Texas state trial and appellate judges lost their efforts to stay on the bench until age 79 in last week’s election.
Voters in the state by a nearly two-to-one margin rejected Proposition 13, which would have raised the mandatory retirement age from 75 to 79.
The highest profile judge impacted by the voter’s decision is Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who turns 75 in 2024.
Last week was also full of major trial and appellate court developments, including:
- Two energy companies sued Winston & Strawn for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty;
- The U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt an environmental trial set to start later this month in Louisiana against BP America, Shell Oil and Hilcorp Energy in which the plaintiffs seek $7 billion in damages;
- In a courtroom defeat for Bill Brewer, a jury awarded McKool Smith in $4.7 million in legal fees; and
- Akin scores a win for Elon Musk’s SpaceX in an immigration dispute.
The details of each of these cases is spelled out below.
In addition, last week saw the trial of a law firm associate suing for $32,000 in back pay start in Houston, Baker Botts scored a jury trial victory in environment case for Exxon Mobil, Reese Marketos won a $5.2 million jury verdict for a client, Yetter Coleman achieved a $58.5 million settlement for a client and Gibson Dunn scored a patent victory for Uber.
Bridgeland and Zargon Sue Winston
Two Houston energy companies, Bridgeland Resources and Zargon Acquisition, filed a lawsuit against their outside law firm, Winston & Strawn, in Harris County district court on Nov. 6 accusing it of negligence and breach of fiduciary duty involving an M&A deal in 2021.
The 52-page petition states that its case is “about an oil and gas transaction that went terribly wrong because of the negligent conduct of the law firm hired to negotiate and document it.”
Bridgeland was planning to acquire more than 300 oil and gas wells in Southern California and identified E&B Natural Gas Resources Management, a California-based oil and gas operator, as a partner in the project that is a subsidiary of Rotterdam Ventures in New York.
The complaint states that Bridgeland hired lawyers in the Houston office of Winston & Strawn as its legal advisors. The agreement called for Bridgeland to give E&B a 25 percent ownership stake in Bridgeland in return for E&B operating and managing the wells. It also gave E&B the right to purchase an additional 25 percent equity stake in Bridgeland. Two days before the deal was set to close, E&B changed the terms of the agreement to the detriment of Bridgeland.
New lawyers for Bridgeland, Philip Werner and David Ayers of Werner Ayers in Houston, charge that Winston lawyers failed to keep up with E&B’s modifications and “made a number of critical drafting errors” that caused Bridgeland to lose a 25 percent equity share in its business.
“To make matters worse, Bridgeland discovered in early 2022 that the promises Bridgeland thought it received from E&B and Rotterdam in lieu of them signing a second contract were potentially unenforceable because of the errors made by Winston in drafting and negotiating the contracts,” Bridgeland alleged in the lawsuit. “Bridgeland, E&B and Rotterdam ended up in a vicious litigation that went on for nearly 18 months and cost Bridgeland tens of millions of dollars, with the fallout still being felt to this day.”
Lawyers for neither side returned calls seeking a comment.
The Texas Lawbook will publish an article on Winston & Strawn’s response when it is filed in the case.
The cause number is 2023-77047.
SCOTUS: Louisiana Parish Coastal Land Loss Case Against Energy Companies Heading To Trial
A 2016 lawsuit brought by officials in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, seeking $7 billion in damages against 20 energy companies can go to trial on Nov. 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last Tuesday.
Three of the energy corporations — BP America, Hilcorp Energy and Shell Oil — asked the nation’s highest court to stop the trial because the prospective jurors that would decide the case could be biased because they would financially benefit as residents of Cameron Parish.
The state courts in Louisiana previously rejected the argument by the energy companies stating that their lawyers could use voir dire to weed out any jurors demonstrating prejudice.
More than 75 percent of Cameron Parish, which is located in Southwest Louisiana between Houston and New Orleans, consists of coastal marshland.
The lawsuit, which also names Apache Oil, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Honeywell, Kerr-McGee Oil and Gas Offshore, Texas Pacific Oil and Transocean as defendants, argues that their actions are causing sea levels to rise and that 40 percent of Cameron Parish’s land will disappear as a result over the next 50 years.
In its arguments, Cameron Parish lawyers said that all the money awarded in the lawsuit would be spent protecting the coastline.
The case is BP America v. Parish of Cameron, U.S. 23A364.
Dallas Jury Awards McKool Smith $4.7M in Fees
When BioTE Medical sued its founder, Dr. Gary Donovitz, and his wife, Lani Donovitz, for breach of contract in 2022, the Irving-based hormone optimization and medical training company simply wanted a restraining order — but no monetary damages — requiring the Donovitzes to stop their false and disparaging comments about the business.
BioTE’s lawsuit states that Dr. Donovitz founded the company in 2012 but he sold the anti-aging business in 2021 through the creation of a special purpose acquisition company. The sides also signed an agreement that paid the Donovitzes as advisors. The agreement contained a nondisparagement clause.
Dr. Donovitz filed a lawsuit against BioTE in Dallas on June 23, 2022, accusing BioTE officers and directors of misconduct related to the transaction.
“The allegations in the Gary lawsuit represent numerous false, disparaging and derogatory statements regarding BioTE employees, officers, directors, employees,” BioTE stated in its own complaint filed Aug. 2, 2022. The use of “Gary” in BioTE’s court documents refer to Dr. Donovitz.
Those statements by Dr. Donovitz, his wife and their attorney were in “direct contravention of the nondisparagement agreement.”
The dispute was set for trial in September, but only a week for jury selection was to start, the defendants conceded liability and the judge granted the TRO.
BioTE’s lawyers at McKool Smith, including Alan Loewinsohn and Kerry Schonwald, asked to be awarded legal fees for their victory. After four days of testimony and arguments, the Dallas jury on Nov. 2 awarded McKool Smith $4,678,717.25.
Bill Brewer, a lawyer for the Donovitzes, did not return a phone call seeking comment but told American Lawyer that his clients plan to appeal the verdict.
The case number is DC-22-08737.
Akin gets win for SpaceX in WDTX
Elon Musk’s SpaceX turned to Akin litigation partner Laura Warrick to lead the fight against the U.S. Justice Department’s claims that the company illegally refuses to hire refugees and asylum recipients.
DOJ filed an administrative complaint against Space Exploration Technologies in August alleging SpaceX discouraged asylees and refugees between 2018 and 2022 from applying for jobs because of their lack of citizenship status.
In public posts SpaceX responded that the company was repeatedly told that hiring anyone without permanent U.S. residency could violate federal criminal laws because rockets are advanced weapons technology.
SpaceX fought back on Sept. 15 filing a complaint in the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Texas arguing that DOJ’s administrative law proceeding is unconstitutional because the administrative law judge appointed to decide the case was appointed by the U.S. attorney general — not by the president and not confirmed by the U.S. Senate .
“The ALJ is unconstitutionally purporting to adjudicate SpaceX’s rights in an administrative proceeding rather than in federal court [and] the ALJ is unconstitutionally denying SpaceX its Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial,” Warrick wrote in the 20-page complaint for SpaceX. “Given these clear constitutional defects, the court should preliminarily and permanently enjoin the pending administrative proceedings, declare them unlawful [and] instruct the ALJ to dismiss the case.”
On Nov. 8, U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera agreed in part with SpaceX’s argument that the ALJ in the case was not properly appointed, and he issued an injunction stopping DOJ’s case from proceeding pending the full outcome of SpaceX’s complaint.
The case number is 1:23-cv-00137.