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The Lawletter Blog

PRODUCTS LIABILITY: Manufacturer Not Strictly Liable for Sale of Product Containing Defective Components

Posted by Jeremy Y. Taylor on Tue, Jul 26, 2016 @ 12:07 PM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7

Jeremy Taylor, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     New York's highest court recently addressed the issue of whether an automobile manufacturer could be held strictly liable for a mechanic's malignant mesothelioma allegedly caused by the mechanic's exposure to asbestos while replacing asbestos-containing brakes, clutches, and engine parts in the manufacturer's automobiles. See Finerty v. Abex Corp., 2016 N.Y. slip op. 03411, 2016 WL 1735804 (N.Y. May 3, 2016). The plaintiff claimed that he was exposed to asbestos during the 1970s and 1980s while working on engine parts in tractors and passenger vehicles manufactured by the defendant, Ford Motor Company. The plaintiff was later diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. The plaintiff sued Ford and others alleging strict products liability under theories of defective design and failure to warn.

     The New York Court of Appeals concluded that Ford could not be held liable under the plaintiff's theories. At the threshold, the court noted that a manufacturer of defective products which places those products into the stream of commerce may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by its products, since it is the manufacturer alone who (a) can fairly be said to know and to understand when a product is suitably designed and safely made for its intended purpose, and (b) has the practical opportunity to produce safe products. The court observed that product sellers are subject to strict liability with respect to allegedly defective products because they may be said to have assumed a special responsibility to the public, which has come to expect them to stand behind their products.

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Topics: Jeremy Y. Taylor, products liability, The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7, defective components, manufacturer liability

PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT: "A Law" Does Not Include an Agency Regulation

Posted by John M. Stone on Tue, Jul 26, 2016 @ 12:07 PM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7

John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

      It is commonly understood that substantive agency regulations that are promulgated pursuant to statutory authority typically have the "force and effect of law." See Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass'n, 135 S. Ct. 1199, 1204 (2015). That does not mean, however, that for all purposes and in all contexts, a law is the same as a statute, and vice versa. The point is illustrated by a recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where the presence of a one-letter word, "a," was a part of the court's reasoning. Rainey v. Merit Sys. Prot. Bd., No. 2015-3234, 2016 WL 3165617 (Fed. Cir. June 7, 2016).

     A Foreign Affairs Officer in the Department of State was relieved of his duties as a contracting officer representative. The officer filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, alleging that his duties had been taken away because he had refused his supervisor's order to tell a contractor to rehire a terminated subcontractor. He argued that his refusal was based on his view that carrying out the order would have required him to violate a federal regulation, by improperly interfering with personnel decisions of a prime contractor and requiring the prime contractor to operate in conflict with the terms of the contract.

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Topics: public employment, John M Stone, The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7, Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, agency regulations, right-to-disobey provision

CIVIL PROCEDURE: Achieving "Proportionality" in Discovery

Posted by Paul A. Ferrer on Tue, Jul 26, 2016 @ 11:07 AM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7

Paul Ferrer, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

      For many years, trial attorneys were familiar with the broad scope of discovery under Rule 26(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provided that unless otherwise limited by court order, parties could "obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense." As indicated in Rule 26(b)(1), the scope of discovery could be limited by the entry of a protective order if the court determined, among other things, that "the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit, considering the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, the parties' resources, the importance of the issues at stake in the action, and the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues." Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii) (amended), quoted in EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, Grading, Paving, & Utils., Inc., 499 F. App'x 275, 281 n.5 (4th Cir. 2012). As part of the "Duke Rules" package of amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which took effect on December 1, 2015, that language was moved out of Rule 26(b)(2)(C)(iii) and into Rule 26(b)(1), which now provides that

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Topics: Paul A. Ferrer, civil procedure, discovery, The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7, proportionality to case

BANKRUPTCY: Rejection or Assumption of Executory Contracts Under 11 U.S.C. § 365

Posted by Anne B. Hemenway on Mon, Jul 25, 2016 @ 14:07 PM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7

Anne Hemenway—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     A personal service contract, such as one between an artist and a manager or between a recording group and a record company, may be rejected or assumed under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Generally, such management or promotional agreements are considered to be executory contracts under 11 U.S.C. § 365(a). An executory contract under § 365 is not specifically defined, but the term commonly refers to a contract that has performance due from both the debtor and the contracting party. In re Gen. Datacomm Indus., 407 F.3d 616 (3d Cir. 2005). Professor Vern Countryman's definition in Executory Contracts in Bankruptcy: Part I, 57 Minn. L. Rev. 439, 460 (1973), is considered to be the definitive definition of an executory contract.

