After the storm – preparing for Harvey litigation

Five Tips for Hurricane Harvey Litigation (a version of this article is in this week’s Texas Lawbook)

In the course of reviewing the Fifth Circuit’s commercial cases for the 600 Camp blog, I have read many opinons about disputes arising from Hurricane Katrina cases. In light of the havoc recently created by Hurricane Harvey, I wanted to share five observations  to prepare for the litigation that will inevitably result.

  1. Record the facts.

Any lawsuit creates tension between the past and the future. The parties want to move on, and put the expense and stress of litigation behind them. But the legal case forces them to revisit the past.

That tension is particularly acute after a disaster such as Harvey, which forced people and businesses to endure incredible stress, while making them then revisit that trauma to protect their legal rights in court. The – entirely understandable – desire to move on, must be squared with the need to take the time to preserve evidence.

Consider St. Bernard Parish v. Lafarge North America, a case about the destruction of a bridge during Hurricane Katrina. While the parties offered extensive expert testimony about what caused the damage, the summary judgment proceedings turned in no small part on the facts of what happened during the storm, including facts established by photographs.

A party facing litigation should consider – as awkward as it can be while recovering from a life-disrupting event – what facts seem obvious now but may fade from memory as time goes on. To the extent possible, some thought should be given to:

  • maintaining electronic records, even if the hardware appears damaged at first blush;
  • writing down a “log” of relevant conversations and events about important events;
  • storing any relevant physical objects, for potential future analysis by experts; and
  • simply writing down basic information about names, addresses, phone numbers, and the like.

In a case arising from a natural disaster, courts will likely be forgiving as to claims of spoliation. But lost information is lost, and its absence can later effect the resolution of a legal case.

  1. Help the people.

The fact evidence in the Lafarge case also included eyewitness testimony, which proved critical to defeating the defendant’s summary judgment motion. Just as a photograph can deteriorate, a person’s memory can fade. And the likelihood of that occurring can only increase when the person is placed under the severe stress of a natural disaster.

Any “team” confronted with a legal challenge by Harvey ­– a business, a professional organization, or even a family – should be mindful of the psychological effects of that stress, and encourage counseling for depression, substance abuse, and other such problems when their first signs appear. Of course, that is a good practice in any event. But its potential side benefit to a legal case is real and worth remembering.

  1. Remember three definitions.

The factual and legal issues that will ultimately go to trial in cases about Harvey simply cannot be predicted with any specificity. But in the short run, three basic legal concepts are likely to pervade business dealings related to the storm:

  • The Texas pattern jury instruction about “duress” defines it as “the mental, physical, or economic coercion of another, causing that party to act contrary to his free will and interest.”
  • While “force majeure” is ordinarily defined by a specific contract, it generally refers to an “extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties,” and often does not excuse a party’s non-performance entirely, but only suspends it for the duration of the event.
  • Impossibility of performance” is defined by the Restatement (Second) of Contracts as occurring “[w]here, after a contract is made, a party’s performance is made impracticable without his fault by the occurrence of an event the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made, his duty to render that performance is discharged, unless the language or the circumstances indicate the contrary.”

Awareness of these concepts can potentially avoid problems down the road, as well as identify topics and issues that require special attention today.

  1. “Two-deep leadership.”

The Boy Scouts of America strictly follows a policy of “two-deep leadership,” under which two adults should be present at all times when interacting with youth. One benefit of that policy is to avoid “he-said, she-said” disputes between two eyewitnesses with no third–party corroboration. In the stress of dealing with the aftermath of Harvey, involving a business colleague or a friend in important discussions may help the future resolution of a legal matter, if a dispute arises about what was said in those discussions.

  1. Crowdsource, wisely.

For good or ill, social media has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina. Used judiciously, it can be a good source of information about late-breaking news or the reputation of a particular business. And it can provide a valuable outlet for self-expression after the trauma of Harvey.

But social media posts can survive much longer than the thoughts that prompted them, and rash comments about people or events can come back to haunt the person who makes an ill-advised post. Social media is a valuable conduit for information, and at the same time, it is a reliable creator and collector of potential evidence.

Conclusion

Faced with the reality of recovery from one of the worst storms in the nation’s history, planning for future litigation may seem to be a distant worry. But the foundation for that litigation is being put in place today, intentionally or unintentionally. These five basic ideas may provide ways to place that foundation in a more orderly manner, resulting in a stronger end product.

Mandamus Week continues . . .

The Discovery Channel may have has Shark Week, but the Fifth Court is having Mandamus Week. The most recent installment is In re: Commercial Metals, which involved a challenge to a protective order about a business’s trade secrets. The Court began by reminding, as to the basic requriements for a writ of mandamus, that “[a] trial court abuses its discretion if it orders discovery exceeding the scope permitted by the rules,” and that “[n]o adequate appellate remedy exists when the trial court compels production beyond the permissible bounds of discovery.” That said, the Court found no abuse of discretion in the particularized procedures used to limit use of the information by plaintiff’s “de facto in house counsel,” and denied the petition. The opinion provides useful guidance on a very practical and recurring issue in business disputes about the use of confidential information. No. 05-16-01214-CV (Aug. 29, 2017) (mem. op.)

Yes, you may have more than 30 minutes for those depositions.

Six tenants intervened in a code enforcement action, seeking to pursue class claims against the property owners. Defendants sought to take their depositions about issues regarding certification, the intervenors moved to quash, and the trial judge allowed the depositions to proceed, but for no more than thirty minutes each. The Fifth Court granted mandamus, finding that “the record includes no evidence or even argument regarding how a deposition of any length wqould cause intervenors to suffer harm or subject them to undue burden,” and also that the intervenors “lack an adequate remedy by appeal because the order severely compromises relators’ ability to present its case on the issue of class certification.” In re: Topletz, No. 05-17-00315-CV (Aug. 24, 2017).

