A welcome amendment to the Fifth Circuit rules

As most of you know, the word limits for briefs filed in U.S. Courts of Appeals were recently reduced (e.g. from 14,000 words to 13,000 for opening briefs). Perhaps to offset the effect of that amendment on some cases, the U.S. Fifth Circuit is proposing an amendment to 5th Cir. R. 32.4 that will make it easier to obtain leave to file a brief in excess of the word limit. If promulgated, the new rule will do two things:

  1. While parties will still be required to file their motion for leave at least 10 days before their briefing deadline, they will no longer have to file a draft copy of the brief along with the motion.
  2. The court is removing the language saying that “[t]he court looks upon such motions with great disfavor and will grant them only for extraordinary and compelling reasons.”

The court is accepting comments on the proposed change through March 6, 2017. To read the text of the proposed amendment and to comment electronically, follow this link.


In praise of night law school

Pardon me for going a little off-topic here. As a graduate of Loyola Law School’s evening division, I especially enjoyed this article by Jill Switzer at Above the Law. From my experience, everything she says about the determination and work ethic of night law students is true. It’s a tough way to earn a law degree, but most who do so end up with much lower student debt because during the day, they’ve been working for a living. So here’s a shout-out and a salute to all students and graduates of night law school.


Two cases of interest to appellate lawyers.

The Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel’s January 2017 newsletter discusses two cases of interest to lawyers practicing in Louisiana’s appellate courts:

  • In Nabors Offshore Corp. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 2016-0003 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/30/16), the Fourth Circuit reminds us that a denial of a supervisory writ is not a decision on the merits, even when accompanied by the comment of “no error” in the trial court’s judgment. “[A] denial of a writ application is of no precedential value, regardless of the reasons assigned. That is, a writ denial is not precedential for any purpose; it is merely a statement that the court is declining to exercise its supervisory jurisdiction to review the issues addressed at that time.” Id. at 7.

  • Urquhart v. Spencer, 2015-1354 c/w 2015-1355 (La. App. 4 Cir. 12/1/16), provides a lesson about the form of a final, appealable judgment. A final judgment must contain decretal language, meaning that it “must name the party in favor of whom the ruling is ordered, the party against whom the ruling is ordered, and the relief that is granted or denied.” Id. at 3. The judgment in this multi-defendant case recited that it was against “defendants,” without naming which defendants were cast in judgment and without assigning percentages of fault. Because the judgment lacked the required decretal language, it was not final or appealable. Thus, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal.

When not to file a motion for new trial.

Let’s say that the defendant in a civil action files a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court denies the motion. Should the defendant file a motion for new trial seeking reconsideration of the summary-judgment motion? The answer is probably “no.” One of two things can happen, and both of them are bad.

One bad thing that can happen is that the motion for new trial is denied. That’s bad because, by the time the motion for new trial is decided, it will probably be too late to apply to the court of appeal for a supervisory writ to review the denial of summary judgment. A denial of summary judgment is an interlocutory judgment, not a final judgment. Louisiana’s appellate courts agree that, according to the Code of Civil Procedure, a motion for new trial is a means for the trial court to reconsider a final judgment—it is not a proper vehicle to seek reconsideration of an interlocutory judgment. See, e.g., Winston v. Martin, 34,424, p. 3 (La. App. 2 Cir. 9/21/00), 801 So. 2d 389, 391–92. One upshot of this rule is that a purported motion for new trial seeking reconsideration of an interlocutory judgment does not suspend or interrupt the 30-day time to apply to the court of appeal for a supervisory writ. Thus, by the time the trial court rules on the motion for new trial, it will probably be too late to seek the court of appeal’s supervisory review of the denial of summary judgment. See Clement v. American Motorists Ins. Co., 98-504, pp. 3–4 (La. App. 3 Cir. 2/3/99), 735 So. 2d 670, 672; Carter v. Rhea, 2001-0234 (La. App. 4 Cir. 4/25/01), 785 So. 2d 1022.

But what if the trial court grants a new trial, reconsiders its earlier ruling, and grants summary judgment? That’s bad too, at least if the appeal goes to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit. In a line of cases presenting that scenario, the Fourth Circuit has reversed or vacated the trial court’s judgment as procedurally flawed because—again—the Code of Civil Procedure does not authorize a motion for new trial to reconsider an interlocutory judgment. See Magallanes v. Norfolk So. Ry., 2009-0605, pp. 3-5 (La. App. 4 Cir. 10/14/09), 23 So. 3d 985, 988-89Marshall v. Air Liquide-Big Three, Inc., 2009-1304 (La. App. 4 Cir. 3/3/10), 2010 WL 8972037; Daniels v. SMG Crystal, LLC, 2013-0761, pp. 9-12 (La. App. 4 Cir. 12/4/13), 128 So. 3d 1272, 1276-78. A couple of weeks ago, the Fourth Circuit extended this rule to vacate a judgment granting new trial and sustaining a peremptory exception. Llopis v. State, Dept. of Health & Hosps., 2016-0041 (La. App. 4 Cir. 12/14/16), — So. 3d —.

