Metroplex Courts Push Back on Broad Application of TCPA

Metroplex Courts Push Back on Broad Application of TCPA

If you just returned from a two-year sabbatical to the Himalayas, you should know the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) has become kind of a big deal in Texas litigation.

You remember the TCPA, right? It’s the “anti-SLAPP” statute the legislature passed to solve the problem of people filing lawsuits “regardless of whether the claim is valid.” See the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Your right to share your opinion is threatened by this proposed state law.

The TCPA has taken on a surprising life of its own. This is partly because Texas courts have applied the statute’s broad definitions literally, allowing defendants in cases the legislature never intended to file motions to dismiss that require the plaintiff to prove its case before taking any discovery.

But in a pair of recent opinions, the Dallas-Fort Worth appellate courts have pushed back on broad application of the TCPA, especially to the kind of “departing employee” case I often handle.

First, in Kawcak v. Antero Resources, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held that the TCPA’s broad definition of “right of association” is not so broad that it includes a conspiracy between a departing employee and a single alleged co-conspirator.[1] After a painstaking textual analysis of the statute’s phrase “common interest,” the court said “[o]ur opinion is long but our holding is narrow: the plain meaning of the word ‘common’ in TCPA section 27.001(2)’s definition of ‘the right of association’ requires more than two tortfeasors conspiring to act tortiously for their own selfish benefit.”

Second, the Dallas Court of Appeals held in Dyer v. Medoc Health Services that the TCPA’s broad definitions of “right of association” and “right of free speech” are not so broad that they encompass communications between a departing employee and an alleged co-conspirator about misappropriating an employer’s proprietary software and confidential information to set up a competing business.[2]

You see a theme here?

These propositions may sound uncontroversial. But other Texas appellate courts have applied the TCPA’s expansive definitions more literally. For example, the Austin Court of Appeals has held that the TCPA applies to allegations that a departing employee disclosed a company’s trade secrets to his new employer, and to a claim for conspiracy to misappropriate trade secrets. The Tyler Court of Appeals and Houston Court of Appeals have made similar rulings. See the cases summarized here.

But in Dyer, the Dallas Court of Appeals was just not having it. The court found that applying the TCPA to an alleged scheme to misappropriate confidential information would be illogical and even absurd:

Because the text messages between Basiti and Dyer were private communications related to an alleged conspiracy between the two men and did not involve public or citizen’s participation, it would be “illogical” to apply the TCPA to those communications.

Further, construing the statute such that appellants would have a “right of association” based solely on Dyer’s and Basiti’s private communications allegedly pertaining to the misappropriation of appellees’ proprietary software and confidential business information is an absurd result that would not further the purpose of the TCPA to curb strategic lawsuits against public participation.[3]

The Fort Worth Court of Appeals reached a similar result, but it was not so quick to blow open the “absurd results” escape hatch. The Kawcak opinion is notable for the lengths Justice Bassel went to justify the holding on textualist grounds—citing no less than four dictionaries and Scalia and Garner’s Reading Law. It shows you just how much cache textualism has acquired among a significant chunk of Texas appellate judges.

There was a more pragmatic era when Texas judges would have brushed aside the defendant’s argument in Kawcak without giving it a second thought. As if to say, “The ‘right of association’ includes a conspiracy between two people? Don’t be silly.”

Don’t get me wrong. Kawcak is not a bad opinion. It is meticulously written and reasoned. But part of me wonders if we really need so much textualist hand-wringing. When interpreting a statute gets down to parsing the order of different definitions in different dictionaries, have we perhaps lost our way?

But these days Texas appellate courts don’t like to say a statute is ambiguous. As the Kawcak court said, “if an undefined term has multiple common meanings, it is not necessarily ambiguous; rather, we will apply the definition most consistent with the context of the statutory scheme.”[4] Rather than calling a statute ambiguous, some judges prefer to explain why one—and only one—side’s interpretation is reasonable.

This isn’t necessarily wrong. But maybe we should cut to the chase and acknowledge the obvious: the definitions in the TCPA have more than one reasonable interpretation. When a text has more than one reasonable interpretation, it’s ambiguous. Or at least vague. When a statute is ambiguous or vague, the courts are free to adopt the reasonable interpretation that makes the most sense.

