About Richard Smith

Richard Smith is a partner at Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox LLC.

Yes, You Can Be Required to Pay Fees and Costs for Losing a Motion to Compel

A personal injury case led to an award of $4500 in attorney fees against the defendants’ attorneys after they lost a motion to compel. Among other things, the defendants sought to designate certain documents as “ATTORNEYS EYES ONLY” and objected to 14 of 21 document requests on the basis of trade secret privilege — in a car wreck case. The county court at law overruled the vast majority of the defendants’ objections, and awarded the $4500 to the plaintiff. On appeal, the defendants’ attorneys argued that the award was a sanction that could not be justified by any offensive conduct. The Dallas Court of Appeals disagreed, pointing to the trial court’s order stating that the award of fees and costs was granted for securing orders overruling the defendants’ objections to the plaintiff’s discovery requests. That made it an award of expenses on a motion to compel, which is required (but rarely observed) by TRCP 215.1(d). Reviewing the course of the proceedings in the trial court, the Court of Appeals could not conclude that the trial court had abused its discretion in determining that the defendants’ resistance to the discovery had not been “substantially justified.”

MacDonald Devin, PC v. Rice, No. 05-14-00938-CV

Gun Deal Gone Bad

An opinion denying mandamus relief features one of the more awesome opening sentences in recent history:

“This case involves a gun in exchange for the design of a website deal gone badly.”

Who could have foreseen this becoming problematic? In any event, Thoroughbred Rifles, LLC failed to deliver the rifle promised for the design of its website, so Thomas King filed suit in a Harris County justice court for damages of less than $10,000. Thoroughbred subsequently filed suit in Collin county for damages between $100,000 and $200,000. The district court denied King’s plea in abatement and motion to transfer to Houston, and the Court of Appeals denied King’s mandamus petition. Because Thoroughbred’s damages exceeded the jurisdiction of the Harris County justice court, that court could not acquire dominant jurisdiction over them, making transfer of the claims impossible.

Good on Justice Schenck for the epic opening.

In re King, No. 05-15-01035-CV

On Indigence

While the slow season for opinions continues at the Dallas Court of Appeals, a short memorandum opinion provides a procedural lesson that could prove useful for any appellate attorney dealing with a pro se opponent. In this case, the appellant filed an affidavit of indigence with the trial court, seeking to avoid prepayment of costs under TRAP 20.1. The clerk challenged the appellant’s indigent status on September 15, and the court reporter contested the affidavit on September 17. But when multiple challenges to an affidavit of indigence are filed, the trial court still has to rule within 10 days of the first challenge. The trial court signed an order sustaining the court reporter’s challenge on October 6, well outside the 10-day period that should have run from September 15. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court had abused its discretion, reversed the order sustaining the contest to the pro se appellant’s indigence, and held that he could proceed with the appeal without advance payment of costs.

Bell v. Harris, No. 05-15-01117-CV

Side-Switching Attorney Leads to Disqualification and DWOP

After an automobile collision, the Gomez family sued Sol Ly for negligence. Ly was represented by the Herald law firm, which also employed attorney Tim Brandenburg. But while the suit was pending, Brandenburg left Herald to join the law firm of Domingo Garcia, which represented the plaintiffs. Based on the defendant’s oral objection, the trial court granted a mistrial and ordered the defendant to file a motion to disqualify, which was subsequently granted. The plaintiffs failed to obtain substitute counsel, and the case was dismissed for want of prosecution. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The plaintiffs’ pro se motion to reinstate the case following the dismissal challenged only the disqualification, and not the plaintiffs’ failure to appear at the new trial setting. Without a showing that the failure to appear was adequately justified, the Court of Appeals could not conclude that the trial court had abused its discretion in denying the motion to reinstate.

Gomez. v. Sol, No. 05-14-00893-CV

If You Might Be Violating Public Policy, Make Sure to Include an Arbitration Clause

Jenner & Block took on the representation of Parallel Networks in patent infringement litigation. Their contingency fee agreement provided that Parallel was responsible for the payment of expenses, but Parallel ran up a $500,000 deficit before expenses were finally paid out of proceeds from settlement in another lawsuit. Jenner withdrew from the case, citing a termination clause that allowed it to withdraw if continuing was not in its economic interest. After the patent cases settled under successor counsel, Jenner invoked arbitration and sought to recover $10 million in fees. The arbitrator ruled that Jenner’s withdrawal was justified and awarded $3 million as an “appropriate and fair” portion of the contingent fee recovery, as provided in the parties’ contract. The trial court confirmed the award, and the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court declined Parallel’s invitation to declare that the fee agreement was against public policy, holding that the statutory grounds for vacating an award under the FAA are exclusive, and that public policy therefore could not serve to vacate the award.