“But wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “If a denial of summary judgment is interlocutory, can’t that interlocutory judgment be reconsidered any time before trial on the merits?” Of course it can. According to the Fourth Circuit, the proper way  to seek the trial court’s reconsideration is to re-file the summary-judgment motion, with all attachments. Magallanes, p. 4, 23 So. 3d at 988; Daniels, p. 10, 128 So. 3d at 1277; Condon v. Logan, 2015-0797, p. 9 (La. App. 4 Cir. 3/30/16), 190 So. 3d 778, 784Carter, 785 So. 2d at 1026 (Tobias, J., concurring).

For a critique of this Fourth Circuit rule, read Judge Murray’s reluctant concurrence in Marshall. Meanwhile, if your peremptory exception or summary-judgment motion is erroneously denied, your best move is probably to go straight to the court of appeal with an application for a supervisory writ. Your chance of success there will probably be better than the chance of changing the trial judge’s mind.

 


Recent grants of certiorari by the LASC

Last Friday, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari in four civil cases. Here is a quick rundown of those cases:

Huval v. State ex rel. Dept. of Public Safety & Corrections, 2016-CC-1857. This case presents a question of subject-matter jurisdiction. The two plaintiffs were terminated from their employment by the Louisiana State Police. They appealed their terminations to the State Police Commission, a body with authority similar to that of the Civil Service Commission. The Commission overturned their terminations and suspended them. The State Police appealed the Commission’s decision to the Louisiana First Circuit, which reversed one plaintiff’s termination and upheld the other plaintiff’s suspension. The plaintiffs then filed a civil action for damages against the State Police, alleging defamation, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. As damages, they claimed loss of earnings  and earning capacity, loss of benefits, and loss of employment. The State Police pleaded a declinatory exception of lack of personal jurisdiction, arguing that the Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’ claims. The 19th JDC overruled the exception. The First Circuit, splitting 2-1, granted a supervisory writ and affirmed the 19th JDC’s judgment, with Judge McClendon dissenting. To read the First Circuit’s decision, follow this link.

Successions of Toney, 2016-C-1534. The issue in this case is the validity of a notarial testament. The trial court found that the testament’s failed to comply with La. Civ. Code art. 1577 and nullified the testament. The First Circuit affirmed 2-1, with Judge Higginbotham dissenting. To read the First Circuit’s decision, follow this link.

Acurio v. Acurio, 2016-C-1395. The issue in this case is the admissibility of a purported prenuptial agreement in the trial of a property settlement. The prenuptial agreement was executed four days before the marriage, between a notary and just one witness. (Under La. Civ. Code art. 1833, an authentic act requires two witnesses.) The plaintiff acknowledged the agreement under oath, but not until after the marriage. The trial court held that the agreement was null and therefore inadmissible. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that no time limit exists to acknowledge an act under private signature. This ruling appears to have created a circuit split; the Second Circuit acknowledged two decisions supporting the plaintiff’s argument for nullity. To read the Second Circuit’s decision, follow this link.

Safford v. Hammerman & Gainer Int’l, Inc., 2016-C-1591. The plaintiff, a former employee of the New Orleans Fire Department, filed a worker’s compensation claim against the Department for supplemental earnings benefits. The Department argued that the claim was prescribed. The issue is whether prescription is subject to an estoppel exception, applicable when an employer lulls an employee into a false sense of security and thus prevents the employee from timely making a claim. The trial court found estoppel inapplicable and sustained the Department’s exception of prescription. The Fourth Circuit reversed. To read the Fourth Circuit’s decision, follow this link. Although there was no evidence of any intent to mislead the plaintiff, the Fourth Circuit found that the circumstances resulted in the plaintiff’s “reasonable confusion” about the status of his claim.

To sum up: these four decisions include two cases with dissenting opinions in the court of appeal, one case where the court of appeal disagreed with the trial court, and one case appearing to create a circuit split. In short, they are all cases in which reasonable judges could reach differing conclusions. This common thread is something to consider the next time you apply to the Louisiana Supreme Court for a writ of review.


High-quality appellate CLE is coming to New Orleans.