     A trustee or debtor-in-possession has a right to assume or reject executory contracts under § 365 within the time frames set forth in § 365(d), but the agreement remains in effect pending the actual act of assumption or rejection. In re Nat'l Steel Corp., 316 B.R. 287 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2004). If a personal service contract is rejected, it is considered breached under § 365(g) as of the date immediately preceding the date the bankruptcy petition was filed.

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Topics: bankruptcy, contracts, Anne B. Hemenway, The Lawletter Vol 41 No 7, executory, personal service contract, performance by debtor and contracting party

WILLS: Execution Evidence—Testator Incapacity Due to Permanent Mental Impairment

Posted by Matthew T. McDavitt on Thu, Jun 30, 2016 @ 16:06 PM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 6

Matthew McDavitt, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     While the issue is apparently one of first impression in many jurisdictions, a handful of courts nationally have addressed the relevancy and admissibility of evidence of pre- or post-will-execution mental capacity—normally deemed irrelevant to will-execution mental capacity—where it has been shown that the testator suffered from a permanent mental deficiency. Importantly, as observed by the U.S. Supreme Court, where evidence is developed of permanent or continuing mental incapacity, the burden properly shifts to the will proponent to prove a lucid interval, rather than the normal burden upon the contestant to prove incapacity, as continued mental incapacity is legally presumed:

     In addition to the proof . . . of his undoubted insanity prior [to] and for some time subsequent []to [the will execution], there was slight evidence of insane acts during the month of February, though there was no opinion expressed by anyone that he was incapable of making a valid deed or contract. The whole testimony regarding his insanity was duly submitted to the jury, who were instructed that if they found his insanity to be permanent in its nature and character, the presumptions were that it would continue, and the burden was upon the defendant to satisfy the jury by a preponderance of testimony that he was, at the time of executing the will, of sound mind. There was no error in this instruction.

Keely v. Moore, 196 U.S. 38, 46-47 (1904) (emphasis added).

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Topics: wills, Matthew T. McDavitt, evidence, permanent mental impairment, Lawletter Vol 41 No 6, testator incapacity

PERSONAL INJURY: Punitive Damages Awarded Against a Decedent's Estate

Posted by Alfred C. Shackelford III on Thu, Jun 30, 2016 @ 13:06 PM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 6

Fred Shackelford, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

      Can a court or a jury award punitive damages against a tortfeasor's estate? The Ohio Supreme Court addressed this issue of first impression in Whetstone v. Binner, 2016-Ohio-1006, 2016 WL 1061742. The case arose when a mother left her daughters with a babysitter, who was a relative. When the mother returned to pick up the children, she discovered the relative with one hand on one child and the other hand holding a pillow over the child's head. The mother struggled with the relative before escaping with her daughters. The mother and both daughters were later diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, and they sued the relative for assault, false imprisonment, emotional distress, and loss of consortium. They sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

     After a default judgment was entered, the relative moved for relief from the judgment and requested postponement of an evidentiary hearing to determine damages. The trial court rescheduled the hearing but refused to grant relief from the judgment, and the relative died before the hearing took place. After the administrator of the relative's estate was substituted as the defendant, the trial court awarded compensatory damages but declined to award punitive damages. The court believed that punitive damages cannot be awarded against a tortfeasor's estate.

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Topics: Fred Shackelford, personal injury, decedent's estate, Lawletter Vol 41 No 6, punative damages award

CIVIL PROCEDURE: Effect of Dismissals Without Prejudice in Mortgage Foreclosure Suits

Posted by Andrea Stokes on Wed, Jun 29, 2016 @ 14:06 PM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 6

Andrea Stokes, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     Most practitioners are aware of the potential problems and limitations associated with the use of voluntary dismissal without prejudice. Less well known, perhaps, is the limitation on refiling an action after more than one involuntary dismissal without prejudice, particularly in the mortgage foreclosure context. Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.420(b), addressing involuntary dismissals, provides that

[u]nless the court in its order for dismissal otherwise specifies, a dismissal under this subdivision and any dismissal not provided for in this rule, other than a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction or for improper venue or for lack of an indispensable party, operates as an adjudication on the merits.

Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.420(b).

     So it is the odd occasion, indeed, where a trial court involuntarily dismisses without prejudice a second or third time after a motion or sua sponte order under Rule 1.420(b). The question may then arise whether a plaintiff can continue to take "bites at the apple" or if there exists a limitation on those bites. And when viewed in the context of a mortgage foreclosure, this question becomes even more vexing.

