I am speaking on the topic “Ethics 2017: Recent Federal Court Decisions to Know” on Friday, May 5, to the Plano Bar Association (noon at Palio’s Pizza, yum) – here is the PowerPoint that I will be using.
In the case of In re Hermesmeyer, No. 16-11189 (May 2, 2017, unpublished), the Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the $500 sanction imposed by the district court as a result of the below Q-and-A between the court and counsel:
THE COURT: Okay. Let’s see. There were some—there were two objections filed, and I believe both of them were related to the possibility of a sentence above the top of the advisory guideline range. Did I read those correctly, Mr. Hermesmeyer?
MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I think they have more to do with legality of whether such a sentence would be permissible or appropriate.
THE COURT: I’m sorry, I was wondering if I’m correct in thinking that both of the objections have to do with the possibility of a sentence above the top of the advisory guideline range. What is the answer to that?
MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, just what I said.
THE COURT: I’m not sure I understand how that answered my question. I’ve asked the question again. Would you please answer the question either yes or no.
MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I would stand on what I previously said. Thank you.
THE COURT: Mr. Hermesmeyer, you get very close to being held in contempt of court. Would you answer my question?
MR. HERMESMEYER: I have no further response, your Honor.
THE COURT: Okay. Mr. Hermesmeyer, I’ve ordered you to answer my question, and you’ve refused to answer it. I conside that you’re in civil contempt of court, and also you’re in violation of one of the local rules that requires attorneys to appropriately conduct themselves and to respond and answer orders of the Court. I’m going to give you another opportunity to answer my question. And if you would like, if you decline to answer my question, I’ll give you an opportunity at this time to respond to my suggestion that you will be held in civil contempt of court and held in violation of the local rule concerning the conduct of attorneys, if you refuse to answer my question. You may proceed.
[Pause in proceedings.]
THE COURT: Okay. Apparently you’re not going to respond. I’m ordering that you are in violation of the local rule. Let me get the exact number of it.
HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, at this point I would move to withdraw from the representation of [the defendant] given the indications that the Court has made. [He] needs an attorney that’s not under the threat of civil contempt or whatever sort of contempt
that the Court is indicating at this point.
THE COURT: I deny that motion. Rule of Criminal Procedure LCR 57.8(b) says: A presiding judge, after giving an opportunity to show cause to the contrary, may take any appropriate disciplinary action against a member of the bar for conduct unbecoming a member of the bar and failure to comply with any order of the Court. I consider that you have violated that rule in both respects. I’ll give you an opportunity—I’ve given you an opportunity to show cause why you shouldn’t be disciplined for that and you’ve declined to respond, so I’m ordering that you pay a $500 fine, and that it be paid by 2:00 today, and be paid to the office of the clerk of court here in Fort Worth.
In Austin v. Kroger Texas LP, the Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment for the defendant in a slip-and-fall case. On the merits, among other holdings of general interest, the Court noted:
- “[A] janitor with fifteen years’ experience is competent to testify about the effectiveness of cleaning products and methods.”;
- When coupled with evidence from “Kroger’s handbook” and the manager’s testimony about “the safety practice at the store,” the plaintiff raised a fact issue;
- “[T]he fact that [Plaintiff] had successfuly cleaned a much smaller spill . . . with a dry mop does not conclusively demonstrate that Spill Magic was not necessary for [him] to safely clean a much larger and more serious spill.”
Procedurally, the Court instructed that the trial court should proceed under “the more flexible Rule 54(b)” on remand rather than “the heightened standard of Rule 59(e),” asking that it “construe the procedural rules with a preference toward resolving the case on the merits and avoiding any dismissal based on a technicality.” No. 16-10502 (April 14, 2017).
