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The Law Funder, L.L.C. v. Munoz

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 16, 2019

THE LAW FUNDER, L.L.C., Plaintiff - Appellee
SERGIO MUNOZ, JR.; LAW OFFICES OF SERGIO MUNOZ, JR. P.C., doing business as Munoz Law Firm, Defendants - Appellants

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before KING, SMITH, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM

         The Law Funder, L.L.C., sued Sergio Munoz, Jr., and his law firm for legal malpractice. Finding a series of discovery violations and related malfeasance, the district court struck Munoz's answer. Munoz did not move to replead, and the district court entered default judgment against him. The district court then held a bench trial on damages and awarded Law Funder nearly $3 million. Munoz appeals, challenging both the default judgment and the district court's award. We AFFIRM the district court's entry of default judgment against Munoz. But because we conclude the district court improperly calculated damages under Texas law, we VACATE the district court's final judgment and REMAND for a new trial on damages.

         I. A.

         The Law Funder, L.L.C., ("Law Funder") is a litigation-financing firm. It grants nonrecourse loans to plaintiffs and attorneys to cover the expenses of lawsuits in exchange for the rights to portions of the lawsuits' eventual winnings. As relevant here, Law Funder held rights to portions of the proceeds of 21 lawsuits litigated by Servicios Legales de Mesoamerica S. de R.L. ("SLM"), a Mexican law firm. Seeking to protect its investments into SLM's litigation, Law Funder intervened in a Texas state-court divorce proceeding involving Wilfrido Garcia, who had an ownership interest in SLM that became part of the marital estate.

         The state court ordered a number of law firms and attorneys to pay litigation debts owed to SLM. Only one attorney complied, so the state court appointed receivers to locate and collect the remainder of the debts owed to SLM. Several of SLM's creditors intervened in the Garcia divorce and claimed entitlement to the funds the receivers collected, although testimony below established that Law Funder's claim was the most substantial. Law Funder retained several attorneys, including defendants Sergio Munoz, Jr., and his law firm, Law Offices of Sergio Munoz, Jr., P.C., (collectively, "Munoz") to help locate these funds and secure their ultimate disbursement to Law Funder.

         Unbeknownst to Law Funder, Munoz had a close professional relationship with Judge Jesus Contreras, who was presiding over the Garcia divorce: Munoz and Judge Contreras were coprincipals in a professional corporation, Contreras & Munoz, P.C. About a year after Law Funder retained Munoz, an intervenor in the Garcia divorce with a competing claim to the SLM receiver funds discovered this conflict and moved to disqualify Judge

          Contreras. A different state-court judge heard the motion and ordered Judge Contreras disqualified. The state court subsequently voided all orders Judge Contreras had entered in the case, including the order appointing the receivers. At this point, Law Funder had expended almost $2 million in attorney fees and expenses trying to collect SLM's debt. Left without enough funding to start over, Law Funder ceased pursuing its claims in the Garcia divorce.


         Invoking the district court's diversity jurisdiction, Law Funder brought the present suit against Munoz for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and legal malpractice under Texas law. Munoz filed an answer, and the case proceeded to discovery. The district court later found Munoz committed a litany of discovery violations and other procedural transgressions. Because the district court had a front-row seat to the saga below, we quote its description of events at length:

Plaintiff served Defendants with its first request for production on May 29, 2015. Due to Defendants' failure to produce any documents, Plaintiff subsequently filed a motion to compel production. Thereafter, Defendants promised to act in good faith and turn over appropriate documentation. In light of this promise, Judge Randy Crane ordered Defendants "to produce any relevant, unprivileged documents in their possession as indicated in their objections and responses to Plaintiff's first request for production within fourteen days of this order . . . ."
Two months later, Plaintiff moved for sanctions on the ground that Defendants had not complied with this order. The Court subsequently permitted David Calvillo, then counsel of record, to withdraw but abated the case for 30 days to allow Defendants to obtain new counsel. Despite the fact that the abatement ended on May 12, 2016, no appearance was made by counsel at that time. The Court held a hearing on June 6, 2016 to discuss the pending motion for sanctions, but Defendants did not appear. Nevertheless, the Court ordered Defendants to produce certain documents requested by Plaintiff in its first request for production, most notably certain electronic documents. Defendants, through their new counsel, subsequently requested an extension of time to comply with the production order, claiming that Counsel had just been retained. No other explanation was given for the request, thus the Court denied the request. The Court thereafter held a hearing on September 13, 2016 to discuss the status of the case but Defendants again failed to appear. The Court reset the hearing to October 18, 2016 at which time the Court was made aware that Defendants had never produced the electronic documents which the Court had ordered Defendants to produce. The Court ordered Defendants to tender the electronic documents to Plaintiff within three days of the October 1, 2016 status conference, or else it would consider sanctions upon Plaintiff's motion.
Plaintiff also served Defendants with its second request for production on September 8, 2016. Defendants never responded, and Plaintiff's counsel raised this issue with the Court during the October 18, 2016 status conference. The Court ordered Defendants to respond to Plaintiff's second request for production within three days of that hearing, and warned Defendants that failure to timely respond could result in sanctions. Exactly three days later, at 12:40 P.M., Plaintiff filed its second motion for sanctions, stating that "Defendants have still not fully complied with the Court's original order compelling the production of documents and had not responded to Plaintiff's second request for production." It is not entirely clear from the face of Plaintiff's motion whether Defendants have yet tendered the electronic documents identified in Plaintiff's first production request.
The Court observes more generally that Defendants have materially impeded the discovery process and therefore resolution of this case. Defendants asserted perfunctory objections to many of Plaintiff's requests for production and were uncooperative in scheduling depositions. The Court thus had to order Defendants to appear for their depositions. Also, Defendants failed to adequately respond to Plaintiff's request for admissions, because they copied and pasted the same "vagueness" objection to twenty-nine of the thirty-six admissions requests. Defendants and Defendants' counsel have also failed to appear or have arrived late at three hearings held specifically for the purpose of resolving discovery disputes. Plaintiff's counsel also informs the Court that Defendants failed to "produce a single ...

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