Justia U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Contracts
Moore v. Equitrans, L.P.
In 2012, the Moores sued, claiming that Equitrans breached the parties’ right-of-way agreement and trespassed on the Moores’ land by laying two pipeline segments outside of the area specified in their agreement. A jury found that Equitrans either trespassed on the Moores’ West Virginia property or violated the right-of-way agreement but made no findings as to the proper remedy. While the Moores initially sought equitable relief (ejectment), a subsequent condemnation judgment in favor of Equitrans ultimately precluded such relief. Following several appeals, the district court allowed the Moores to pursue damages for breach-of-contract and trespass but denied leave to add a claim for intentional trespass. Later, the district court barred any claim for breach-of-contract damages. After excluding much of the Moores’ evidence of trespass damages, the court sua sponte entered judgment in favor of Equitrans.The Fourth Circuit vacated in part. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying leave to amend, in making its motion in limine rulings, or in entering judgment in favor of Equitrans on contract damages. The court rejected a contention that the proper measure of trespass damages includes a portion of Equitrans’s profits. Because the Moores lacked sufficient notice that they needed to come forward with all evidence of trespass damages, the court vacated the portion of the judgment concerning trespass damages for procedural error and remanded. View "Moore v. Equitrans, L.P." on Justia Law
Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 625 v. Nitro Construction Services, Inc.
Labor unions and the West Virginia Pipe Trades Health and Welfare Fund, sued Nitro Construction under the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), 29 U.S.C. 185, after Nitro made several tardy payments to the Fund. Nitro had paid its required contribution before the suit was filed; the suit sought $77,373.95 in liquidated damages, plus interest and attorneys’ fees, as provided for by the collection procedures.The district court granted Nitro summary judgment, holding that the liquidated damages constituted penalties and were therefore unrecoverable. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Although ERISA allows punitive liquidated damages, federal common law prohibits punitive damages for breach of contract. The federal common law to be applied in LMRA Section 301 cases is ordinarily the general law of contracts. The court noted that the Fund sought almost $80,000 in liquidated damages, even though its actual damages (lost interest) are readily ascertainable and were only $3,952. Nitro’s late payments did not result in any claim being denied. Nitro never agreed to the liquidated damages provisions; the Fund unilaterally created its delinquent employer procedures under its governing document. The district court did not err by finding these liquidated damages provisions to be punitive and declining to enforce them. View "Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 625 v. Nitro Construction Services, Inc." on Justia Law
Systems Application & Technologies, Inc. v. United States
Employees of a Navy services contractor, SA-TECH, sued the contractor in California state court for violations of the state’s labor laws. Before and during that suit, SA-TECH sought guidance from the Navy as to whether California’s labor laws applied to it and its subcontractors, given the federal nature of its service contract. Those requests went unanswered. SA-TECH’s claim with its contracting officer under the Contract Disputes Act was denied. SA-TECH then sought declaratory relief on the questions: whether the modified understanding of California labor laws would control SA-TECH’s operations on Navy and Navy-chartered ships; whether SA-TECH would be permitted or required by the Navy, under its contracts, to pay any sleep-time over-time; and whether costs incurred by SA-TECH in settling the state-court litigation would be allowable costs under its current contract.The district court dismissed the complaint, citing lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the Contract Disputes Act’s exhaustion requirements, 41 U.S.C. 7103(a)(1)–(3). The Fourth Circuit affirmed. SA-TECH did not specifically assert any legal or contractual grounds entitling it to the Navy’s opinion on its agency status. Its other issues are monetary claims for which SA-TECH did not present a requested sum certain, as required to exhaust its remedies. View "Systems Application & Technologies, Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law
RLI Insurance Co. v. Nexus Services, Inc.