If you will need specialized appellate CLE next year, then mark your calendars. The 2017 DRI Appellate Advocacy Seminar will be held in New Orleans on May 11–12. In case the link doesn’t work for you, here’s the blurb:

This program features presentations on the impact of various technological advances on brief writing, certification of issues to a state court, and the role of insurance on appeal. We also will offer guidance on brief writing and preparation for argument in the context of en banc review, and discuss strategic considerations when the government is a party to your appeal. This year, we are adding a panel of in-house counsel, who will offer their insight on the appeal process and effective management of appeals. And for the first time, our highly regarded mock argument will be held at the United States District Court, just blocks from our hotel.


Is it okay to copy someone else’s brief?

Would you believe that copying someone else’s brief could be a copyright infringement? Believe it. In Newegg Inc. v. Ezra Sutton, P.A., 120 U.S.P.Q.2d 1111, 2016 BL 299780 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 13, 2016), the draft brief’s author sued the copying lawyer for copyright infringement. The court granted the author a partial summary judgment on liability, rejecting the copying lawyer’s defense of fair use. (Hat tip to Dane Ciolino, Louisiana Legal Ethics.)

Newegg does seem to be a rare case. According to the decision, the plaintiff had a registered copyright on its draft brief. How often does anyone register a copyright on a draft brief? Still, this is not the first time that a lawyer got in trouble for filing a brief that was, in essence, someone else’s work product. A few years ago, an Iowa lawyer was sanctioned by a bankruptcy court and disciplined by the Iowa Supreme Court for filing a brief that copied liberally from an article written by two other lawyers. Both courts concluded that, by lifting his argument almost verbatim from the article, the lawyer committed plagiarism. Iowa Supreme Ct. Disciplinary Bd. v. Cannon, 789 N.W.2d 756 (Iowa 2010); In re Burghoff, 374 B.R. 681 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2007). More recently, a lawyer representing Lindsay Lohan was ordered to pay $1,500 in sanctions for copying her brief from unattributed sources and filing a misleading letter with the court in response to the allegation of plagiarism. Lohan v. Perez, 924 F. Supp. 2d 447 (E.D.N.Y. 2013).

These stories provide two lessons. First, always, always cite your sources. That’s easy. The second lesson is more difficult: do your own writing. If you like someone else’s brief so much that you want to reuse it, don’t just copy it. If court rules allow you to simply adopt another party’s brief, do that. If you can’t (e.g. if the brief was filed in a different case), then make the argument your own. Read and understand the authorities cited in the brief. Vet those authorities yourself to make sure they’re good law. Explain in your own words how the authorities apply to your case. Be a lawyer. Don’t be a hack.

For more thoughts on the murky area between plagiarism and legitimate copying, read Beg, Borrow, Steal: Plagiarism v. Copying in Legal Writing, Calif. Litig. vol. 26 No. 3 at 14 (2013), by Benjamin Shatz and Colin McGrath.


Silly briefwriting conventions: Overuse of parenthetical shorthand names

Some briefwriting conventions are downright silly. One of the silliest is the compulsion to parenthetically define shorthand names for all persons and companies mentioned in a brief. For example, when the only Flintstone mentioned in a brief is Fred, you’ll see the first reference to him as “Fred Flintstone (‘Flintstone’).” Similarly, you’ll see “State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (‘State Farm’)” even when it’s the only State Farm company mentioned in the brief.

Where did this silly briefwriting convention come from? It seems to have come from the world of contract drafting. Contracts require defined terms, including definitions of the parties. Contract drafters often find it useful to create a defined shortened form of a party’s name. An easy way to do this is to put the defined term in quotation marks and parentheses after the party’s name. See Kenneth A. Adams, A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting § 1.62 (2d ed. 2008). People see this in contracts, conclude that it’s the “legal” way to write, and transfer the custom to briefwriting.

A brief is not a contract. In a brief, you don’t need to create defined shortened names for everyone when there’s no risk of reader confusion. If Fred Flintstone is the only Flintstone mentioned in the brief, refer to him by his full name the first time he appears—without the parenthetical “(‘Flintstone’)”—and after that, just refer to him as “Flintstone.” Everyone will know you’re talking about Fred. No one will wonder whether you’re talking about Wilma.

The same goes for companies. The exception is when you have, say, two State Farm companies mentioned in the same brief. In that instance, you may need to define shorthand names to avoid confusion:

  • State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm Auto”)
  • State Farm Fire and Casualty Insurance Company (“State Farm Fire”)

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to what Bryan Garner and the late Justice Scalia said about this:

Give the reader credit for having a brain—and show that you have one, too. Don’t leave your common sense at the door. If your brief repeatedly refers to the Secretary of Transportation and mentions no other Secretary, it is silly to specify parenthetically, the first time you mention the Secretary of Transportation, “(hereinafter ‘the Secretary’).” No one will think that your later references to “the Secretary” denote the Secretary of Defense, or perhaps your own secretary.

Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges § 44, at 113 (2008). See also Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style §§ 4.5 and 7.4 (2d ed. 2002).