In this week’s edition of Litigation Roundup, Pioneer Natural Resources draws suit over its $60 billion Exxon deal, a fight between faculty at MD Anderson spills into court, a jury renders a take-nothing judgment in a personal injury suit that had sought damages in excess of $10 million, and the Fifth Circuit revives a fatal crash suit against Union Pacific.
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Harris County District Court
MD Anderson Cancer Researcher Says Colleague Stole Credit, Defamed Her
An immunotherapy expert on faculty at MD Anderson has been accused by a junior faculty member of falsely claiming to have authored a research paper and making defamatory statements.
Dr. Jamie Lin told the court her lawsuit against Dr. Padmanee Sharma “is a true David versus Goliath dispute.” Lin filed suit in August but filed an amended petition Feb. 1 seeking a declaration from the court that she be named an author on a recently published research paper that currently bears Sharma’s name.
“Specifically, Dr. Sharma has made (and continues to make) inaccurate, defamatory, and false statements of fact about Dr. Lin to her peers, colleagues, and collaborators as well as to various journal editors,” the suit alleges. “Dr. Sharma has individually and intentionally disseminated the defamatory statements to the public falsely claiming an alleged authorship attribution in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight Manuscript, that of which is a clear product of Dr. Lin and her husband, Dr. Cassian Yee.”
The case has been assigned to Harris County District Judge Brittanye Morris and is tentatively set for trial in September.
Sharma is represented by Michael J. Patterson-Delgadillo of the Texas attorney general’s office.
The case number is 2023-54896.
Jury Awards Zero in Trial that Sought $10M+
A jury that sat through two weeks of trial awarded zero damages in a personal injury suit that had sought eight-figure damages.
On Jan. 23, the jury declined to award damages to Port of Houston longshoreman Franchae Norman, who had filed suit in March 2017 after suffering injuries while onboard a heavy lift crane ship called Fairload. Norman had sued the manager of the ship, Kahn Scheepvaart BV, after she was struck in 2015 by a 14-ton spreader bar during a heavy lift cargo operation.
Norman alleged she suffered spinal injuries, a traumatic brain injury and subsequent cognitive, neurological and psychological injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder. She brought claims for negligence and gross negligence and was seeking punitive damages as well.
Kahn Scheepvaart argued it didn’t breach any duties it owed Norman under the law. At the close of the plaintiff’s case, Harris County District Judge Dawn Rogers awarded the defendant a directed verdict that tossed the claim for punitive damages based on alleged gross negligence.
Robert L. Klawetter of Schouest, Bamdas, Soshea, BenMaier & Eastham, who represented Kahn Scheepvaart, issued a statement praising the jury’s verdict.
“We hope this verdict will convince others that with careful and thorough preparation, it is still possible for a corporate defendant to obtain justice in a serious personal injury case in Harris County,” he said.
Norman is represented by Alan Kolodny and Rashon Murrill of Kolodny Law Firm.
Kahn Scheepvaart BV is represented by Robert L. Klawetter, Christina K. Schovajsa, Thomas M. Stanley and Dylan Hoke of Schouest, Bamdas, Soshea, BenMaier & Eastham
The case number is 2017-14082.
Delaware Chancery Court
Pioneer Natural Resources Sued by Pension Fund
A pension fund has asked the court to give it access to Pioneer Natural Resource’s corporate books and records after alleging the energy company’s leaders may have engaged in self-dealing in the leadup to and execution of the $59.5 billion deal to be acquired by Exxon Mobil Corporation.
Operating Engineers Construction Industry and Miscellaneous Pension Fund filed suit Feb. 6, seeking access to the records to investigate “potential breaches of fiduciary duty by members of the company’s senior management and board of directors.”
The suit alleges CEO Richard Dealy and former CEO Scott Sheffield will receive benefits from the merger “that are not shared by the company’s public stockholders.
“Specifically, Sheffield and Dealy will be entitled to change-in-control benefits that will provide: (i) Sheffield with nearly $29 million that he otherwise would not have received at retirement without a sale and (ii) Dealy with approximately $15 million,” the suit alleges. “Further, Sheffield will be appointed to ExxonMobil’s board, Dealy will be appointed as Pioneer’s lead representative on ExxonMobil’s integration and transition team, and ExxonMobil will for at least two years maintain Pioneer’s existing headquarters in Irving, Texas, as well as a comparable office facility in Midland, Texas, locations inferably important to Sheffield and Dealy.”
The pension fund also seeks to investigate whether the duo concealed from the board their knowledge of a $2.4 billion to $2.6 billion impairment charge Exxon expects to incur related to its upstream business.
The case has been assigned to Magistrate Selena E. Molina.
Counsel information for Pioneer wasn’t available Monday.
The pension fund is represented by Christine M. Mackintosh, William G. Passannante II and Christopher J. Orrico of Grant & Eisenhofer.
The case number is 2024-0101.
Eastern District of Texas
Defendants in University Athletic Billing Scheme Lawyer Up
The two businessmen and two doctors who have been indicted on charges of conspiring to commit the crimes of wire fraud, healthcare fraud and money laundering have hired defense attorneys to defend against claims they defrauded the government for nearly a decade via a scheme involving university athletics.
In January, the government secured indictments against Mouzon “Muzzy” Bass III, 58, of Highland Park; Lance West Wilson, 54, of Allen and Dr. Robert Brent Scott, 59, of La Quinta, California. Dr. Kyle Carter, 61, of Keller was indicted separately in October.