An insured disputed whether he had claimed ownership of a particular piece of property in a conversation with an insurance agent, Specifically, while testifying in his deposition that he did not remember the specific questions asked, the conversation did not last very long – implying that the agent simply assumed his ownership of the propertuy. “[H]owever, n both his answer to State Farm’s complaint and his response to State Farm’s request for admission, [the insured] admitted to telling the agent who took his insurance application that he was the owner of the property and to stating as much in his application. The district court concluded that these facts were judicially admitted, and therefore rejected Appellants’ argument as an impermissible ‘attempt to create a dispute around a material fact already admitted.’” State Farm v. Flowers, No. 16-60310 (April 26, 2017).
In a break from the usual topics about federal procedure, today’s post about the case of Foster v. Woods provides some practical advice for private investigators. Foster, a licensed private investigator, tailed a car into a school parking lot and observed it for a short period before realizing that the driver was his target’s teenaged son. Unfortunately for Foster, the son observed him and told a friend, whose father was the local sheriff. After Foster left the school grounds the sheriff arrested him and unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute him for having brought a firearm onto school grounds (although Foster held a concealed-carry permit, and neither he nor the firearm left the car while in the school parking lot. Foster sued for wrongful arrest; the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the sheriff: “Relevant here, Woods knew that Foster was not a student, that he followed a student’s vehicle into a student parking lot posted with a ‘no trespassing” sign, and that Foster remained in the lot for some time as students were arriving for school. . . . Given the facts known to Woods, he had knowledge that would warrant a reasonable officer to believe that Foster violated the trespass statute.” Advice – use caution when entering private property.
In DeLeon v. Abbott, the Fifth Circuit affirmed an award of $585,470.30 in attorneys’ fees and $20,202.90 in costs arising from the Texas counterpart to Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015). The panel majority observed that “the essential goal in shifting fees (to either party) is to do rough justice,” and that as a result, “[w]e can hardly think of a sphere of judicial decisionmaking in which appellate micromanagement has less to recommend it.” A dissent, observing that “deference is a blank check,” approved of the bulk of the award but took issue with it as to time spent on (a) an unsuccessful third-party motion to intervene; (b) interacting with the media; and (c) coordinating with supportin amici. No. 15-51241 (April 18, 2017, unpublished).
The case of Decatur Hospital Authority v. Aetna Health Inc. involved a remand order, granted on the basis of timelieness (a ruling not ordinarily appealable because of 28 USC § 1447(c)), but where the notice of removal referred to the federal officer removal statute (made reviewable by the less-well-known § 1447(d)). The Fifth Circuit concluded that its review involved “[n]ot particular reasons for an order, but the order itself,” and went to affirm the remand and a related fee award, finding that the defendant did not learn new facts from an interrogatory answer that were not also contained in the original petition. No. 16-10313 (April 18, 2017).
Oubre, struck by an errant forklift, sued Schlumberger for his injuries. To avoid a limitations problem, he cited a choice-of-law provision in the Master Service Agreement between his employer and Schlumberger. The provision ultimately did not help him, and the Fifth Circuit observed that it “does not pose a renvoi issue.” Oubre v. Schlumberger, Ltd., No. 16-41446 (April 5, 2017, unpublished). That term, accurate although infrequently-used, is defined by Black’s as “[t]he doctrine under which a court, in resorting to foreign law, also adopts the foreign law’s conflict-of-laws principles, which may in turn refer the court back to the law of the forum.”
At oral argument, the appellant in a technical dispute about the appointment of arbitrators “argued for the first time that ‘if maritime jurisdiction applies, then . . . there is appellate jurisdiction over the appeal.'” The Fifth Circuit observed: “We do not usually allow parties to raise a new argument for the first time at oral argument. . . . Of course, an argument that this court lacks jurisdiction cannot be waived, but here the argument is that the court has jurisdiction, a matter the appellant is required to prove.” Bordelon Marine, LLC v. Bibby Subsea ROV, LLC, No. 16-30847 (April 14, 2017, unpublished).