Of course, you can also look to the purpose of the statute (as the TCPA itself tells courts to do). But the “purpose” of a statute almost always has two sides. In this case, for example, the purpose of the TCPA is to protect constitutional rights and to protect the right to file meritorious lawsuits. So, the purpose is really a wash. The real task, I think, is for the court to pick the interpretation that makes the most public policy sense.

Isn’t that what Kawcak and Dyer are really doing anyway? I’ll save that for my upcoming dissertation, tentatively titled Toward a Legal Realist Critique of TCPA Jurisprudence (The Texas One, Not the Telephone Consumer Protection Act).

The more practical question for litigators who handle departing employee cases is how far Kawcak and Dyer reach. Both cases involved communications about an employer’s confidential information between two individuals. What happens when a departing employee communicates with a group of people about starting or joining a competing venture? (This is not unusual in such cases.) Does that implicate a “common interest” as defined in Kawcak, making the TCPA apply? That’s a harder case.

And would it make a difference if the alleged conduct is not as egregious as it was in Kawcak and Dyer? There is more than a whiff of moral disapproval running through both opinions. One might read the pair of cases as holding that the TCPA does not apply when two or more defendants join together to engage in some kind of wrongdoing.

But that would be going too far. The meanings of “right of free speech” and “right of association” as defined in the TCPA cannot turn on whether the defendants are accused of wrongdoing. The plaintiff is always going to allege that the defendants did something wrongful. This is something the press and the politicians don’t always grasp: there is no quick and easy way to sort out at the beginning of a lawsuit whether the plaintiff is the good guy or the bad guy.

You might even say this is the fundamental problem at the root of the TCPA, from which all its errant branches spread.

It will be up to the Texas Supreme Court to decide which way the branches grow. This recent pair of decisions from the Metroplex sets up a conflict with the cases from the Austin Court of Appeals and other courts that apply the TCPA’s definitions more literally.

If you take another long sabbatical now, we might know the answer by the time you get back. But maybe go somewhere a little warmer this time.

*Reminder: If you love these TCPA issues—and who doesn’t?—then don’t miss our webcast this Friday March 22 at 1:00 pm. Even you Aggie lawyers—you know who you are!—should register with UT Law CLE here.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. His first law job was in that big building with the green lights. 

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Kawcak v. Antero Resources Corp., 02-18-00301-CV, 2019 WL 761480, at *1 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Feb. 21, 2019, no pet. h.).

[2] Dyer v. Medoc Health Servs., LLC, 05-18-00472-CV, 2019 WL 1090733, at *5-7 (Tex. App.—Dallas Mar. 8, 2019, no pet. h.).

[3] Id. at *5.

[4] Kawcak, 2019 WL 761480 at *9 (quoting Thompson v. Tex. Dep’t Licensing & Regulation, 455 S.W.3d 569, 571 (Tex. 2014)).

I Can’t Drive 25 (Requests for Production)

I Can’t Drive 25 (Requests for Production)

Senior Texas lawyers despair, the last vestiges of the “trial by ambush” era are being swept away like the Imperial Senate.

It looks like changes to the discovery rules are coming to Texas in 2019. Some of the changes will be significant improvements, while others will be less consequential tweaks. But there is one proposed change that is just a bad idea: limiting each side to only 25 requests for production of documents. More about that later.

The Discovery Subcommittee of the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee has been working on changes to the discovery rules for a few years now. I wrote about this two years ago in Proposed Changes to Texas Discovery Rules Threaten Law Firm Revenue. As I wrote then, the two biggest changes are requiring Federal-style initial disclosures and making communications with testifying experts undiscoverable.

These changes struck me as basically a good idea, with the potential to reduce gamesmanship and litigation expense. I say “reduce” because you’re never going to eliminate gamesmanship from discovery. This is litigation, after all. Plus, one man’s “gamesmanship” is another man’s proper use of the rules to protect his client’s interests.

In any case, the changes I wrote about—and others—may be coming soon. On February 11, 2019, the Discovery Subcommittee transmitted its recommended rewrite of the Texas discovery rules to the Supreme Court Advisory Committee.

