept. 7, 2017). An FDIC administrative law judge concluded that Burgess had misused bank property, the FDIC Board adopted those recommendations, and Burgess sought review in the Fifth Circuit. He sought an interim stay based upon his argument that the ALJ was an “inferior Officer” within the meaning of the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, and the Fifth Circuit agreed, citing the Supreme Court’s analysis of a similar position involving the U.S. Tax Court in Freytag v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 501 U.S. 868 (1991). In so doing, the Court parted ways with the D.C. Circuit’s analysis in Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125 (2000), by concluding that final decision-making authority was not a prerequisite to Officer status. Accordingly, the Court granted the interim stay, finding that Burgess “has established a likelihood of success on the merits of his Appointments Clause challenge.”
After last week’s opinion in In re: DuPuy Orthopaedics, the plaintiffs have sought en banc review of a panel majority’s statements about the trial court’s ruling on the key issue of waiver. The petition raises interesting and basic questions about the scope of opinions. (For more on that general topic, check out David Coale & Wendy Couture, Loud Rules, 34 Pepperdine L. Rev. 715 (2007)).
Addressing a novel but important question, the Fifth Circuit found in that a state law attachment remedy was available to faciliate an international arbitration about a shipment of pig iron, and that federal courts had removal jurisdiction over the proceedings under the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbital Awards. Stemcor USA v. CIA Siderurgica do Para Cosipar, No. 16-30984 (Sept. 1, 2017).
The high-stakes mandamus petition in In re DuPuy Orthopaedics, Inc., No. 17-10812 (Aug. 31, 2017), sought relief from an upcoming set of “bellweather” trials in a massive MDL proceeding about allegedly defective hip implants. After an hour-long oral argument – and despite Hurricane Harvey’s enormous impact on Houston, where all three panelists are based – the panel denied the petition a week after argument in an unusual “split decision.”
As to the underlying substantive issue – whether the trials could proceed despite strong arguments about personal jurisdiction – two of the three panelists (Judges Smith and Jones) found that a clear error had been committed. But as to mandamus relief, two of the three panelists (Judges Smith and Costa) concluded that the defendants had an adequate remedy by direct appeal.
The opinion has four implications for mandamus practice in the Fifth Circuit, generally.
First, Judge Costa now has a “track record” about mandamus petitions, and his observations in this case – consistent with his prior experience as a trial judge – suggest he has a restrictive view about its availability.
Second, if there was any doubt that mandamus is essentially limited to forum-selection disputes in the Fifth Circuit, the analysis of “adequate remedy” by the panel majority on that point should eliminate it. The unusual length and expense of the upcoming trial, coupled with its potential impact on settlement discussions for the entire MDL, was seen as the type of litigation expense and “hardship [that] may result from delay” that will not justify a mandamus petition.
Third, by detailing a panel majority’s view that the trial court had erred, the opinion continues a practice of offering something of an “advisory opinion” about the merits, despite declining to issue the writ. Indeed, footnote 4 of the opinion gives several examples of other opinions that have done so; two other recent examples include the opinions in In re: Crystal Power Co., 641 F.3d 82 (5th Cir. 2011) (“We confess puzzlement over why respondents insist on litigating this case in federal court even though . . . any judgment issued by the district court will su ely be reversed . . . . “) and In re: Trinity Industries, No. 14-41067 (Oct. 10, 2014) (“The court is compelled to note, however, that this is a close case.”)
Fourth, the opinion highlights the difference between federal and Texas state mandamus practice, despite the nominally similar tests used by the two court systems. A leading Texas Supreme Court case about the adequacy of appellate remedy observes: “Although this Court has tried to give more concrete direction for determining the availability of mandamus review, rigid rules are necessarily inconsistent with the flexibility that is the remedy’s principal virtue.” In re: Prudential Ins. Co., 148 S.W.3d 124 (Tex. 2004). The DuPuy panel majority has a different view of the point.
Five Tips for Hurricane Harvey Litigation (a version of this article is in this week’s Texas Lawbook)
In the course of reviewing the Fifth Circuit’s commercial cases for this blog, I have read many opinons about disputes arising from Hurricane Katrina cases. In light of the havoc recently created by Hurricane Harvey, I wanted to share five observations to prepare for the litigation that will inevitably result.
- Record the facts.
Any lawsuit creates tension between the past and the future. The parties want to move on, and put the expense and stress of litigation behind them. But the legal case forces them to revisit the past.
