Justia U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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Spectrum filed suit against Lifetime and Jay Tuttle for trademark violations under the Lanham Act over a domain name. After Spectrum was awarded statutory damages, the district court declined to award attorneys' fees to Spectrum.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's admission of certain deposition testimony at trial and agreed with the Fourth Circuit that the plain text of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 32(a)(4)(B) is clear that "the place of trial" is the courthouse where trial takes place. In this case, the Lifetime Defendants were not prejudiced by the transfer of trial venue from San Antonio to Waco, and the court rejected the Lifetime Defendants' contention that the witness was not an unavailable trial witness. The court affirmed the district court's statutory damages award, concluding that the district court did not abuse its broad discretion, under 15 U.S.C. 1117(d), in awarding $100,000 for the Infringing Domain. However, the court reversed the district court's finding that Spectrum was not entitled to attorneys' fees in this exceptional case where the record confirms that the Lifetime Defendants engaged in willful, bad-faith infringement of Spectrum's trademarks, justifying an award of maximum statutory damages. The court remanded for a determination of reasonable attorneys' fees. View "Spectrum Association Management of Texas, LLC v. Lifetime HOA Management LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against defendants for malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and civil conspiracy. However, after defendants' voluntary dismissal of the allegedly malicious and abusive suit, he moved for attorney's fees based on 28 U.S.C. 1927 and the common law bad-faith exception to the American rule.The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of plaintiff's claims based on res judicata and collateral estoppel. The court explained that, given that the claims for malicious prosecution and abuse of process arise out of the fact of the first lawsuit—and not the facts underlying that lawsuit—they do not arise from the same transaction and are thus not compulsory counterclaims. Furthermore, the district court's denial of defendant's motion for attorney's fees does not collaterally estop him from bringing his current claims, and no factual finding in the order denying the motion for attorney's fees collaterally estops plaintiff from proving his current claims. Finally, because defendants' proposed alternative path for relief is entirely separate from plaintiff's main argument on appeal, was not fully briefed by him, and has not been analyzed by the district court in even a passing fashion, the court declined to affirm on those grounds. The court remanded for further proceedings. View "Hammervold v. Blank" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, three Texas attorneys, filed suit against officers and directors of the State Bar of Texas under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the Bar is engaged in political and ideological activities that are not germane to its interests in regulating the legal profession and improving the quality of legal services. Plaintiffs therefore allege that compelling them to join the Bar and subsidize those activities violates their First Amendment rights. The district court granted summary judgment to the Bar.As a preliminary matter, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the Tax Injunction Act did not strip the district court of jurisdiction where neither membership fees and legal services fees are taxes. On the merits, the court vacated the district court's judgment, concluding that the district court erred in its reading of Lathrop v. Donahue, 367 U.S. 820 (1961), and Keller v. State Bar of California, 496 U.S. 1 (1990), and in its application of Keller's germaneness test on the Bar's activities. The court explained that Lathrop held that lawyers may constitutionally be mandated to join a bar association that solely regulates the legal profession and improves the quality of legal services; Keller identified that Lathrop did not decide whether lawyers may be constitutionally mandated to join a bar association that engages in other, nongermane activities; but Keller did not resolve that question. To determine whether compelling plaintiffs to join a bar that engages in non-germane activities violates their freedom of association, the court must decide (1) whether compelling plaintiffs to join burdens their rights and, (2) if so, whether it is nevertheless justified by a sufficient state interest.The court explained that plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment on their freedom-of-association claim if the Bar is in fact engaged in non-germane activities. In this case, the Bar's legislative program is neither entirely germane nor wholly non-germane; the Bar's various diversity initiatives through OMA, though highly ideologically charged, are germane to the purposes identified in Keller; most, but not quite all, of the Bar's activities aimed at aiding the needy are germane; and miscellaneous activities—hosting an annual convention, running CLE programs, and publishing the Texas Bar Journal—are all germane. In sum, the Bar is engaged in non-germane activities, so compelling plaintiffs to join it violates their First Amendment rights. Furthermore, there are multiple other constitutional options. Assuming, arguendo, that plaintiffs can be required to join the Bar, compelling them to subsidize the Bar's non-germane activities violates their freedom of speech. The court also concluded that the Bar's procedures for separating chargeable from non-chargeable expenses is constitutionally inadequate under Chicago Teachers Union, Local No. 1, AFT, AFL-CIO v. Hudson, 475 U.S. 292 (1986).Accordingly, the court rendered partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs and remanded to the district court to determine the full scope of relief to which plaintiffs are entitled. The court additionally reversed the denial of plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and rendered a preliminary injunction preventing the Bar from requiring plaintiffs to join or pay dues pending completion of the remedies phase. View "McDonald v. Longley" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit challenging Louisiana law that forces lawyers to join and pay annual dues to the Louisiana State Bar Association (LSBA). Plaintiff contends that compelling dues and membership violates his First Amendment rights, and that LSBA's failure to ensure that his dues are not used to fund the Bar's political and ideological activities also violates his First Amendment rights.The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's claims. The court concluded that Lathrop v. Donahue, 367 U.S. 820 (1961), and Keller v. State Bar of California, 496 U.S. 1 (1990), foreclose plaintiff's challenge to mandatory membership in LSBA. In this case, plaintiff's claim presents the (previously) open free association question from Keller (which the court closed today in this circuit with the court's concurrently issued opinion in McDonald v. Longley, No. 20-50448, __ F.3d __ (5th Cir. 2021)). The court also concluded that the Tax Injunction Act does not preclude federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over plaintiff's challenge to mandatory dues. The court explained that the bar dues are a fee, not a tax, and thus dismissal under the Act was improper. Finally, the court concluded that plaintiff has standing to pursue his claim that LSBA does not employ adequate procedures to safeguard his dues. The court found that plaintiff has pleaded an injury-in-fact by alleging that LSBA does not regularly provide notice of its expenditures with sufficient specificity. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Boudreaux v. Louisiana State Bar Ass'n" on Justia Law

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Alliance and Coalition are nonprofit organizations that endorse political candidates in New Orleans. Alliance filed suit against Coalition, seeking to enjoin use of its trade name and logo for federal trademark infringement under the Lanham Act, state trademark infringement, and unfair trade practices. The district court subsequently joined Darleen Jacobs as a third party to the case.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's award of attorney's fees to Alliance for federal trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. The court concluded that the district court's procedure for joining Jacobs met the demands of due process, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in holding her directly liable for the fee award. The court found it appropriate to extend the interpretation of the Patent Act fee-shifting provision to its interpretation of the Lanham Act and found that district courts do have the authority to award appellate fees under the Lanham Act. The court concluded that the district court's decision to award fees for further litigation of the attorney's fee award did not contravene the mandate rule; even if appellants are correct that Alliance's billing entries are flawed, the proper remedy is "a reduction of the award by a percentage intended to substitute for the exercise of billing judgment," which the district court did; and the district court considered each of appellants' objections to Alliance's fees motion. Finally, the court declined to address appellants' First Amendment argument, which was not addressed in Alliance I. View "Alliance for Good Government v. Coalition for Better Government" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit held that a private settlement does not constitute a "successful action to enforce . . . liability" under the fee-shifting provision of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The court affirmed the district court's denial of attorney's fees in this case, concluding that the district court did not commit reversible error in refusing plaintiff's fee application under the FDCPA. The court explained that a "successful action to enforce the foregoing liability" means a lawsuit that generates a favorable end result compelling accountability and legal compliance with a formal command or decree under the FDCPA. In this case, plaintiff settled before his lawsuit reached any end result, let alone a favorable one. Furthermore, by settling, Portfolio Recovery avoided a formal legal command or decree from plaintiff's lawsuit. The court stated that plaintiff's alternative interpretation requires rewriting the FDCPA's fee-shifting provision.The court also concluded that, at most, plaintiff's FDCPA suit was the catalyst that spurred Portfolio Recovery to settle. Therefore, the catalyst theory does not make plaintiff's action a successful one under 15 U.S.C. 1692k(a)(3) and thus plaintiff is not entitled to fees. View "Tejero v. Portfolio Recovery Associates, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit against Lexington Law and its vendor, Progrexion, for purportedly perpetrating a fraud in which the firm failed to disclose that it was sending letters to the companies in its clients' names and on their behalves. After a jury agreed that defendants violated Texas law in committing fraud and fraud by non-disclosure, the district court set aside the verdict and issued judgment in favor of defendants as a matter of law.The Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that plaintiffs have not shown that defendants committed fraud. In this case, the district court concluded that defendants did not make any false representations (material or otherwise) when signing and sending the dispute letters because Lexington Law had the legal right to sign its clients' names on the correspondence it sent on their behalf to data furnishers who reported inaccurate information about the clients' credit. Furthermore, Progrexion