I’ve only got five minutes, so I won’t try to cover all the changes, but here are some highlights:

  • Rule 190.4 would require a Federal-style initial conference followed by a discovery control plan and docket control order. I often find the initial conference a waste of time—it’s too early to address all those issues—but it’s relatively harmless.
  • Rule 192.4(b) would change “the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit” to “the discovery sought is not proportional to the needs of the case.” In other words, the proposal writes proportionality into the rule, although proportionality is already implicit.
  • Rule 193.2(a) targets “prophylactic” objections: “An objection must state whether any responsive materials are being withheld on the basis of the objection.” This sounds like a good rule, but expect it to be routinely ignored.
  • Rule 194 would now require Federal-style initial disclosures. Unless otherwise agreed or ordered, both sides would have to serve them within 30 days after the defendant’s answer. For Texas practice, this completes the decades-long shift in philosophy from “trial by ambush” to putting your cards on the table from the start. Also, like the federal rule, the new rule would allow “a description by category and location” in lieu of actually producing the documents—I’ve never understood the point of this.
  • Rule 195.5(a)(4) would expand the scope of expert disclosures to be closer to Federal Rule 26.
  • Rule 195.5(c) would generally exempt communications with testifying experts from discovery (like the Federal rules–notice a pattern?). Overall, this is a good change for reasons I explained in my “Proposed Changes” post.
  • Rule 199.1(b) would add total hour limits for depositions (50 hours for a typical case).
  • Proposals for addressing ESI and spoliation are still being discussed.
  • Rule 196.1(c) would provide: “Unless otherwise stipulated or ordered by the court, a party may serve on any other party no more than 15 requests for production or for inspection in a Level 1 case or 25 requests for production or for inspection in Level 2 or Level 3 cases, including discrete subparts.” [record scratch]

Wait, what?! You’re telling me in a typical case I only get to serve 25 requests for production?

If you’re not a lawyer, or if you’re a lawyer who doesn’t litigate, that probably doesn’t sound unreasonable. But trust me, 25 requests for production is not a lot.

I’ve been practicing business litigation in Texas for over 20 years. That’s not as long as most of the people on the Supreme Court Advisory Committee, but it’s still a pretty good run. I don’t think I’ve ever had a case of even the slightest complexity where each side served fewer than 25 requests for production.

My fellow litigators understand that you don’t know what you’re going to get when you serve that first broad set of requests for production. And you usually don’t know what the real factual disputes are until you get some substantive documents from the other side and take one or two depositions.

That’s not all. It’s hard enough to get the documents to prove your claim or defense when the other guy is cooperating. When opposing counsel is actively trying to obstruct your efforts to get the documents you need, it’s even harder. For example, I had a fairly simple non-compete case where I had to serve about a dozen sets of requests for production because the opposing party was so slippery.

Surely I’m not alone. I’m a little surprised that the highly experienced litigators on the Supreme Court Advisory Committee would endorse a 25-request limit. I’d be curious to know how many of them have ever had a business lawsuit where 25 requests for production were adequate.

IMG_7223
Take my license, all that jive

Maybe they’ve seen too many cases with an excessive number of requests for production. But there is already an inherent reasonableness limit. Let’s say a party has already served 75 requests for production in three separate sets and then serves a fourth set of 25 more requests. If those requests are unreasonable or duplicative of prior requests, then the responding party can file a motion for protective order asking the judge to limit the number of requests. I don’t think anyone doubts the trial court judge’s discretion to grant a motion like that.

If, on the other hand, those new requests are relevant to issues in the case, reasonably tailored, and not duplicative of prior requests, I say they should be allowed.

But we must reduce the cost of discovery, right?

I’m all for trying to contain the cost of discovery. But it’s not the number of requests for production that is driving up the cost of discovery. In my experience, it’s really two things: (1) emails, and (2) fighting over discovery.

The impact of emails on the cost of litigation is well known. That ship has sailed.

The other factor that makes discovery so expensive is when the lawyers can’t get along. It’s really the discovery battles that drive up the cost. These skirmishes are usually the result of requesting lawyers serving unreasonably broad requests and/or responding lawyers making a litany of unreasonable objections. The problem is then compounded when trial court judges don’t want to get their hands dirty.

These are the main factors that make discovery expensive, not the number of requests for production.

