A Quantum of Meruit

quantumA high-profile fee dispute led to holdings that (1) an attorney can recover in quantum meruit in connection with an oral contingent fee agreement, notwithstanding the other legal problems with such agreements; (2) legally sufficient evidence of the attorney’s “valuable compensable global settlement services” supported the verdict on his quantum meruit theory; (3) claimed error on the narrow scope of a fiduciary duty instruction was not preserved without a specific objection to the scope issue; and (4) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing a spoliation instruction, when evidence showed that the destruction of the relevant emails resulted from a routine upgrade process.  Shamoun & Norman, LLP v. Hill, No. 05-13-01634-CV (Jan. 26, 2016).  The Court rendered judgment on quantum meruit.

No implied consent = No declaratory judgment

no consentWhile otherwise affirming the plaintiffs’ victory in an easement dispute, the Dallas Court of Appeals struck a portion of the trial court’s declaratory judgment related to the legal rights associated with that easement.  The Court found no request for judgment on that matter in the plaintiffs’ live pleading or summary judgment motion, and also found that general discussion of the applicable city regulations had been offered for other purposes.  The Court reminded: “[A]n issue is not tried by consent when evidence relevant to the unpleaded issue is also relevant to a pleaded issue because admitting that evidence would not be calculated to elicit an objection and its admission would not prove the parties’ ‘clear intent’ to try the unpleaded issue.”  United Services Pyramid Group v. Hurt, Noi. 05-14-00108-CV (Dec. 7, 2015) (mem. op.)

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

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

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

Old Judgment Leads to Loss of Claims in Current Litigation

For over a decade, Sun Tec Computer has been tied up in litigation with its officers and shareholders in Tarrant County. At least one of those former officers formed Tax Debt Acquisition Company and used it to purchase an unpaid judgment against Sun Tec, then filed an application for a turnover order in Dallas County to enforce the judgment. The turnover order was not appealed, and the receiver auctioned off Sun Tec’s claims against the Tarrant County litigants to TDAC. That act of legal jujitsu meant that Sun Tec could no longer proceed with its claims against the shareholders and officers. Sun Tec filed a new suit for a declaratory judgment that the turnover order and the sale of its claims were invalid, but the trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the declaratory judgment was an invalid collateral attack on the turnover order, and that the order itself was not void.

Sun Tec Computer, Inc. v. Recovar Group, LLC, No. 05-14-00257-CV

Implied Accusation of Welfare Fraud Supports Libel Claim

In 2013, D Magazine published an article that labeled Janay Bender Rosenthal as “The Park Cities Welfare Queen,” based on her receipt of benefits under the Supplemental Nutriotional Assistance Program. Rosenthal sued for libel, and the trial court denied the magazine’s anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals affirmed, over the dissent of Justice Brown. The majority held that Rosenthal had established a prima facie case for defamation because the “gist” of the article was an accusation of welfare fraud, which the opinion backs up with a colorful history of the term “welfare queen.” Justice Brown disagreed, arguing that the article was a satirical critique of a welfare system “that allows a woman with a criminal history of theft, living in a million-dollar home, and taking advantage of the highly rated school system of a wealthy enclave, to collect food stamps.”

D Magazine Partners, L.P. v. Rosenthal (majority), No. 05-12-00951-CV

D Magazine Partners, L.P. v. Rosenthal (dissent)

Evidence Held to Be Insufficient on Interlocutory Appeal Is Still Insufficient on Summary Judgment

In early 2012, the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed a temporary injunction that would have prevented BB&T from foreclosing on a pair of properties secured by a $10 million promissory note. Two and a half years later, matters have not improved for the borrowers, as the Court has now affirmed summary judgment for the bank.

In responding to the no-evidence summary judgment motion, the borrowers had “relied entirely on evidence presented at the temporary judgment hearing” to show that they had a valid contract with BB&T that superseded the bank’s right to foreclose. Because the Court had previously held that this evidence amounted to nothing more than an unenforceable “agreement to agree,” the law of the case doctrine prevented the outcome from being any different in this subsequent appeal. The same evidence was also held to be insufficient to support the borrowers’ claims for fraud and declaratory judgment, while a money had and received claim failed because the borrowers had made a $1.8 million payment with full knowledge of the facts and without fraud or duress. Finally, the trial court had not abused its discretion by striking the borrowers’ fifth amended petition because it had been filed outside the deadline in the court’s scheduling order, was not filed with leave of court, and was prejudicial to the bank because it sought to add a claim that “would effectively inject new substantive matters into the litigation by reinjecting old ones.”

TCI Luna Ventures, LLC v. Branch Banking & Tr. Co., No. 05-13-01221-CV

It Takes Evidence to Dispute Ownership of a Promissory Note

The guarantors of a construction loan agreement and promissory note sought to avoid a deficiency judgment by disputing a successor bank’s summary judgment evidence that it was the holder of the note. The Dallas Court of Appeals was having none of that oft-repeated claim. In the absence of controverting evidence, affidavit testimony and a copy of the note are sufficient to prove it up for summary judgment purposes, and an affidavit is likewise sufficient to establish ownership or assignment of the note. Because none of the summary judgment evidence contradicted the bank’s affidavit testimony, summary judgment for the deficiency was properly granted. The Court went on to rule that the bank was not required to include a complete history of payment activity on the account as part of its summary judgment evidence, and that the guarantors’ own affidavits did not create a fact issue on the issue of the property’s fair market value.

Cha v. Branch Banking & Trust Co., No. 05-14-00926-CV