cannot be liable for fraud since it, like Lexington Law, did not make any material misrepresentations. The court also concluded that plaintiffs' fraud by non-disclosure claim must be dismissed because they did not justifiably rely on any failure of defendants to disclose material facts, and plaintiffs have not shown that defendants had a duty to disclose that they were the ones actually sending the dispute letters. Additionally, plaintiffs have not shown that Progrexion disclosed any facts—material or otherwise—and so cannot be liable for fraud by nondisclosure. The court explained that the fact that Lexington Law had the legal right to send dispute letters on their clients behalves and in their names suggests that the firm did not make any false representations, and thus the firm did not create any false impressions requiring disclosure. Finally, plaintiffs waived their conspiracy claim by failing to move for judgment as a matter of law on the claim before and after the case was submitted to the jury or for a new trial. View "The CBE Group, Inc. v. Lexington Law Firm" on Justia Law

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In this long-running contract dispute, at issue is whether the parties are entitled to fee awards. The Fifth Circuit concluded that IWS is entitled to some fees under the Texas Theft Liability Act (TTLA) and remanded for a determination of the proper amount. The court clarified that the mandate of Transverse II did not depart from Texas law governing fee segregation, and fees incurred defending the TTLA claim do not become unrecoverable simply because they may have furthered another nonrecoverable claim as well.The court also concluded that, because the Supply Contract itself does not authorize attorneys' fees, under Iowa law, the district court lacked a basis on which to award Transverse attorney's fees for IWS's breach of this agreement. In this case, IWS has made the showing necessary to prevail under plain-error review, and thus the court reversed the fee award to Transverse on the Supply-Contract claim. Finally, the court rejected Transverse's contention that the district court erred by failing to recognize it as the prevailing party on the Non-Disclosure Agreement claim and refusing to award Transverse the related fees. The court explained that Transverse did not prevail, substantially or otherwise, on this claim and thus there was no error on the district court's part. View "Transverse, LLC v. Iowa Wireless Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit granted panel rehearing; denied rehearing en banc; withdrew its prior opinion; and substituted the following opinion.Frank Williams, Jr. filed suit in Louisiana state court against his former employer, Lockheed Martin, seeking to recover damages for asbestos-related injuries. After Williams passed away, his children were substituted as plaintiffs. Lockheed Martin removed the case under federal officer removal jurisdiction and the district court granted summary judgment for Lockheed Martin, issuing sanctions against plaintiffs' counsel for improper ex parte communications.The court affirmed the district court's judgment, concluding that the district court properly considered the full state-court record as it existed at the time of removal and Lockheed Martin has met the requirements for federal officer removal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1442(a)(2)(1). In this case, Lockheed Martin alleged the requisite nexus and has stated sufficient facts to make out a colorable Boyle defense. The court also concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion with respect to any of the challenged discovery orders.The court applied Louisiana law and affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Lockheed Martin on plaintiffs' survival and wrongful death claims. Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not err by imposing sanctions on plaintiffs' attorney and that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding $10,000 in attorney's fees. View "Williams v. Lockheed Martin Corp." on Justia Law

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Automation Support filed suit against its former employees and one employee's new company, Humble Design, under the Texas Theft Liability Act (TTLA). After a year and a half of litigation in the district court, the parties agreed to voluntarily dismiss all claims with prejudice. In the joint stipulation, Defendants Humble Design and Warren Humble reserved the right to seek attorney's fees under the TTLA, which is a "loser pays" law. The magistrate judge awarded the fees.In 2018, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the magistrate judge's decision and remanded for the district court to award appellate attorney's fees. The court also dismissed for lack of jurisdiction Automation Support's appeal. The current appeal concerns Automation Support's most recent motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b), in which Automation Support again argued that the magistrate judge did not have jurisdiction to award attorney's fees. The magistrate judge denied the motion in March 2020, and this appeal is timely only as to the order denying that Rule 60 motion. Automation Support cannot appeal the underlying judgment that issued years ago.To the extent Automation Support argues that defendants were not prevailing parties, the court has already rejected that argument. The court rejected Automation Support's new contention that the Rule 41 joint dismissal deprived the district court of jurisdiction to later award fees. Because Automation Support has inundated the district court and this court with frivolous filings, and because of its bad-faith refusal to recognize what the court held three years ago, defendants may file a motion with this court for appellate attorney's fees under 28 U.S.C. 1927. The court once against affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Automation Support, Inc. v. Humble Design, LLC" on Justia Law