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Topics: mortgage foreclosure, civil procedure, Andrea Stokes, dismissal without prejudice, limitations period expired, Lawletter Vol 41 No 6

EMPLOYMENT LAW: FMLA: Individual Liability and the Need for Clear Communication

Posted by Suzanne L. Bailey on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 @ 10:06 AM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 5

Suzanne Bailey, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     A recent case from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals sets forth new Second Circuit standards for addressing certain issues under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601–2654, and the employment discrimination provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111–12117, and provides a set of facts on how not to respond to an employee's request for FMLA leave. Graziadio v. Culinary Inst. of Am., No. 15-888-CV, 2016 WL 1055742 (2d Cir. Mar. 17, 2016).

     The plaintiff, Cathleen Graziadio, had been employed at the Culinary Institute of America ("CIA") as a Payroll Administrator for five years on June 6, 2012, when she notified her direct supervisor that she needed to take FMLA leave to care for her 17-year-old son, who had been hospitalized as a result of previously undiagnosed Type I diabetes. At Graziadio's request, the necessary FMLA paperwork was forwarded to her by the appropriate employee. Graziadio returned to work on June 18, 2012, and on or about June 27, 2012, she submitted a medical certification supporting her need for leave to care for the 17-year-old son. That same day, June 27, Graziadio's 12-year-old son underwent surgery after having fractured his leg playing basketball, and Graziadio promptly notified her supervisor that she would need immediate leave to care for her son and that she expected to return the week of July 9 at least part-time.

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Topics: employment law, Americans with Disabilities Act, Suzanne Bailey, Lawletter Vol 41 No 5, Family and Medical Leave Act

APPELLATE BRIEF WRITING: Mistakes Can Be Fatal to Your Case

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 @ 10:06 AM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 5

Nicole Prysby, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     "Judges are not like pigs, hunting for truffles buried in briefs." United States v. Dunkel, 927 F.2d 955, 956 (7th Cir. 1991). The frustration evident in this quote is shared by many appellate judges. The appellate process is already an uphill battle, and presenting the court with a brief that is not compelling or, even worse, is noncompliant with court rules makes it even harder. The vast majority of appeals are resolved without oral argument, which means that the brief is likely the only chance an attorney will have to present a client's case on appeal.

     The consequences of an inadequate or noncompliant brief range from frustrating the court to having the appeal dismissed. In egregious cases, sanctions may even be imposed. For example, sanctions were imposed against counsel in one case involving the failure to observe line spacing, font, and footnote rules. Kano v. Nat'l Consumer Co-op. Bank, 22 F.3d 899 (9th Cir. 1994). In another case, the court suggested that counsel should be liable for malpractice for a brief that was egregiously noncompliant with court rules. Kushner v. Winterthur Swiss Ins. Co., 620 F.2d 404 (3d Cir. 1980). In Kushner, failure to comply with federal rules for the brief and appendix not only led to dismissal of the appeal but also prompted the court to suggest that a client facing this situation "may wish to proceed against his or her counsel in an action for malpractice." Id. at 408. The court also stated that "[w]e note with extreme melancholy that this case is not an isolated example." Id.

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Topics: noncompliance consequences, Lawletter Vol 41 No 5, appeal dismissal, Nicole Prysby, appellate brief writing

EMPLOYMENT LAW: Recent Equal Pay Developments

Posted by Anne B. Hemenway on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 @ 09:06 AM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 5

Anne Hemenway, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     Under the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d), no covered employer shall discriminate on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees at a rate less than the rate paid to employees of the opposite sex for equal work. In Hesterberg v. Tyson Foods, Inc., Case No. 5:14-CV-05382, 2016 WL 483017 (W.D. Ark. signed Feb. 5, 2016), the court held that to establish a prima facie claim for damages under the Equal Pay Act, the complaining party must show by a preponderance of the evidence that "(1) she was paid less than a male employed in the same establishment, (2) for work on jobs requiring skill, effort and responsibility, (3) which were performed under similar working conditions." Id. at *5. The employer will be entitled to summary judgment and dismissal of the equal pay suit if it can show that any pay differential between the plaintiff and her male counterpart is explained by a statutory defense such as a merit system or some excuse other than sex.

     The plaintiff in the case alleged that her immediate supervisor, who was male, had total discretionary authority over the amount of bonuses paid and percentage raises given to her and her male counterparts and that his decisions regarding these forms of compensation were largely subjective. She argued that her comparatively lower bonuses and percentage raises in the years in question were the result of the males' being treated more favorably. Recognizing that employers can "easily circumvent the Equal Pay Act by relying substantially on bonuses to compensate employees," id. at *6, the court denied the employer's motion for summary judgment. Genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the employer's merit system, on which the employer relied to justify the pay differential in this case, had been implemented at the company in a truly nondiscriminatory way.

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Topics: employment law, Anne Hemenway, bonuses, Lawletter Vol 41 No 5, 29 U.S.C. § 206, equal pay, Equal Pay Act

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