Parallel Networks, LLC v. Jenner & Block LLP, No. 05-13-00748-CV

Mistaken Nomenclature Negates Default Judgment

Deutsche Bank has won a restricted appeal to set aside a no-answer default judgment. The petition named the defendant as “DEUTSCHE BANK NATIONAL TRUST COMPANY, herein sued in its capacity as the Trustee for the Morgan Stanley ABS Capital 1 Inc., Trust 2006-NC5, Mortgage Pass Through Certificates, Series 2006-NC5.” But the clerk’s office issued a citation addressed to “Deutsche Bank National Trust Company as Trustee Company,” and that name was also used on the affidavit of service. Because the citation was addressed to the wrong party, the attempted service of process was invalid and the default judgment had to be set aside.

Deutsche Bank Nat’l Trust Co. v. Kingman Holdings, LLC, 05-14-00855-CV

In the Battle of Animal Control vs. Ayn Rand, the Court of Appeals Washes Its Hands. As Should We All.

One thing every lawyer in Texas learns early on is that if you want to challenge personal jurisdiction, you have to file a special appearance before you answer the petition. Critter Control, Inc. sought to avoid that waiver point by filing a motion to withdraw its original answer in favor of a subsequently filed special appearance, which the trial court denied. Critter Control filed for interlocutory appeal, and Galt Strategies, LLC filed a motion to dismiss for lack of appellate jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal because it did not challenge the denial of the special appearance, but the Court notably did not foreclose the stratagem of moving to withdraw the answer in order to assert the untimely special appearance.

Critter Control, Inc. v. Galt Strategies, LLC, No. 05-15-01011-CV

Witnesses Needed

After a night of drinking in Uptown, Shawn Strumph was found by a jogger the next morning in a creekbed beneath a bridge owned by CC-Turtle Creek. Medical records contained several versions of how he ended up there, including assault, jumping, or simply falling. Shawn and his parents sued for dram shop and premises liability, but the trial court granted no-evidence summary judgment on the element of proximate cause. Because Shawn remembered nothing of how his injuries happened, and because there were no witnesses to the incident, the plaintiffs could not carry their burden under any theory of liability.

Stumph v. Dallas Lemmon West, Inc., No. 05-14-01044-CV

FINRA v. AAA

A group of plaintiffs collectively named as Nemaha Water Services moved to compel arbitration before FINRA. In a cross-motion, Esposito Securities moved to compel arbitration before the AAA. The trial court denied Nemaha’s motion and granted Esposito’s, sending the case to AAA arbitration. In a hybrid interlocutory appeal and mandamus proceeding, the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed and sent the case to FINRA. Nemaha had signed a letter agreement in which it had agreed to pay Esposito 5% of the total consideration received in a qualifying investment or merger. The contract included a AAA arbitration provision, but the Court of Appeals held that clause was trumped by the FINRA rules, at least in this instance. The case turned on the question of whether Nemaha was a “customer” of Esposito, which would entitle it to invoke arbitration under the FINRA rules. Applying the ordinary meaning of “customer,” the Court held that Nemaha qualified even though it had not paid Esposito the contractual commission. Because Nemaha had contracted with Esposito — a member of FINRA — to purchase financial services for a fee, the Court concluded that Nemaha was entitled to invoke FINRA arbitration. The Court noted, however, that there is authority for the proposition that FINRA arbitration can be superseded by contract, although that was not the case this time.

Morford v. Esposito Sec., LLC, No. 05-14-01223-CV

Texas Supreme Court Update: OAG v. Weatherspoon

Last year, we reported on the Dallas Court of Appeals’ decision to affirm the trial court’s denial of the Office of Attorney General’s plea to the jurisdiction in a Whistleblower Act case. Today, the Texas Supreme Court has reversed and rendered, holding that the whistleblower’s report to her superior at OAG was not made to “an appropriate law enforcement authority,” as required by the Whistleblower Act. The plaintiff’s pleadings therefore failed to properly invoke the Act, meaning that OAG’s sovereign immunity was not waived.

Office of the Attorney Gen. v. Weatherspoon, No. 14-0582