An immigration bond allows the release of a detained individual based on a surety’s contractual undertaking to the United States to either deliver the individual as demanded or forfeit the sum specified in the bond. Nexus runs a bonds program: It screens immigrants and maintains contact with them throughout their release. Nexus lacks the Department of Treasury’s commercial-surety certification and needs another surety to take on the liability to the government. RLI performs that function for a fee. Nexus agreed to indemnify RLI for all losses. The parties’ Commercial Surety General Indemnity Agreement involves nearly 2,500 bonds and contains several clauses designed to keep RLI whole. One obligates Nexus to provide collateral sufficient to cover all of RLI’s exposure,Nexus argued that RLI’s exposure should be measured on each bond individually, that RLI is not actually “exposed” to any risk, and Nexus does not need to deposit collateral until there is reason to believe that RLI will have to pay on a particular bond because an immigrant fails to appear in court.The Fourth Circuit affirmed in favor of RLI. Although it is not known which immigrants will breach, some will. The Agreement must secure against aggregate risk—the likelihood Nexus will be able to (timely) indemnify RLI for all future breached bonds. Nexus’s financial condition, its historical willingness to indemnify RLI, and the historical rate of bonds breached bear on that likelihood and should inform the collateral calculus. View "RLI Insurance Co. v. Nexus Services, Inc." on Justia Law
Southern Power Co. v. Cleveland County
Southern Power and Cleveland County, North Carolina executed an “Incentive Development Agreement” in July 2007, providing that if Southern built and operated a natural gas plant — a decision left to Southern’s sole discretion — the county would make substantial cash payments to Southern. The North Carolina legislature enacted a new law (Subsection H) 37 days later, imposing more stringent requirements on such agreements, including a mandate that they include a recapture provision allowing a municipality to recover cash incentives already paid if the private entity breaches the agreement. In November-December 2008, Southern secured contracts to supply utility companies with electricity produced at the plant. Southern then asked the county to reaffirm its commitment to the Agreement. Cleveland County adopted a resolution at its January 6, 2009, meeting stating that it was committed to the incentive grants. Southern broke ground on the plant in October 2009 and began commercial operations in December 2012. Cleveland County, however, refused to pay Southern any cash incentives, arguing that the Agreement failed to comply with Subsection H.The district court dismissed the case as barred by North Carolina governmental immunity. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Cleveland county never waived its governmental immunity from suit. View "Southern Power Co. v. Cleveland County" on Justia Law
Skyline Restoration, Inc. v. Church Mutual Insurance Co.
First Baptist retained Skyline to provide emergency remediation services to address wind damage to First Baptist’s real estate. Skyline then received the right to collect any proceeds from First Baptist's insurance policy with Church Mutual. Church Mutual subsequently disputed coverage in part and Skyline filed suit to recover the value of services provided to First Baptist but not paid by Church Mutual.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of Skyline's claims because they were barred by the applicable North Carolina statute of limitations. The court found that the applicable statute of limitations is three years from the date of loss, and agreed that Skyline's claims for declaratory judgment and breach of contract are time barred because Skyline brought this action in November 2019, more than three years after the time of loss; October 2016. The court denied as moot Church Mutual's motion to strike part of Skyline's reply brief. View "Skyline Restoration, Inc. v. Church Mutual Insurance Co." on Justia Law
Hengle v. Treppa
The federally-recognized Native American Tribe (in California) started an online lending business, allegedly operated by non-tribal companies owned by non-tribal Defendants on non-tribal land. The Plaintiffs are Virginia consumers who received online loans from tribal lenders while living in Virginia. Although Virginia usury law generally prohibits interest rates over 12%, the interest rates on Plaintiffs’ loans ranged from 544% to 920%. The Plaintiffs each electronically signed a “loan agreement,” “governed by applicable tribal law,” and containing an “Arbitration Provision.” The borrowers defaulted and brought a putative class action against tribal officials and two non-members affiliated with the tribal lenders.The district court denied the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration and motions to dismiss on the ground of tribal sovereign immunity except for a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claim. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The choice-of-law clauses of this arbitration provision, which mandate exclusive application of tribal law during any arbitration, operate as prospective waivers that would require the arbitrator to determine whether the arbitration provision impermissibly waives federal substantive rights without recourse to federal substantive law. The arbitration provisions are unenforceable as violating public policy. Substantive state law applies to off-reservation conduct, and although the Tribe itself cannot be sued for its commercial activities, its members and officers can be. Citing Virginia’s interest in prohibiting usurious lending, the court refused to enforce the choice-of-law provision. RICO does not give private plaintiffs a right to injunctive relief. View "Hengle v. Treppa" on Justia Law
