An interest-ing case . . .

interesting-memePlaintiffs won a lawsuit against their landlord about the handling of their security deposit. The Fifth Court affirmed, reversing only as to prejudgment interest. While the parties’ lease said that “[a]ny person who is a prevailing party in any legal proceeding brought under or related to the transaction described in this lease is entitled to recover prejudgment interest,” the plaintiffs recovered based on section 92.109(a) of the Property Code, which allows recovery of statutory penalties in the event of a landlord’s bad faith retention of the security deposit. Because “[p]rejudgment interest does not apply to statutory penalties imposed for wrongdoing,” and the underlying statute did not provide for recovery of prejudgment interest, the interest award could not stand. Frazin v. Sauty, No. 05-15-00879-CV (Nov. 6, 2016) (mem. op.)

Disorgement 101

disgorgement memeIn Cooper v. Campbell, the Fifth Court reviewed the key principles that govern “equitable remedies such as disgorgement and forfeiture to remedy a breach of fiduciary duty” —

  • “The central purpose of forfeiture as an equitable remedy is not to compensate the injured principal, but to protect relationships of trust by discouraging disloyalty.
  • “Disgorgement is compensatory in the same sense as attorney fees, interest, and costs, but it is not damages. . . . In fact, a claimant need not prove actual damages to succeed on a claim for forfeiture because they address different wrongs. In addition to serving as a deterrent, forfeiture can serve as restitution to a principal who did not receive the benefit of the bargain due to his agent’s breach of fiduciary duty. . . .”
  • “The amount of disgorgement is based on the circumstances and is within the trial court’s discretion.”

The Court then remanded for more fulsome consideration of factors identifed in ERI Consulting Engineers v. Swinnea, 318 S.W.3d 867 (Tex. 2010). No. 05-15-00340-CV (Aug. 24, 2016) (mem. op.) On the general subject of disgorgement, other useful references from the Fifth Court are its recent opinion in Premier Pools Management Corp. v. Premier Pools Inc., and McCullough v. Scarbrough, Medlin & Associates, 435 S.W.3d 871, 904 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2014, pet. denied).

A splashy trademark case

splashIn Premier Pools Management Corp. v. Premier Pools Inc., the Fifth Court found that a successful trademark plaintiff had established sufficient evidence of secondary meaning for the phrase “Premier Pools,” noting — in particular — the plaintiff’s proof about its advertising about and long use of the name, as well as the testimony of nine impartial witnesses about the issue of confusion. Similar evidence supported the findings for liability, damages, and disgorgement. The Court reversed the related declaratory judgment (and with it, the attorney’s fees award), finding that the “claim added nothing and provided access to no remedy that was not otherwise available . . . ” No. 05-14-01388-CV (Aug. 12, 2016) (mem. op.)

Fraud claims affirmed for “dream home” gone wrong

hale v bishop house 2The Hales sued their homebuilder for fraud and violation of the DTPA, alleging serious problems with the foundation of their Rockwall home (right).  They substantially succeeded at trial, and the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed in large part in Bishop Abbey Homes, Ltd. v. Hale, No. 05-14-00137-CV (Dec. 16, 2015) (mem. op.)  In particular, the Court affirmed as to limitations – a significant issue in this long-simmering dispute – noting that “each time the Hales raised a concern about the foundation, they were assured by one of appellants’ experts that the foundation was not the cause of the problems the Hales observed.”  The court also affirmed as to sufficiency challenges to liability, several claims of improper closing argument, and a challenge to the the basis of the exemplary damages award based on constitutional and Kraus factors. The court requested a remittitur as to (a) mental anguish damages (for sufficiency reasons) above $208,856 per plaintiff; and (b) a portion of the additional/exemplary damages award, based on the applicable cap and the conclusion that the total award “exceeds the guidelines set forth in [Bennett v. Reynolds, 315 S.W.3d 867 (Tex. 2010)] and [Tony Gullo Motors I, LP v. Chapa, 212 S.W.3d 299 (Tex. 2006)] for the type of harm suffered by the Hales as a result of appellants’ conduct.”

Restricted Appeal Sets Aside Damages for Backyard Debacle

Sylvester Davis sued TexPro Construction Group after the contractor failed to complete a backyard construction project. When TexPro failed to file an answer, Davis sought and obtained a partial default judgment on liability. TexPro then answered, but Davis moved forward with a hearing to establish damages. TexPro did not appear at the hearing, and the trial court awarded judgment for $117,230 in compensatory damages, treble damages under the DTPA and $350,000 in exemplary damages. After blowing through the deadlines for an ordinary appeal, TexPro hired new counsel and filed a restricted appeal. The Court of Appeals held that there was no error on the face of the record just because TexPro’s registered agent had been served at a location different from the address listed on the citation. The Court also held that there was no error in the trial court’s decision to move forward with the damages hearing, since the filing of TexPro’s answer did not negate the previously-signed default judgment on liability. However, Davis’ testimony on damages was the full amount of the money paid to TexPro, without accounting for the value of the work that TexPro had actually performed. Because his affidavit testimony was conclusory in alleging that the work done was valueless, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages.