No, you may not have merits discovery yet.

In a forceful statement against merits discovery before the resolution of a special appearance, the Fifth Court granted a writ of mandamus to require that “relator’s deposition be limited to matters directly relevant to the issue of jurisdiction if the deposition is taken before the trial court rules on relator’s special appearance,” because “Rule 120a requires discovery be limited to matters relevant to jurisdiciton prior to a ruling on a special appearance.” In re: Stanton, No. 05-17-00834-CV (Aug. 24, 2017) (mem. op.) (citing, inter aliaIn re: Doe, 444 S.W.3d 603, 608 (Tex. 2014)).

No air conditioning, but no recovery.

A law firm and its landlord sued one another; the landlord sought unpaid rent, while the firm sought recovery of moving expenses after air conditioning problems with the building became intolerable. The firm won, and as a result defeated the rent claim, but its damages were set aside by the Fifth Court because the firm did not establish their reasonableness: “In sum, there is no evidence that the cost to procure the new office space (such as the deposit) or to equip it (such as the new telephone system) was reasonable. There is no evidence that the direct moving expenses were reasonable. There is no evidence that the miscellaneous expenses, such as the payments for meals, gasoline, and recycling fees, were reasonable. The only evidence about the expenses is the bare fact that they were paid.” 701 Katy Building, LP v. John Wheat Gibson, P.C., No. 05-16-00193-CV (Aug. 24, 2017) (mem. op.)

No network, no personal jurisdiction.

The Fifth Court rejected the exercise of personal jurisdiction in Texas over a Mexican reinsurance broker in Cooper Gay Martinez del Rio y Asociados v. Elamex, S.A. de C.V., holding: “Cornerstone [Healthcare Group Holding, Inc. v. Nautic Management, 493 S.W.3d 65 (2016)] is distinguishable. CGM did not spearhead or direct appellees’ purchase of the Policy. CGM did not seek out appellees in Texas, insure appellees’ Texas assets, or seek to profit from business in Texas. Further, unlike in Cornerstone, there is no evidence CGM was created for or created subsidiary entities for the purpose of conducting business in Texas, and appellees do not allege this occurred. Rather, Elamex, a Mexican entity, contacted HUB, which began a chain of communications eventually leading to CGM, to find an insurer for its properties. Afirme, a Mexican entity that provided that Policy, sought reinsurance through CGM and paid a commission to CGM. At no point did CGM seek out a Texas company or Texas assets in order to benefit, profit, or take advantage of Texas such that it impliedly consented to suit here.” No. 05-16-01436-CV (Aug. 22, 2017) (mem. op.)

Paxton Attorneys’ Fees Mandamus #5

In the fifth appellate proceeding about payment of attorneys’ fees in the prosecution of Attorney General Paxton, the Fifth Court disapproved of a local rule that allowed a judge to depart from the standing fee schedule in particular cases (and thus here, for the payment of the prosecutors pro tem in the Paxton matter): “Rule 4.01B thwarts what we perceive to be the objectives of the [applicable] statute, which are to ensure by means of a duly adopted schedule that (1) appointed attorneys––in this case the prosecutors pro tem––are paid a fair, but not excessive, fee and (2) the commissioners court, which is tasked with the responsibility of settling and directing payments of accounts against the county, can more accurately project the expenses of a fiscal year and budget accordingly. By adopting local rule 4.01B, the Collin County judges partially abdicated to the individual judges the responsibility delegated to them collectively to determine the reasonable fee for appointed counsel and rendered illusory the legislative requirement of setting and applying a fee schedule.” In re Collin County, Texas, County Commissioners, No. 05-17-00634-CV et seq. (Aug. 21, 2017).

How much detail to grant a new trial? THIS much detail –

A new and important issue in Texas procedure has been the amount of detail required of a trial court in granting a motion for new trial. In the case of In re: BCH Development, the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed such an order, carefully laying out the framework for appellate review:

  1. The trial court’s reasons for a new trial must be both sufficiently specific and legally appropriate (satisfied here, where the court identified specific issues involving violation of limine orders, improper jury argument, and evidentiary sufficiency);
  2. Those reasons must be valid and correct. Here, (a) as to the limine order, the Fifth Court either found no violaton or a cure; (b) no incurably improper jury argument (and thus a waiver when there was not a contemporaneous objection); and (c) sufficient evidence on the issue of attorneys’ fees, noting that the amount awarded by the jury was “well within the range supported by” the testimony.

Accordingly, the Court conditionally granted the requested writ of mandamus. No. 05-16-01481-CV (Aug. 15, 2017).

 

“If” the forum selection clause was enforceable . . .

The parties’ dispute resolution provision said: “If the Dispute cannot be resolved by Customer and Supplier in accordance with Clause 32.1 [the Mandatory ADR Process], the Parties irrevocably agree that the Courts of England shall have exclusive jurisdiction.” Acknowledging that a writ of mandamus is potentialy available to enforce a forum selection clause, the Fifth Court denied the petitioners’ application here. Procedurally, “[b]oth parties presented evidence as to whether they engaged in the mandatory ADR process.” Legally, “The use of the term ‘if’ connotes a condition precedent that conditions performance rather than a covenant or promise.” Accordingly “[u]nder this record, the trial court did not clearly fail to analyze or apply the law correctly and, thus, did not abuse its discretion.” In re Atos IT, No. 05-17-00952-CV (Aug. 18, 2017) (mem. op.)