Scott hired Gene Besen, Ryan Dean, Scarlett Nokes and Stephen K. Moulton of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings. Carter is represented by Jeffrey Ansley, Samuel M. Deau and Arianna G. Goodman of Vedder Price.
Prosecutors allege that from 2014 through 2023 Bass and Wilson used their company, Vivature, to submit false claims to insurers indicating that doctors Scott and Carter had provided medical services for injured student athletes at various universities across the country when in actuality those student athletes had been treated by trainers employed by the respective universities.
In exchange for allowing Bass and Wilson to use the doctors’ national provider identifier numbers on the false claims filed with insurers, the government alleges Scott and Carter received regular payments from Vivature.
Three of the defendants — Bass, Wilson and Scott — also are facing charges related to a second alleged scheme. Prosecutors have accused the trio of fraudulently obtaining Health Resources and Services Administration funds that were supposed to be used to provide Covid tests to uninsured Americans. To effectuate the scheme, the government alleges the trio partnered with international resorts where American travelers stayed offering to manage the billing and claims process for Covid-19 testing of those travelers, but then submitted thousands of false claims for reimbursement.
The government alleges its losses total more than $70 million from the two schemes and that the defendants used that money to pay themselves millions, purchase luxury real estate and a yacht.
The lead prosecutor is Anand Varadarajan of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Plano.
The case has been assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Aileen Goldman Durrett.
The case numbers are 4:24-cr-00007 and 4:23-cr-00225.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Panel Revives Fatal Crash Suit Against Union Pacific
The family of a teenager who was killed after being struck by a Union Pacific train in Houston’s Memorial Park will get another chance to bring a negligence and gross negligence suit against the company after the Fifth Circuit on Feb. 9 undid an early win in the case.
The parents of Avery Tapia had filed notice they were appealing U.S. District Judge Sim T. Lake III’s ruling in April 2023. Tapia, 17, was killed in November 2022 while on a railroad-only bridge in the park, according to court records.
Judge Lake had granted the railroad summary judgment, finding that there was no proximate cause that would allow the lawsuit to proceed. But the Fifth Circuit panel, in a two-page ruling, wrote that he had reached that conclusion “without addressing the elements of duty or breach.”
“The support for the district court’s decision on proximate cause came almost exclusively from the dissenting opinion in Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway Co. v. Riddle,” the panel wrote, referencing a 1925 opinion from the Waco appellate court. “Irrespective of the ultimate outcome in this case, for this reason, we cannot say that the district court’s order granting summary judgment was free of error.”
Judges Carolyn Dineen King, Edith H. Jones and Andrew S. Oldham sat on the panel.
Tapia is represented by Andrew R. Gould, Brian Christensen, Samantha Demuren and Jason Itkin of Arnold & Itkin.
UP is represented by Scott Ballenger of the University of Virginia School of Law, Christina F. Crozier, Lynne Liberato, Ryan Pitts and Kent Rutter of Haynes Boone and Daniel Gibson of Union Pacific Railroad Company.
The case number is 23-20139.
Court Splits on Rehearing in Rastafarian’s Prison Shaving Suit
In an 11-6 vote, the Fifth Circuit denied the request lodged by a Rastafarian former inmate for rehearing en banc of his lawsuit against Louisiana prison guards who he alleged violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when they pinned him down and shaved his head.
Damon Landor is a Rastafarian who took a religious oath not to cut his hair, an oath he kept for nearly 20 years prior to his December 2020 encounter with guards at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Louisiana.
The court’s Feb. 5 ruling denying Landor’s attempt to revive his suit spawned two dissents — one authored by Judge James C. Ho and another authored by Judge Andrew S. Oldham
The other members of the court who voted in favor of rehearing are Jennifer Walker Elrod, Jerry E. Smith, Don R. Willett and Stuart Kyle Duncan.
Judge Edith Brown Clement authored a concurrence calling out the guards for “knowingly” violating Landor’s rights “in a stark and egregious manner, literally throwing in the trash our opinion holding that Louisiana’s policy of cutting Rastafarians’ hair violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act before pinning Landor down and shaving his head.”
“Landor clearly suffered a grave legal wrong,” she wrote. “The question is whether a damages remedy is available to him under RLUIPA. That is a question only the Supreme Court can answer.”
The majority of the court determined that its own precedent requires a determination that the RLUIPA doesn’t permit Landor to recover money damages against state officials in their individual capacities.
Judge Oldham wrote in his dissent that an injunction wouldn’t have helped the “then-bald Landor. So he sued his abusers for money damages under RLUIPA.”
“Inexplicably, he lost. And doubly inexplicably, our en banc court cannot be moved to rehear the case,” he wrote. “The panel held RLUIPA does not allow prisoners to sue state prison officials in their individual capacities for money damages. With all due respect to my esteemed and learned colleagues, that result cannot be squared with Tanzin v. Tanvir. … Tanzin held that individuals can sue for money damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.”
Judge Oldham wrote that the majority of his Fifth Circuit colleagues had pitted the statutes against each other, requiring his dissent.
“It is certainly true that the Supreme Court could fix the mistake we made today,” he wrote. “But the court could also fix every mistake we attempt to fix under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 35. We have the en banc process to fix errors like the one we made in Sossamon I. I regret we chose not to do so.”
Sossamon I refers to a 2009 Fifth Circuit holding that the court’s majority said required finding Landor had no cause of action. In that case, the court sided with the state of Texas, holding there was no ability to recover money damages against state government officials in their individual capacities under the RLUIPA.
The case number is 22-30686.