TexPro Constr. Group, LLC v. Davis, No. 05-14-00050-CV

Intrinsic vs. Inherent Value in an Insurance Dispute

Bruce Bernstein wrecked his Porsche, then sued his insurer for violations of the Insurance Code and DTPA. An appraiser valued the car at $4900, and Safeco had tendered a check for $5287.50. The trial court granted summary judgment for Safeco, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Bernstein could not recover under the prompt payment provisions of the Insurance Code because Safeco had timely paid the appraisal award, nor could he recover for bad faith because he did not appeal the adverse judgment on his breach of contract claim. Bernstein also could not recover on his fraud claim because he could not identify any misrepresentation by Safeco that would have led him to believe the insurer would cover “the true value of the car,” which he apparently claimed to be “the investment he made to the Porsche beyond the basic value of the car.”

Bernstein v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill., No. 05-13-01533-CV

Follow the Contract If You Want to Recover Liquidated Damages

G.C. Buildings hired RGS Contractors to build an apartment complex in Oklahoma, funded by a $7 million loan insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The contract provided that the date of final completion was the date that the HUD’s representative signed its final “Trip Report,” which turned out not to be signed until 161 days after the completion of work date called for in the contract. The construction contract contained a liquidated damages clause providing for a daily deduction from the contract price for each day past the construction deadline, but G.C. did not make any such deductions, instead paying the contractor in full. More than two years later, G.C. sued RGS in an attempt to recover either actual or liquidated damages. After a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the contractor, finding that G.C. had not established a proper measure of damages for breach of contract.

G.C. argued that the interest payments it made during the period of the construction delays constituted its damages, but the Court of Appeals rejected that claim because G.C. was obligated to make those payments regardless of when or whether the construction on the apartment complex was completed. As to liquidated damages, the Court held that such damages could not be recovered because G.C. had not followed the procedures of the contract to determine whether a flat $2,101.68 charge or the actual cost of interest, taxes, and other fees should have been deducted from its payments to the contractor. Thus, the trial court’s findings were supported by legally and factually sufficient evidence, and the judgment was affirmed.

G.C. Buildings, Inc. v. RGS Contractors, Inc., No. 05-13-00151-CV

Invalid Assumptions Doom Expert Damages Opinion

In this legal malpractice case, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s expert opinion as based on invalid assumptions.  The expert opined that the value of sale of an interest in certain oil and gas wells would have been $960,000 greater in April 2008, when the interest should have sold but for a law firm’s malpractice.  Among other faulty assumptions, the Court noted that the expert wrongly assumed that (1) the later sale, in September 2008, was a simple asset sale, when, in fact, it involved a partial settlement of a lawsuit; (2) the projections of actual drilling costs, as opposed to actual results, were the proper measure of costs; and (3) that wells would have been drilled at a certain specified rate.

Thompson & Knight v. Patriot Exploration LLC

Mental Anguish Damages Award Reversed

In this restricted appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in entering a default judgment against it in the absence of evidence establishing mental anguish damages.  Because the trial court received testimony of the plaintiffs physical injuries form a slip and fall, and no testimony on mental anguish, and because there was no way to distinguish between the award of mental anguish damages and those awarded for past physical pain, the judge’s award of $20,000 constitutes error on the face of the record.

Center Operating Co. v. Duncan

A Good Problem to Have

An employer sued its former employee for misappropriating funds from the company, alleging multiple causes of action, including breach of contract, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the employer on all counts and awarded economic and punitive damages.  The trial court also awarded the employer attorneys’ fees based on its breach of contract claim.

On appeal, among other things, the employee argued that the trial court’s damages award violated the one-satisfaction rule, which limits a plaintiff who suffers a single injury to damages based on only one cause of action.  The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that “when a defendant’s acts result in a single injury and the jury returns favorable findings on two or more theories of liability, the plaintiff has the right to a judgment on the theory entitling him to the greatest or most favorable relief.”  Consequently, the Court set aside the attorneys’ fees and statutory damages awarded by the trial court, and awarded the employer economic and exemplary damages under its breach of fiduciary duty claim (which does not provide for the recovery of attorneys’ fees) because that result gave the employer its largest recovery.

McCullough v. Scarbrough, Medlin & Assocs.