No meeting of the minds = reversal of $20 million contract judgment

meeting of the mindsHighland Capital won a judgment for over $20 million based on the alleged breach of a contract by RBC Capital to sell a package of notes.  RBC Capital Markets, LLC v. Highland Capital Management, LP, No. 05-13-00948-CV (Dec. 4, 2015) (mem. op.) The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed, finding no enforceable contract.  The Court first reviewed the protean doctrines of judicial admissions and judicial estoppel, ultimately concluding that statements made by RBC in other litigation were not preclusive in this case, noting that RBC did not ultimately prevail in the other matter.  It then rejected Highland’s argument that a contract was formed when the parties agreed upon “price and principal,” noting that RBC’s acceptance was expressly subject to further documentation (specifically, a written trade confirmation and purchase agreement). The Court noted that, as alleged by Highland, the claimed breach involved matters that remained to be resolved in those subsequent documents.  (Another “conditional agreement” case is discussed today on sister blog 600Camp.)

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

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

Collections

A guarantor ignored the efforts of a court-appointed receiver to collect on an agreed judgment and subsequent turnover orders. The debtor eventually paid the judgment, but Frost Bank sought recovery of additional attorney fees incurred in enforcing the judgment. The trial court awarded $160,000 in attorney fees and approved the receiver’s fee of $129,000. The Court of Appeals reversed as to the attorney fees, holding that fees could not be recovered based on the contractual guarantee because the bank’s claims under that instrument were merged with and extinguished by the final judgment. Nor could post-judgment attorney fees be awarded under the turnover statute because the defendant had actually paid the judgment. However, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in approving the receiver’s fee — calculated as 10% of the sale proceeds from the defendant’s stock — as the court had conducted a hearing and determined that the fee was fair, reasonable, and necessary.

Evans v. Frost Nat’l Bank, No. 05-12-01491

I Accept Your Offer and Ask for More

The appeal of an oil and gas dispute has led to a multi-million dollar swing in favor of the appellants. The district court had granted a $14 million summary judgment in favor of the seller of oil and gas interests located in New Mexico. The fact scenario is somewhat complex, but the essence seems to be that Three Rivers Operating Co. offered to sell its interests in five properties to MRC Permian Co. pursuant to a preferential purchase right provision in their joint operating agreement. MRC accepted that proposal, for a purchase price of just under $7 million, and further wrote that it was exercising a preferential right to purchase “one hundred percent (100%) of Three Rivers’ interest in the land comprising the Contract Area . . . .” Three Rivers responded to say that there were actually 10 properties for sale for approximately $14 million. MRC then wrote back that it was ready to move forward on Three Rivers’ original offer, but Three Rivers nevertheless concluded that MRC had agreed to buy all ten properties. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court entered judgment for Three Rivers, requiring MRC to specifically perform the $14 million deal. The Court of Appeals reversed and rendered judgment for MRC that there was only a $7 million contract for the original five properties.

Three Rivers argued that the initial $7 million offer had been made under a mistaken interpretation of the preferential purchase right clause, and that MRC did not accept that offer in any event because its acceptance letter was actually a counteroffer to buy all of Three Rivers’ interests covered by the JOA. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that MRC did not condition its acceptance of the $7 million offer on Three Rivers’ assent to sell any additional properties. So long as it is clear that the acceptance is positive and unequivocal, a contract is formed regardless of whether the offeree makes additional requests at the same time. And when Three Rivers offered to sell all 10 of its properties, that was not an acceptance of an offer by MRC to purchase “100%” of Three Rivers’ interests. MRC had not stated the essential terms of a contract, including purchase price, nor did MRC’s letter indicate any acceptance of a prior offer by MRC. Instead, Three Rivers’ $14 million offer letter was an independent offer of its own, and MRC did not accept it in the manner specified by Three Rivers. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the trial court’s judgment, rendered judgment for MRC on the $7 million contract, and remanded for consideration of MRC’s costs and attorney fees.

MRC Permian Co. v. Three Rivers Operating Co., No. 05-14-00353-CV

Appellate Courts Can’t Fix Everything for You

A short opinion helps to illustrate the limited reach of an appellate court’s authority over the cases before it. On interlocutory appeal, both litigants agreed that the trial court should have vacated an order appointing a receiver in Texas to serve ancillary to a primary receivership in Minnesota. But in addition to vacting the order appointing the receiver, the appellant also wanted the Court of Appeals to undo all the receiver’s actions. That was beyond the appellate court’s powers however. Pointing to TRAP 43.2, the Court held that it could affirm, modify, reverse and render, reverse and remand, vacate, or dismiss — none of which permitted the Court to grant the additional relief sought by the appellant.

Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Co. LP v. Verde Minerals, LLC, No. 05-15-00014-CV

Arbitration Ordered Based on Poorly-Drafted Arbitration Clause

The Dallas Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court order denying a motion to compel arbitration. The arbitration clause was contained in a contract between a temporary employee and his employment agency, which gave both parties the right to “elect mandatory, binding arbitration for any claim, dispute, or controversy between you, and our clients or us” [sic]. The plaintiff claimed that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable due to substantive unconscionability, lack of consideration, and lack of essential terms. The Court held that nothing in the arbitration agreement demonstrated that the specific manner of arbitration was a material consideration to the parties, noting that the FAA specifically contemplates circumstances in which the parties have not provided for a method of appointment for an arbitrator. The Court also held that the consideration for the overall contract was sufficient to support the arbitration clause as well. Finally, the Court held that the provision was not substantively unconscionable despite its inclusion of a waiver of the right “to take any legal action” because it was not clear that potentially-unconscionable waiver was actually aimed at waiving substantive claims instead of just waiving the right to do so in court instead of arbitration.

Stride Staffing v. Holloway, No. 05-14-00811-CV

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Yes, Your Online Reviews Are Protected by the TCPA

A nasty Zillow review of a real estate agent prompted a defamation lawsuit, which these days pretty much inevitably leads to a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens’ Participation Act. In this instance, the agent had listed the seller’s house as “temporarily off market” instead of “active.” The Collin County trial court denied the seller’s motion to dismiss, but the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed. The seller’s claim that the agent had listed the house as being off market for “over 100 days” was incorrect, but the Court held that the falsity of that statement was immaterial because the agent had actually listed the property that was for 64 days instead. The plaintiffs also failed to establish that listing the house as off market was in accordance with the seller’s instructions, as her complaint that she “did not want her property shown” was not the equivalent of asking it to be listed as “temporarily off market.” Finally, the plaintiffs could not base their defamation case on the seller’s statement that the agent was “incompetent, mentally unstable, or raging from rejection” because those were non-actionable statements of opinion. The Court therefore rendered judgment for the defendant and remanded for a determination of her costs and recoverable attorney fees.

Ruder v. Jordan, No. 05-14-01265-CV

Court Reverses Trial Court, Finding No Personal Jurisdiction Over Third-Party Defendant

In this case involving corporate infighting, the defendant filed a third-party claim against Troy Brown.  Mr. Brown filed a special appearance asserting that the court did not have personal jurisdiction, which the trial court denied.  Mr. Brown appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed, determining that Brown did not have minimum contacts with Texas such that he was subject to personal jurisdiction here.  The Court specifically found that several emails Brown sent to people in Texas did not “constitute a contact demonstrating purposeful availment.”

Brown v. Pennington