East Coast Repair & Fabrication, LLC v. United States
EC contracted to repair the Navy ships Thunderbolt, Tempest, and Hurricane. The Navy claimed $474,600 in liquidated damages under the Tempest contract because of late delivery. Having already paid for the Tempest work, it withheld $473,600 under the Hurricane contract. EC claimed the Navy caused the delay and, after the contracting officer denied its claim, sued under the Tempest contract, referring specifically to the $473,600 setoff. While the litigation proceeded, EC sought additional compensation under the Hurricane contract for unexpected work on that ship and appealed to the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals, seeking payment of the $473,600 “withheld from payments due under [the Hurricane] contract.”The parties settled the Tempest suit: EC released the government “from any and all actions, claims, . . . and liabilities of any type, whether known or unknown, suspected or unsuspected, foreseen or unforeseen, or open or hidden, which have existed, presently exist, or may exist in the future, arising out of or in any way relating to the [Tempest] Contract.” The government released EC from “any and all” claims “arising out of or in any way relating to the issues that were raised ... or could have been raised in the pleadings.”In 2019, EC asserted a right to the same $473,600 in a third request to the contracting officer, then filed suit. The Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the government. The settlement agreement barred EC’s claims. View "East Coast Repair & Fabrication, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law
Drummond Coal Sales, Inc. v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co.
After a jury returned a special verdict finding Norfolk Southern materially breached its contract with Drummond, the district court entered a declaratory judgment for Drummond and awarded limited equitable relief.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court properly denied Norfolk Southern's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) Motion and did not abuse its discretion in denying Drummond's Rule 59(e) Motion seeking complete rescission. In this case, the court saw no evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that Norfolk Southern expressly breached Article 13 of the Agreement. Furthermore, there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Norfolk Southern breached the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing. The court noted that whether or not there was evidence of damages is beside the point. In this case, the jury was only asked whether Norfolk Southern materially breached its agreement with Drummond and, if so, when. Given the court's standard of review, the discretion afforded to courts under Virginia law in making decisions about equitable relief, and the district court's expansive reasoning assessing equities unique to this case, the court declined to find that the district court abused its discretion in denying Drummond complete rescission. View "Drummond Coal Sales, Inc. v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co." on Justia Law
Posted in: Contracts
Episcopal Church in South Carolina v. Church Insurance Company of Vermont
In 2012, Bishop Lawrence sought to disaffiliate his South Carolina-based diocese from the Episcopal “Mother Church”. Some parishes followed suit. The Mother Church purported to remove Lawrence and selected a new bishop. The Disassociated Diocese and Parishes sued the Mother Church to clarify their property rights in diocesan. The Mother Church filed counterclaims and separately filed trademark and false-advertising claims. Both cases are ongoing.The Church Insurance Company, wholly owned by the Church Pension Fund, is a freestanding nonprofit affiliated with the Mother Church. Captive insurance companies may only cover the risks of their parent companies and related entities. Before the schism, the Company issued a Diocesan Program Master Policy, listing as “named insured” the Episcopal diocese and listing 56 participant parishes, including the now-Disassociated Parishes, in its declarations. Each parish has a separate, individualized insurance policy and paid premiums directly to the Company. The policies provide liability coverage for injuries arising out of “infringement of copyright, title, slogan, trademark, or trade name” and include a broad duty to defend. The Company has reimbursed the Disassociated Parishes’ defense costs in connection with both lawsuits.The Associated Diocese sued the Company, alleging breach of contract, bad faith, breach of fiduciary duty, and aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of that suit for lack of standing. The Company has not strayed beyond its limitations as a captive insurer or breached its obligations under the policies, so there is no injury traceable to such conduct. View "Episcopal Church in South Carolina v. Church Insurance Company of Vermont" on Justia Law