The familiar "American rule" holds that a prevailing party generally cannot recover its attorney's fees from the losing party in the absence of a statute or contract provision specifically authorizing an award of such fees. Jurisdictions are divided on the issue of whether a party can recover its attorney's fees as damages, rather than costs, for the breach of a covenant not to sue the other party. In those jurisdictions that have not permitted attorney's fees to be awarded as damages, courts have reasoned that the contract containing the covenant not to sue can itself provide for attorney's fees in the event of its breach if that is the parties' intention. See Artvale, Inc. v. Rugby Fabrics Corp., 363 F.2d 1002, 1008 (2d Cir. 1966) ("Certainly it is not beyond the powers of a lawyer to draw a covenant not to sue in such terms as to make clear that any breach will entail liability for damages, including the most certain of all—defendant's litigation expense."). By contrast, other courts have determined that the American rule does not apply in "those cases in which the attorney fees are not awarded to the successful litigant in the case at hand, but rather are the subject of the law suit itself." Zuniga v. United Can Co., 812 F.2d 443, 455 (9th Cir. 1987). Virginia recently adopted the latter view.Read More
As most seasoned practitioners are all too aware, it is often more time- consuming and frustrating to litigate a case against an incompetent pro se party or opposing counsel than it is to oppose a good lawyer. A litigant who is sloppy, mentally unwell, or who has very little understanding of the law can simply invent fictions faster than a competent and ethical attorney can refute them. Luckily, such a litigant often reveals his or her incompetence immediately through his or her pleadings. The best way to limit wasted time is usually to attempt to dispose of as much of the case as possible “on the papers.” Dismissal is, of course, the ideal result, but even if dismissal is not possible, it is still better to force the opponent to proceed on “cleaned up” and comprehensible pleadings without irrelevant statements or unsupportable claims.Read More
Corporate shareholders, individual members of a limited liability company, or residents of a homeowners' association often file derivative complaints on behalf of the entity to assert rights that the entity itself has failed to raise against third parties. Sometimes these derivative actions prompt the entity to file its own lawsuit against the same third parties, resulting in parallel proceedings.
In Star v. TI Oldfield Development, LLC, 962 F.3d 117, 131 (4th Cir. 2020), the Fourth Circuit considered for the first time the issue of "whether a plaintiff's derivative action on behalf of an entity is rendered moot by the entity's settlement of the same or similar claims in another action." As a matter of first impression, the court held that it may.
The evidence showed that the Board of Directors of Oldfield, a residential community in South Carolina, filed lawsuits related to Oldfield's development. Rob Star, an Oldfield resident, later filed a derivative action on Oldfield's behalf, alleging similar claims against the same defendants. After the Board settled the lawsuits that it brought, the defendants moved to dismiss Star's derivative action on the ground that the settlements rendered the derivative lawsuit moot, and, therefore, the court lacked jurisdiction. In opposition, Star alleged that the settlement agreement was invalid due to a conflict of interest by certain board members and that the derivative action alleged claims not included in the Board's lawsuits.Read More
Practitioners in federal court are by now aware of the revolution in federal pleading fashioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), which are often referred to jointly using the portmanteau "Twiqbal." Under the Twiqbal analysis, a district court considering the legal sufficiency of a complaint on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim initially separates factual allegations, which are still entitled to the presumption of truth, from legal conclusions (such as "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action"), which are not. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The court then examines just the factual allegations to determine whether they state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Id. Determining whether a claim is plausible is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.Read More
In a decision with far-reaching implications in the commercial world, the Virginia Supreme Court has decided that contractual waivers of the right to plead the statute of limitations that do not meet specified statutory criteria are unenforceable under Virginia law. See Radiance Capital Receivables Fourteen, LLC v. Foster, ___ Va. ___, 833 S.E.2d 867 (2019), available at http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1180678.pdf. The statute in question provides that unless the failure to enforce a promise not to plead the statute of limitations would operate as a fraud on the promisee, a written promise not to plead the statute of limitations is valid and enforceable only "when (i) it is made to avoid or defer litigation pending settlement of any case, (ii) it is not made contemporaneously with any other contract, and (iii) it is made for an additional term not longer than the applicable limitations period." Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-232(A).Read More
Paul Ferrer—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Federal courts may be inundated with frivolous pleadings filed by prisoners or other claimants proceeding in forma pauperis. But the courts have powerful statutory weapons for dealing with such pleadings and dismissing them at the earliest stage of a proceeding, if warranted. In fact, federal courts are specifically required to screen prisoner actions and dismiss them if they fail to pass muster. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.