Streamline Production Systems v. Streamline Manufacturing involved trademark litigation between businesses with similar names. The Fifth Circuit affirmed theury’s findings about the distinctiveness of the plaintiff’s mark and the likelihood of confusion, observing that the various factors did not all point the same way but “there is not a complete absence of evidence” to support what the jury found. The court reversed on remedy, however, finding that the “reasonable royalty” damages went beyond the scope of the infringement, and that the award of unjust enrichment was not supported by evidence of lost profits or willful action by the defendant. No. 16-20046 (revised April 14, 2017).
Sun-Tzu famously counseled, “[a]ll armies prefer high ground to low and sunny places to dark.” The defendant airline in Conservation Force v. Delta Air Lines artfully changed the ground for conflict in a case about its policies toward shipments involving big game hunts. The plaintiff complained that the airlines’ policy of not accepting the shipment of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo hunting trophies violated the airlines’ legal duty to treat all shippers equally. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court’s conclusion “that, despite a duty to treat all shippers equally, a common carrier does not have to treat all cargo equally.” No. 16-11062 (March 20, 2017, unpublished).
In Smitherman v. Bayview Loan Servicing LLC, the Fifth Circuit order a limited remand to the district court, so that court could supplement the record about the defendant’s citizenship and then make findings. The district court, however, went on to vacate the judgment it had entered previously and remand the case to state court. The Fifth Circuit observed: “Because the district court lacked the authority to do so, we construe its order to be an indicative ruling made pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 62.1(a)(2). Accordingly, we REMAND this case to the district court and DISMISS the appeal as moot and relinquish jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 12.1(b).” No. 16-20328 (March 29, 2017, unpublished).
“[W]here a plaintiff seeks to rely on epidemiological evidence, Texas law requires that the stifues show a statistically significant doubling of the risk of developing their alleged inuiries. . . . The studies relied on by the Plaintiffs and their experts do not . . . One of these studies did not quantify the risk of developing Plaintiffs’ chromuim-related-acute-irritation injuries at all and the other study did not find a doubling of the risk.” McManaway v. KBR, Inc., No. 15-20641 (March 27, 2017) (applying Merck & Co. v. Garza, 347 S.W.3d 256 (Tex. 2011)).
In Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC v. Berry, a dispute about a home equity loan, the Fifth Circuit confirmed that “we now must follow the Texas Supreme Court’s holding in [Wood v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., 505 S.W.3d 542 (Tex. 2016)] that no statute of limitations applies to a borrower’s allegations of violations of section 50(a)(6) of the Texas Constitution in a quiet title action, rather than our prior holding in [Priester v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013)].” In so doing, the Court reminded that “the issues-not-briefed-are-waived rule is a prudential construct that requires the exercise of discretion,” and addressed the applicability of Wood notwithstanding the appellant not discussing the case in its opening brief, noting that the underlying issues had been briefed, and that the Court had received supplemental briefing on the pure question of law presented about the application of Wood. No. 16-10604 (March 29, 2017).
Moore sued the Governor of Mississippi, alleging that the presence of the Confederate battle flag in the Mississippi state flag (right) violated Moore’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause. The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal on standing grounds, distinguishing cases involving the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because of the distinct injuries addressed by the two Constitutional provisions. The Court concluded: “The assumption that if [Plainitff] had no standing to sue, no one would have standing, is not a reason to find standing.” (citations omitted). Moore v. Bryant, No. 16-60616 (March 31, 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).
Several crawfishermen sued about the effects of canal dredging on the Atchafalaya Basin fisheries. As to one defendant company, the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in its favor, reviewing each of the documents cited by plaintiffs and finding that none raised a genuine issue of material fact as to actual dredging activity by that company, on the pipelines at issue in this case. As to another, the Court reversed on procedural grounds, finding that the district court should have considered a deposition transcript and responses to requests for admissions offered by the plaintiffs when (1) their proffer had a foundation in the terms of the case management order, (2) the evidence was probative, and (3) it was information obtained from that defendant. In re Louisiana Crawfish Producers, No. 16-30353 (March 28, 2017). (The opinion notes that crawfish are known by several other names, including “yabbies,” a tidbit that was not known to this author.)