I don’t know how to fix these problems. But I do know that limiting parties to 25 requests for production isn’t going to make lawyers more cooperative, and it isn’t going to change the fact that reviewing and producing thousands of emails is expensive.

If anything, this new speed limit is likely to increase gamesmanship and battles over discovery. If you only get 25 requests, your incentive is to make them broad. That’s going to lead to more objections and more discovery motions. And don’t get me started on arguing about “discrete subparts”; we already know from interrogatories how much time lawyers can waste on that.

Proponents of the limit will point out that you won’t need as many requests for production because the other party has to produce their evidence as part of the new initial disclosures. That’s a fair point, but it doesn’t help me with getting the documents I need to prove my case.

In fairness to the proposal, I also have to point out the preamble: “Unless otherwise stipulated or ordered by the court . . .”

That’s a good safety valve. It leaves the parties free to agree on a greater number of requests for production, and I expect a lot of litigants—especially in complex cases—will avail themselves of that option. And even if the parties don’t agree, the judge can order a greater number of requests if a party offers a good reason.

So the proponents of this revision would say, listen dude (that’s what they call me), you’re overreacting.

But I still don’t think we should start with the presumption that 25 is a reasonable number of requests for production. When the parties can’t agree, some judges are likely to fall back on the number in the rules. So if we’re going to have a number, it should be a good number. Even better, let’s have no presumptive limit and just rely on an inherent limitation of reasonableness.

That was the decision the Texas Supreme Court effectively made when it adopted the “new” discovery rules back in 1999, when I was a new lawyer and Gary Cherone was singing for Van Halen. Those rules limited the number of interrogatories a party could serve but left the number of requests for production open-ended.

The Supreme Court Advisory Committee should do the same thing now. Most of the proposed changes look good. Just take out that 25-request limit.

And May the Force be With You.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. He likes both David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. 

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Legislation Aims to Reign in the TCPA, Protect Non-Compete Suits

Legislation Aims to Reign in the TCPA, Protect Non-Compete Suits

Winston Churchill said democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all the alternatives. I recall that sentiment any time I think about the Texas legislature. I also think of the words of another wise man, Obi-Wan Kenobi, when he described Mos Eisley spaceport to a young Luke Skywalker.

But sometimes the legislature surprises you and does something halfway sensical.

To wit: on February 28, 2019, Representative Jeff Leach (R-Plano) filed House Bill 2730, which would amend the Texas Citizens Participation Act (“TCPA”). My Fivers already know the TCPA is the hottest thing in Texas litigation right now, and that it could use some amending.

The bill would make these fundamental changes:

  • The TCPA would be limited to suits implicating the constitutional rights to petition, speak freely, or associate, as those rights are applied by state and federal courts—not as those rights were broadly defined in the original TCPA.
  • The TCPA would not apply to suits to enforce non-competes or NDAs.

Notably, the bill does not exempt suits brought under the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act (TUTSA) from application of the TCPA.

The bill would also make these less fundamental, but still important, procedural changes:

  • Certain motions—including a motion to compel and a motion for summary judgment—would not trigger the right to file a TCPA motion to dismiss.
  • The TCPA would expressly state that its purpose is procedural (to avoid application in federal court?)
  • At least 14 days’ notice of a hearing on a TCPA motion would be required.
  • The responding party could avoid the TCPA motion—and any award of attorney’s fees—by filing a nonsuit at least three days before the hearing.
  • The statute would not apply to a compulsory counterclaim.

In departing employee litigation, the overall effect would be to shift the balance of power back towards companies who sue to stop their former employees from working for competitors.

More bills have since been filed. Senator Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) introduced SB 2162, which matches HB 2730. Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) has offered a narrower bill, HB 3547, that would exclude trade secret and non-compete claims from the definition of “right of association.” And Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) has offered House Bill 4575, another more limited rewrite, which would exempt DTPA and non-compete claims.

You can find a useful comparison chart of these bills here at Sean Lemoine’s “Anti-Slapp Texas” blog, which is a great source for TCPA developments generally.

How the Sausage Gets Made

No doubt these bills were in response to Five Minute Law’s call for reform in It’s Alive, It’s ALIVE! How to Kill a TCPA Motion in a Trade Secrets Lawsuit. Right?

