U.S. Supreme Court To Consider “Federal Officer” Removal By Tobacco Company

In Watson v. Philip Morris Companies, Inc., 420 F.3d 852 (8th Cir. 2005), plaintiffs brought a class action against a tobacco company for selling “Light” cigarettes allegedly in violation of the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The defendants removed to federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), which permits removal by any officer of the United States “or any person acting under that officer.” The district court and the Eight Circuit agreed that in following the FTC’s detailed instructions governing cigarette testing and tar/nicotine disclosures in advertising, defendants were “acting under” the agency’s orders for purposes of the removal statute.

After plaintiffs filed a cert. petition in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court asked the Solicitor General’s Office to weigh in. The SG concluded that Eighth Circuit made a fact-specific error but recommended that the case was not worthy of decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, the Court granted certiorari. The Court has limited the issue on review to the following question: “Whether a private actor doing no more than complying with federal regulation is a ‘person acting under a federal officer’ for the purpose of 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), entitling the actor to remove to federal court a civil action brought in state court under state law.”

[The Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 11, 2007, and my discussion appears here.]


California Court Finds No Authority To Force Parties Into Private Mediation

In Jeld-Wen, Inc. v. Superior Court, 146 Cal. App. 4th 536, 53 Cal. Rptr. 3d 115 (4th Dist. Jan. 4, 2007), the California Appellate Court held that trial courts do not have the authority to order parties in a complex civil action to attend and pay for private mediation.

In this multi-party construction case, the trial court deemed the matter “complex” within the local rules, and appointed a mediator to conduct settlement conferences for up to 100 hours at $500 per hour. Jeld Wen served objections and did not attend the mediation sessions but invited informal settlement talks. The trial court granted the other parties’ motion to compel Jeld-Wen to attend the mediation, and Jen-Weld appealed.

Reversing, the appellate court noted that although there are certain statutes in place requiring mediation for cases valued at under $50,000, this case exceeded that threshold. It held that in larger cases mediation is purely voluntary, and the trial court must have the agreement of all parties before it can enter an order requiring mediation. Moreover, even after a case is ordered to mediation, the parties have the absolute right to withdraw.


U.S. Supreme Court To Consider Whether Movant Obtaining Preliminary Injunction Is “Prevailing Party” Entitled To Attorneys’ Fees

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to resolve an apparent conflict in the federal appellate courts concerning whether a plaintiff who successfully obtains a preliminary injunction is a “prevailing party” for purposes of fee-shifting statutes. Struhs v. Wyner, 127 S. Ct. 1055 (granting cert. Jan. 12, 2007).

The Eleventh Circuit ruled in Wyner v. Struhs, 179 Fed. Appx. 566 (2006), that plaintiffs who sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and obtained a preliminary injunction against enforcement of state rules that would have interfered with their public performance art that featured nudity, but did not prevail on the later facial challenge to those rules, were still “prevailing parties” entitled to attorneys’ fees. In contrast, the Fourth Circuit held in Smyth v. Rivero, 282 F.3d 268 (2002), that a preliminary injunction is not a ruling on the merits and therefore cannot be the basis for considering the movant a “prevailing party.”


Party Performing Contract Under Protest May Bring Declaratory Judgment Act Claim

In the context of a patent dispute, the U.S. Supreme Court has clarified that federal jurisdiction exists under the Declaratory Judgment Act even though a plaintiff actually performs under a disputed contract, as long as the plaintiff maintains that performance is subject to controversy.

In MedImmune v. Genentech, Inc., 127 S. Ct. 764 (U.S. Jan. 9, 2007), Genentech maintained that MedImmune’s primary product infringed on its patent and demanded royalties. MedImmune maintained that the patent was not enforceable but agreed to pay royalties through a license agreement under protest because of the risk of liability for treble damages and attorney’s fees. It then brought a declaratory judgment action, but the trial court and the Federal Circuit held that such claims could not be brought because MedImmune in fact was performing under the contract so there was no dispute for purposes of Article III.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that jurisdiction did exist, and that by enacting the Declaratory Judgment Act, Congress specifically wanted to avoid requiring a party to breach a contract as a precondition to federal jurisdiction. It noted that the Court’s jurisprudence in government cases made this clear (i.e., Congress did not require a party to actually perform an illegal act for there to be jurisdiction for a declaratory judgment action), and agreed with the many lower courts that had reached the same conclusion with respect to disputes among private parties.


Federal Courts Borrowing State Limitations Periods Must Not Borrow Service Rules

It is well-established federal practice that where an action arises under federal law but Congress has not established a specific limitations period, courts borrow the statute of limitations for the most closely analogous action in the relevant state. However, in S.J. v. Issaquah School Dist. No. 411, 470 F.3d 1288 (9th Cir. Dec. 11, 2006), the court noted that this rule does not extend to borrowing state procedural rules that might be included in that statute.

In this case, it was undisputed that the district court properly applied the limitations period in the Washington Administrative Procedure Act (“WAPA”) to plaintiffs’ claims under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act. However, the appellate court held that the lower court should not also have applied the 30-day limitations period from the WAPA governing the amount of time in which to effect service of process. Instead, it should have applied Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m), which establishes a 120-day limit for serving process.


Texas Requires New Trial On Attorney’s Fee Award After Damages Cut On Appeal

The Texas Supreme Court has considered the effect on an attorney’s fee award of an appellate ruling that drastically reduced the damages awarded.

In Barker v. Eckman, 213 S.W.3d 306 (Tex. Nov. 17, 2006), plaintiffs sued for multiple breaches of contract going back several years. Over objections that most of the claims were untimely, the court entered judgment on a jury verdict for $112,000 and for attorney’s fees under the contract of $250,000. The intermediate appellate court struck all but $16,180 in damages, but held that appeal of the attorney’s fees issue had been waived. The Supreme Court upheld the reduction in damages, but reversed on the waiver issue.

Finding that there was no proper record on which to base a reduction of the fee award at the appellate level, the court remanded for a new trial on the amount of fees attributable to the upheld claims. The court noted that “[n]ot every appellate adjustment to the damages which a jury considered as ‘results obtained’ when making attorney’s fees findings will require reversal,” but in this case the large reduction in damages showed that the error was not harmless and required a new trial.