Section 1915A affirmatively requires the district court to review, before docketing if feasible or as soon as practicable after docketing, every civil complaint in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. Id. § 1915A(a). After reviewing the complaint, the court must either identify any cognizable claims or dismiss all or part of the complaint if it is “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Id. § 1915A(b)(1). Another federal statute similarly requires a district court to dismiss any proceeding brought in forma pauperis if the court determines, “at any time,” that the action is “frivolous or malicious” or “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” Id. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i), (ii).Read More
One potentially overused legal principle that is often recited in appellate cases is that a party waives any issues or legal theories that he or she fails to assert at the trial court level. In other words, a party generally cannot raise a new issue for the first time on appeal. Any attempt to do so will likely be rejected by the appellate court.
Even so, an appellate attorney would do well to keep in mind that this oft-repeated principle does not apply to certain situations, including questions pertaining to the standard of review employed by the lower court. The proper standard of review that is applicable to a particular legal issue is a nonwaivable matter. See Winfield v. Dorethy, 871 F.3d 555, 560 (7th Cir. 2017), cert. denied, 138 S. Ct. 2003 (2018); Gardner v. Galetka, 568 F.3d 862, 879 (10th Cir. 2009). Accordingly, an appellant does not forfeit a claim that the lower court failed to employ the proper standard of review “by failing to argue it” to the lower court. Sierra Club v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, 899 F.3d 260, 286 (4th Cir. 2018); see also United States v. Freeman, 640 F.3d 180, 186 (6th Cir. 2011). Similarly, the parties to a case cannot agree on or assign an incorrect legal standard of review to an issue. Sierra Club, 899 F.3d at 286.Read More
Laches is "'a defense developed by courts of equity' to protect defendants against 'unreasonable, prejudicial delay in commencing suit.'" SCA Hygiene Prods. Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Prods., LLC, 137 S. Ct. 954, 960 (2017) (quoting Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962, 1967, 1973 (2014)). It is a familiar statement of the law that laches generally does not apply when the statute of limitations applicable to a legal claim has not run. But many state courts continue to indicate that, in some circumstances, "laches may bar a legal claim even if the statutory period of limitations has not yet expired." Tenneco Inc. v. Amerisure Mut. Ins. Co., 281 Mich. App. 429, 456-57, 761 N.W.2d 846, 863-64 (2008); see also Veysey v. Nelson, 2017 UT App 77, ¶ 7, 397 P.3d 846, 848 ("[B]ecause laches may apply in situations where the statute of limitations has not yet run, the existence of a statute of limitations does not … automatically preclude application of the laches doctrine."), cert. denied, 400 P.3d 1046 (Utah 2017); Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council of N. Nev. v. State ex rel. Pub. Works Bd., 108 Nev. 605, 611, 836 P.2d 633, 637 (1992) ("Especially strong circumstances must exist . . . to sustain a defense of laches when the statute of limitations has not run."). However, that no longer appears to be the case in federal court, at least with respect to a federal claim as to which Congress has expressly supplied a statute of limitations.
In Petrella, the U.S. Supreme Court held that laches cannot defeat a damages claim brought within the three-year period prescribed by the Copyright Act's statute of limitations. 134 S. Ct. at 1972-75 (applying 17 U.S.C. § 507(b) (requiring a copyright holder claiming infringement to file suit "within three years after the claim accrued")); see also SCA Hygiene, 137 S. Ct. at 961 ("We saw in this language a congressional judgment that a claim filed within three years of accrual cannot be dismissed on timeliness grounds."). In so holding, the Court spoke in very broad terms: "[I]n the face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief." Petrella, 134 S. Ct. at 1974. Petrella's holding rested on both separation-of-powers principles and the traditional role of laches in equity. SinceRead More
"Without proper service of process, consent, waiver, or forfeiture, a court may not exercise personal jurisdiction over a named defendant." 36 C.J.S. Federal Courts § 31 (Westlaw database updated Sept. 2016). "Personal jurisdiction usually is obtained over a defendant by service of process." Id. Thus, untimely or ineffective service of process can stop a case dead in its tracks. The means of serving process is typically set forth by statute or court rule, the terms of which are often strictly construed. Below are two cautionary tales to illustrate the point.
In New York, service of process is governed by Rule 2013 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules ("C.P.L.R."). Typically, service can be accomplished "by mailing the paper to . . . the address designated by that attorney for that purpose or, if none is designated, at the attorney's last known address." The statute further notes that "service by mail shall be complete upon mailing." C.P.L.R. 2013(b)(2) (service upon attorneys); accord C.P.L.R. 2013(c) (incorporating C.P.L.R. 2013(b)(2) for service upon a party).Read More
Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3.7 contains the well-known prohibition on lawyer testimony known as the "Lawyer as Witness Rule" or the "Attorney Testimony Rule." It provides:
(a) A lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness unless:
(1) the testimony relates to an uncontested issue;
(2) the testimony relates to the nature and value of legal services rendered in the case; or
(3) disqualification of the lawyer would work substantial hardship on the client.
(b) A lawyer may act as advocate in a trial in which another lawyer in the lawyer's firm is likely to be called as a witness unless precluded from doing so by Rule 1.7 or Rule 1.9.
Ann. Model Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 3.7 ("Lawyer as Witness").Read More