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

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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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

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The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's decision affirming the bankruptcy court's denial of plaintiff's motion for leave to amend. In this case, plaintiff sought to amend his complaint to include allegations that the Brewer & Pritchard attorneys assured him during a brief recess during bankruptcy proceedings that they would treat the bankruptcy court's proposed fees as part of plaintiff's "Gross Recovery" under his written agreement with Brewer & Pritchard.The court held that had plaintiff been granted leave to amend his complaint, his proposed claims—whatever their merit—would not have been subject to dismissal under the doctrine of res judicata. The court explained that the "conduct" plaintiff seeks to challenge is the alleged breach of fiduciary duty—the failure to follow through on the new representations supposedly made to him during the November 2017 hearing. Furthermore, at the time of the hearing, plaintiff could not have even known that the attorneys' assurances were misrepresentations, let alone that he should challenge them as such. The court remanded with instructions that plaintiff's motion for leave to amend be granted. View "Rohi v. Brewer" on Justia Law

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In 2001-2013, Ridgeway worked for Stryker, which believed that Ridgeway intended to use its confidential business information at his next job. Stryker sued Ridgeway. A jury found that Ridgeway had breached his contractual obligations, breached his fiduciary duty, and violated Michigan’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act (MUTSA) and that the MUTSA violation was willful and malicious for purposes of an award of attorney’s fees. Ridgeway filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The automatic stay caused by the filing of the petition prevented Stryker from making an attorney’s fee request in the Michigan proceedings. Stryker filed a proof of claim for $2,272,369.54, supported by hundreds of pages of time entries; the amount claimed and the corresponding time entries do not just relate to the lawyers’ work on the MUTSA claim. Stryker argued that, under the “Common Core” doctrine, its win on the MUTSA claim entitles it to attorney’s fees for all of its claims. Ridgeway argued that fee recovery under the Common Core doctrine “is reserved for fee awards in civil rights cases.”The bankruptcy court allowed Stryker’s proof of claim, including fees claimed under the Common Core doctrine. The district court and Fifth Circuit affirmed. Ridgeway has not shown that Michigan law requires statutory attorney’s fees to be “proved at trial.” The court upheld the striking of Ridgeway's "Common Core" objection as a sanction. Ridgeway did not comply with a court order to specify to which charges his objection applied. View "Ridgeway v. Stryker Corp." on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the law firms in an action brought by the firms against a former client, seeking to enforce the terms of the parties' contingency fee agreement.After determining that it had jurisdiction over the appeal, the court held that the parties' contingency fee agreement violates Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(a). The court held that a contingency fee arrangement resulting in an attorney owning part of the client's business is a business transaction under Rule 1.8(a). The court explained that, because the terms of the contingency fee agreement in this case give the firms an ownership interest in the client's holding company, Rule 1.8(a) applies, and the firms were required to advise the client to seek the advice of independent counsel. Because the firms failed to do so, the contingency fee award is void. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Wiener Weiss & Madison v. Fox" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of plaintiff's request for attorneys' fees incurred at trial and during the first appeal to this court. This appeal arose from a bench trial where plaintiff, a former Austin city councilman, prevailed on some but not all of his First Amendment claims against the City of Austin.As a preliminary matter, the court held that the district court's ancillary enforcement jurisdiction covered the "collateral issue" of plaintiff's attorney fee request. On the merits, the court held that the district court did not err in denying plaintiff's fee request because plaintiff waived his right to request fees incurred at trial. Even if the district court had discretion to excuse the delay in filing, no error occurred by failing to exercise the discretion. Furthermore, the district court did not err when it denied plaintiff's request for fees incurred on appeal where he made no request within the 14-day time period after the district court entered its initial judgment, and there also was no new judgment entered following a reversal or remand from this court. View "Zimmerman v. City of Austin" on Justia Law

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In 2014, plaintiffs, African-American voters and the Terrebonne Parish NAACP, filed suit to challenge the electoral method for Louisiana's 32nd Judicial District Court (JDC), alleging that at-large elections for the judges produce discriminatory results, violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and have been maintained for a discriminatory purpose in violation of that statute and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The district court upheld both claims and ordered a remedial plan breaking the 32nd JDC into five single-member electoral subdistricts.The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the district court clearly erred in its finding of minority vote dilution in the election of judges for Terrebonne Parish's 32nd JDC. The court held that the district court erred in holding that weak evidence of vote dilution could overcome the state's substantial interest in linking judicial positions to the judges' parish-wide jurisdiction. Furthermore, the district court erroneously equated failed legislative attempts to create subdistricts for the 32nd JDC with a racially discriminatory intent. View "Fusilier v. Landry" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit denied plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The court held that 29 U.S.C. 1132(g)(1) does not provide unfettered discretion to courts to award fees. The court explained that a fees claimant whose only victory was an interlocutory ruling by the Court of Appeals that his complaint should not have been dismissed for failure to state a claim has not received any relief on the merits. In this case, plaintiff persuaded the court to reverse the district court's summary judgment ruling in favor of Humana. If plaintiff achieves some success on the merits on remand, she may then ask for fees. View "Katherine P. v. Humana Health Plan, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: ERISA, Legal Ethics
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The IRS served a John Doe summons on the Texas Law Firm, which provides tax-planning advice, seeking documents for “U.S. taxpayers," who, during specified years, used the Firm's services "to acquire, establish, maintain, operate, or control" a foreign financial account, asset, or entity or any foreign or domestic financial account or assets in the name of such foreign entity. A John Doe summons, described in 26 U.S.C. 7609(c)(1), does not identify the person with respect to whose liability the summons is issued. The government made the required showings that the summons relates to the investigation of a particular person or ascertainable group or class, there is a reasonable basis for believing that such person or group or class may fail or may have failed to comply with any provision of internal revenue law, and the information sought and the identity of the person or persons is not readily available from other sources. The Firm moved to quash, claiming that, despite the general rule a lawyer’s clients’ identities are not covered by the attorney-client privilege, an exception exists where disclosure would result in the disclosure of confidential communication.The Fifth Circuit affirmed in favor of the government. Blanket assertions of privilege are disfavored. The Firm's clients’ identities are not connected inextricably with privileged communication. If the Firm wishes to assert privilege as to any responsive documents, it may do so, using a privilege log to detail the foundation for each claim. View "Taylor Lohmeyer Law Firm. P.L.L.C. v. United States" on Justia Law

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After plaintiff filed suit against Portfolio under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and state law, the parties reached a settlement that forgave plaintiff's debt and awarded him $1,000 in damages. The district court then determined that plaintiff's attorneys did not settle his lawsuit quickly enough and consequently sanctioned them.The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's sanction order, holding that the district court abused its discretion by awarding attorney's fees sua sponte under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11. Furthermore, the reasons the district court proffered for sanctions were meritless. Because the district court judge was not biased against plaintiff, the court affirmed the denial of plaintiff's recusal motion. In this case, the judge's ire was clearly directed at the attorneys, not plaintiff. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, remanding for further proceedings. View "Tejero v. Portfolio Recovery Assoc., LLC" on Justia Law

Posted in: Legal Ethics