Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction seeking to prohibit the Harris County District Attorney (DA) from enforcing a Texas anti-barratry law. The court concluded that plaintiff has not shown that his First Amendment claim is likely to succeed on the merits where the anti-barratry law is likely narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest in preventing confusion that damages relationships between appointed counsel and indigent defendants. The court declined plaintiff's request to assign the case to a different district judge on remand, concluding that this case does not merit reassignment under either of the two relevant tests. View "Willey v. Harris County District Attorney" on Justia Law

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The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) agreed to pay Parkcrest $11 million to build affordable housing. Liberty was Parkcrest’s surety. HANO terminated Parkcrest before the project was done. Parkcrest sued, alleging breach of contract. Liberty and HANO executed a “Takeover Agreement,” incorporating the original contract; Liberty stepped into Parkcrest’s shoes to finish the project. Liberty hired Parkcrest as its completion contractor. HANO claimed that Liberty had forfeited any right to continue working on the project and requested that it relinquish control of the site. Liberty claimed the termination was wrongful. Rather than following the contract’s dispute resolution procedures, Liberty filed a complaint-in-intervention in the HANO-Parkcrest litigation.The district court concluded that HANO had breached the Takeover Agreement and the underlying HANO Contract by terminating Liberty for convenience after Liberty had substantially completed the project, awarded Liberty and Parkcrest damages, and held HANO liable to Liberty for attorney’s fees, but left those fees unquantified. The Fifth Circut affirmed but concluded it lacked jurisdiction to consider the fee award because a fee award is not a final judgment under 28 U.S.C. 1291 until reduced to a sum certain. The district court then awarded Liberty $526,192.25 in fees. The Fifth Circuit reversed. Liberty’s claim for fees arises from the contract, which authorizes fee-shifting “upon the receipt by [HANO] of a properly presented claim.” Liberty breached the contract’s dispute-resolution procedures, this breach was unexcused, so Liberty is entitled to nothing. View "Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Housing Authority of New Orleans" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit vacated the district court's award of fees to class counsel in a class action settlement involving consumers who purchased defective toilet tanks against defendants. The court agreed with Porcelana that the district court erred in calculating the lodestar and refusing to decrease it. In this case, the district court abused its discretion by failing to make any factual findings regarding the nature of the class's unsuccessful claims and an unsupported assertion is insufficient to permit the district court to bypass the proper lodestar calculation and only consider the unsuccessful claims under the eighth Johnson factor. Nor is this a case where the record supports such a conclusion in the absence of an explicit finding by the district court. Even assuming the district court had adequately supported its conclusion that unsuccessful claims were intertwined with those that proved successful, the court stated that the district court still failed to properly analyze the award in relation to the results obtained. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Fessler v. Porcelana Corona de Mexico, S.A. de C.V." on Justia Law

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After the en banc court held unlawful a Texas statute requiring voters to present photo ID in order to vote, the only issue in this appeal is whether plaintiffs are prevailing parties and thereby entitled to recover attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988(b) and 52 U.S.C. 10310(e).The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding that plaintiffs are prevailing parties under Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 604 (2001), and the district court's award of attorneys' fees. In this case, plaintiffs successfully challenged the Texas photo ID requirement before the en banc court, and used that victory to secure a court order permanently preventing its enforcement during the elections in 2016 and 2017. Furthermore, the court order substituted the photo ID requirement with a mere option—which of course defeats the whole purpose of a mandate, and the state cannot go back in time and re-run the 2016 and 2017 elections under a photo ID requirement. Finally, defendants' claims to the contrary under Sole v. Wyner, 551 U.S. 74, 82 (2007), and Dearmore v. City of Garland, 519 F.3d 517 (5th Cir. 2008), are unavailing. View "Veasey v. Abbott" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to vacate its judgment in a breach-of-fiduciary-duty action based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. In this case, after the firm filed suit to recover its fees, the parties reached an agreed judgment. The district court then discovered that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.The court concluded that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1332 because the firm is a Texas plaintiff suing a Texas defendant, and the combination of the firm's misleading citizenship allegations and the district court's lack of knowledge about it rendered the judgment void and properly vacated under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4). The court read Picco v. Global Marine Drilling Co., 900 F.2d 846 (5th Cir. 1990), fairly and holistically, finding that Picco accords with the court's decision here. The court also concluded that the firm forfeited its standing argument. Finally, the court concluded that the district court had jurisdiction to direct the firm to return fees paid pursuant to a void judgment. View "The Mitchell Law Firm, LP v. Bessie Jeanne Worthy Revocable Trust" on Justia Law

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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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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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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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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