That tension is particularly acute after a disaster such as Harvey, which forced people and businesses to endure incredible stress, while making them then revisit that trauma to protect their legal rights in court. The – entirely understandable – desire to move on, must be squared with the need to take the time to preserve evidence.
Consider St. Bernard Parish v. Lafarge North America, a case about the destruction of a bridge during Hurricane Katrina. While the parties offered extensive expert testimony about what caused the damage, the summary judgment proceedings turned in no small part on the facts of what happened during the storm, including facts established by photographs.
A party facing litigation should consider – as awkward as it can be while recovering from a life-disrupting event – what facts seem obvious now but may fade from memory as time goes on. To the extent possible, some thought should be given to:
- maintaining electronic records, even if the hardware appears damaged at first blush;
- writing down a “log” of relevant conversations and events about important events;
- storing any relevant physical objects, for potential future analysis by experts; and
- simply writing down basic information about names, addresses, phone numbers, and the like.
In a case arising from a natural disaster, courts will likely be forgiving as to claims of spoliation. But lost information is lost, and its absence can later effect the resolution of a legal case.
- Help the people.
The fact evidence in the Lafarge case also included eyewitness testimony, which proved critical to defeating the defendant’s summary judgment motion. Just as a photograph can deteriorate, a person’s memory can fade. And the likelihood of that occurring can only increase when the person is placed under the severe stress of a natural disaster.
Any “team” confronted with a legal challenge by Harvey – a business, a professional organization, or even a family – should be mindful of the psychological effects of that stress, and encourage counseling for depression, substance abuse, and other such problems when their first signs appear. Of course, that is a good practice in any event. But its potential side benefit to a legal case is real and worth remembering.
- Remember three definitions.
The factual and legal issues that will ultimately go to trial in cases about Harvey simply cannot be predicted with any specificity. But in the short run, three basic legal concepts are likely to pervade business dealings related to the storm:
- The Texas pattern jury instruction about “duress” defines it as “the mental, physical, or economic coercion of another, causing that party to act contrary to his free will and interest.”
- While “force majeure” is ordinarily defined by a specific contract, it generally refers to an “extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties,” and often does not excuse a party’s non-performance entirely, but only suspends it for the duration of the event.
- “Impossibility of performance” is defined by the Restatement (Second) of Contracts as occurring “[w]here, after a contract is made, a party’s performance is made impracticable without his fault by the occurrence of an event the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made, his duty to render that performance is discharged, unless the language or the circumstances indicate the contrary.”
Awareness of these concepts can potentially avoid problems down the road, as well as identify topics and issues that require special attention today.
- “Two-deep leadership.”
The Boy Scouts of America strictly follows a policy of “two-deep leadership,” under which two adults should be present at all times when interacting with youth. One benefit of that policy is to avoid “he-said, she-said” disputes between two eyewitnesses with no third–party corroboration. In the stress of dealing with the aftermath of Harvey, involving a business colleague or a friend in important discussions may help the future resolution of a legal matter, if a dispute arises about what was said in those discussions.
- Crowdsource, wisely.
For good or ill, social media has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina. Used judiciously, it can be a good source of information about late-breaking news or the reputation of a particular business. And it can provide a valuable outlet for self-expression after the trauma of Harvey.
But social media posts can survive much longer than the thoughts that prompted them, and rash comments about people or events can come back to haunt the person who makes an ill-advised post. Social media is a valuable conduit for information, and at the same time, it is a reliable creator and collector of potential evidence.
Faced with the reality of recovery from one of the worst storms in the nation’s history, planning for future litigation may seem to be a distant worry. But the foundation for that litigation is being put in place today, intentionally or unintentionally. These five basic ideas may provide ways to place that foundation in a more orderly manner, resulting in a stronger end product.
While arising in the specific context of a defective design claim under state law, Stewart v. Capital Safety USA addressed a broader question about when expert testimony is required to prove a point, as opposed to observations by knowledgeable lay witnesses. The Court held: “To find injury causation here, a jury would at least have to conclude that a different lifeline cable or a different warning would have, under the circumstances of this accident, prevented Stewart’s death. Thus, a jury would be confronted with questions that require a degree of familiarity with such subjects as physics, engineering, and oil rig practices and procedures. This case therefore raises questions that are of ‘sufficient complexity to be beyond the expertise of the average judge and juror’ and that ‘common sense’ does not ‘make obvious.'” No. 16-30993-CV (May 30, 2017; published Aug. 21, 2017).