Defendant hosted a website with a public forum called “HairTalk.” Plaintiffs sued for copyright infringement when celebrity photos, to which they owned the rights, were posted by third-party users on HairTalk without their consent. The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Defendant, adopting the “volitional conduct” requirement for direct infringement cases, and observing: “[I]t does not make sense to adopt a rule that could lead to the liability of countless parties whose role in the infringement is nothing more than setting up and operating a system that is necessary for the functioning of the Internet.” BWP Media USA v. T&S Software, No. 16-10510 (March 27, 2017).
An architecture firm held a large judgment against a bankruptcy debtor, and contended that the failure of the debtor’s insurer to object to that claim barred further dispute about the insurer’s liability. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, concluding that “in this no asset bankruptcy case, nothing in the court proceedings required claims allowance, no notice was provided to parties in interest to object to claims, and no bankruptcy purpose would have been served by the bankruptcy court’s adjudicating [the firm’s claim.” Kipp Flores Architects v. Mid-Continent Casualty Co., No. 16-20255 (March 24, 2017).
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.
Air Evac contended that the Airline Deregulation Act preempted Texas workers compensation laws about reimbursement for air-ambulance services. This claim led to a dispute about the scope of Eleventh Amendment liability and the landmark Constitutional case of Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). In a methodical analysis of Young’s history and purpose, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Air Evac could sue: “[T]he balance-billing prohibition works in concert with state defendants’ implementation of the reimbursement system, serving as a backstop against alternative methods of fee collection. State defendants’ pervasive authority to oversee and enforce Texas’ workers’-compensation system satisfies the Ex parte Young exception.” Air Evac EMS, Inc. v. State of Texas, No. 16-51023 (March 20, 2017).
Adams LLC, formed in July 2010, bought a number of assets from Adams Produce Company, Inc., and sought to prosecute a Deepwater Horizon claim for damages suffered by Adams Inc. Unfortunately, “[a]lthough substantially alll of Adams Inc.’s assets and liabilities were transferred as part of the transaction, it is undisputed that Adams Inc. retained certain assets and liabilities. Adams Inc. and Adams LLC are two distinct entities, and the asset transfer that occurred here was not just a change in form.” BP Exploration v. Claimant ID 100169608, No. 16-30482 (March 8, 2017, unpublished).
The Fifth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment for the defendants in the FCA case of Abbott v. BP Exploration & Production; after describing the alleged fact issues about “whether engineers approved the various stages of construction of the Atlantis [offshore oil platform],” it noted: “Rarely does the pursuit of an individual’s FCA claims lead to an investigation requested by Congress. But that is the case with these Plaintiffs, whose insistence on the alleged issues with the Atlantis led to Congressional hearings, an investigation by a federal agency, and the [De[artment of the Interior] Report,” which “found no grounds to suspend the operation of the Atlantis or revoke BP’s designation as an operator.” No. 16-20028 (March 14, 2017).
The Clarion-Ledger reports that Judge E. Grady Jolly of Mississippi will retire on his 80th birthday in October 2017, creating another vacancy on the Fifth Circuit for President Trump to fill. The same paper has a good description of the process for filling the vacancy. Judge Jolly has served the Fifth Circuit with distinction for 35 years; his skill and grace will be greatly missed.
In an interesting parallel to the ongoing litigation about travel bans (which most recently produced a District of Hawaii opinion granting a TRO), the Fifth Circuit denied en banc review in Defense Distributed v. U.S. Dep’t of State, which affirmed a preliminary injunction about the use of 3-D printing technology to make certain firearms. A dissent observes: “Certainly there is a strong public interest in national security. But there is a paramount public interest in the exercise of constitutional rights, particularly those guaranteed by the First Amendment . . . ” No. 15-50759 (March 15, 2017).