An insurance dispute went to final judgment in 2012, was appealed to the Fifth Circuit and ultimately remanded “for further consideration in the light of hte answer given by the Texas Supreme Court in [In re: Deepwater Horizon, 470 S.W.3d 452 (Tex. 2015)]. On remand, after considering the effect of Deepwater Horizon, the district court reinstated its 2012 judgment. In the second appeal, the parties disputed whether “the post-judgment interest rate, which is significantly lower than the applicable pre-judgment interest rate, should apply from the date of the 2012 judgment because that judgment was not materially changed on remand.” The Fifth Circuit agreed that it should run from the 2012 judgment, noting that the district court did not reopen the record, and the judgment did not materially change. ExxonMobil v. Electrical Reliability Servcs., No. 15-20751 (Aug. 22, 2017).
Sterling Homes, the general contractor on a residential construction project, successfully sued Espinoza, a painting subcontractor, for a fire loss over $1 million. Espinoza’s insurer denied coverage because Sterling Homes was an “additional insured” on Espinoza’s policy, which the insurer said brought the Sterling-Espinoza dispute within the policy’s “cross suits” (or “insured v. insured”) exclusion.. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the plain terms of the exclusion would cover parties that were named as “additional insureds,” in addition to the actualy purchasers of a policy. But as to the specific claims at issue, the Court further held that the exclusion was only intended to apply to Sterling Homes’s liability arising rom Espinoza’s operations, as “nothing in the plain language of the subcontracting agreement obligating Espinoza to name Sterling Homes as an additional insured suggests the parties intended for Espinoza to lose insurance overage in the event Sterling Homes needed to sue him.” Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s v. Sterling Custom Homes
Body by Cook, Inc. v. State Farm gives a useful reminder about the basic rules for a federal pleading: “[A] complaint may simultaneously satisfy Rule 8’s technical requirements but fail to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Mere compliance with Rule 8 does not itself immunize the complaint against a motion to dismiss. Rule 8(a)(2) specifies the conditions of the formal adequacy of a pleading,” but “it does not specify the conditions of its substantive adequacy, that is, its legal merit.” No. 16-31034-CV (Aug. 24, 2017) (citations omitted).
The process server’s affidavit in Norris v. Causey said that (1) the defendant’s wife “yelled through the door that she would not accept service, and (2) he then posted the summons and complaint on the defendant’s door. The affidavit did not say, however, that these events occurred on the same day, which led to a remand for additional fact-finding by the district court: “It turns out that whether the yelling and posting happened the same day matters a great deal. Leaving a summons and complaint at a residence door, unaccompanied by a refusal to accept service, is not effective service under Rule 4. . . . This means that if Garry’s wife was not present, let alone refusing service, on the day the process server posted the documents on the door, Garry’s service was likely defective. On the other hand, a defendant’s refusal to accept service is not rewarded when the process server announces the nature of the documents and leaves them in close proximity to the defiant defendant.” No. 16-30339 (Aug. 22, 2017).
Yahoo cancelled its contract with SCA related to a billion-dollar “perfect bracket contest” for 2014’s March Madness. The parties disputed the appropriate termination payment, defined in the contract as “50% of the fee” – Yahoo contending the “fee” was 50% of the $1.1 million deposit that it already paid SCA; SCA contending that the “fee” was the rull $11 million contract fee, credited for the deposit. The Fifth Circuit reversed and rendered judgment for SCA, noting that the contract “clear[ly] incorporated by reference two invoices that specified the $11 million figure,” and identifying several other contract provisions consistent with SCA’s reading. The issue of what documents comprise a contract, and the related legal issue of when a court may consider “parol” evidence, continues to be a frequent – if not the most frequent – point of disagreement between the Fifth Circuit and trial courts. SCA Promotions v. Yahoo!, No. 15-11254 (Aug. 21, 2017).
After a pipeline breach, a federal regulator penalized ExxonMobil for violating safety rules. The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding, inter alia, that the agency’s interpretation of the “textually unambiguous” regulation required no deference under Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997). Specifically, the regulation said that pipeline operators “must consider” “all risk factors that reflect the risk conditions on the pipeline segment.” Concluding (presumably, after due consideration), that “consider” meant “to think about carefully,” the Court concluded that the regulation “unambiguously serves to informs a pipeline operator’s careful and deliberate decision-making process rather than to compel a particular outcome . . . ” This conclusion undermined the substantive basis of the agency’s liability determination, and led to reversal in substantial part. ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. v. U.S. Dep’t of Transp., No. 16-60448 (Aug. 14, 2017).