More likely it was in response to the chorus of Texas appellate judges saying something has to be done to limit the TCPA it to its stated purpose of protecting constitutional rights. Nobody really intended the statute to apply to, for example, an ordinary departing employee lawsuit alleging breach of a non-compete and/or misappropriation of trade secrets.

On the other hand, I doubt much happens in the legislature unless either (1) some powerful donor or interest group is pushing for a change (I was going to say “special” interest group, but that would be somewhat redundant), or (2) some issue has personally irritated a legislator.

Then it hit me. Leach, a Republican representing parts of Collin County, practices complex commercial and civil litigation with Gray Reed. So I’ll bet he has some firsthand experience with TCPA motions.

Plus, as I speculated in Can You “Plead Around” the TCPA?, “[c]ompanies that want to enforce their non-competes and protect their (alleged) trade secrets are going to push back on broad application of the TCPA.” You had to think that business groups were going to get behind some effort to reign in the TCPA.

And right on cue, “Texans for Lawsuit Reform” circulated an 18-page report urging changes to the TCPA. See TLR Comes Out Swinging Against the Texas Anti-SLAPP. From the press I’ve seen, it appears that TLR is backing the more sweeping changes in the bills offered by Leach and Paxton.

Naturally, this has produced a counter-offensive from media interests and free speech groups, resulting in editorials like the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Your right to share your opinion is threatened by this proposed state law. The Star-Telegram prefers Moody’s narrower bill, warning that the broader rewrites “would allow anyone to file a lawsuit against a speaker or writer regardless of whether the claim is valid.” (Can you imagine?!)

For more articles, see Media Groups Come Out Swinging Against Changes to the Texas Anti-Slapp.

This is politics, of course, so you don’t always know exactly who is backing what and with what motives. But I can tell you that the opinions you find in the editorials have very little to do with the actual reality of TCPA practice. When practicing litigators who actually handle TCPA motions read the heated rhetoric, we just kind of shake our heads and chuckle.

If I Ran the Zoo . . .

Some have asked me, as a lawyer who handles a lot of departing employee litigation, what I think about the proposed legislative changes. But I’m a guy who thinks Texas should have a state income tax, so that tells you how much currency my opinions hold.

As with so many things in politics, I don’t even know where to begin.

If it were up to me, Texas would encourage more competition by only allowing non-competes in the sale of a business. This would mean less non-compete litigation, thus less billable work for me. On the other hand, employers would just shift to suing former employees for misappropriation of trade secrets—the “de facto” non-compete—so maybe my business wouldn’t dry up.

And if I made the rules, we wouldn’t have special-interest legislation that adopts a different set of rules for one particular type of litigation. So the TCPA (and a lot of other statutes) would have never passed in the first place.

But of course, we are not writing on a blank slate. In politics, as in law, you have to take the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. Considering Texas has a non-compete statute that allows reasonable non-competes and a TCPA that has the stated purpose of protecting constitutional rights, it does make sense to change the TCPA’s broad definitions and to carve non-compete suits out of the statute.

The Preemption Predicament

But does the TCPA apply to non-compete lawsuits in the first place? Section 15.52 of the Texas Covenants Not to Compete Act states that its criteria for enforceability, procedures, and remedies for non-competes are exclusive and preempt other law. Citing this provision, some have argued that the non-compete statute already preempts the TCPA.

Similarly, Section 134A.007 of the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act states that it “displaces conflicting tort, restitutionary, and other law of this state providing civil remedies for misappropriation of a trade secret.” Does this mean that TUTSA preempts the TCPA?

Texas appellate courts have yet to rule on these preemption questions.

Ironically, if House Bill 2730 becomes law, it could imply that the non-compete statute never preempted the TCPA. If the non-compete statute already preempted the TCPA, one could argue, there would be no reason for the legislature to add an exemption for non-competes to the TCPA. After all, the law is a seamless web.

And what would passage of the legislation mean, if anything, for trade secrets claims?

As with so much legislation, the proposed changes to the TCPA in House Bill 2730 and the other bills would answer some questions but raise others. Every time the legislature messes with the civil justice system, there are unintended consequences. But this is how we do it.

As Obi-Wan might say, “Who is more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?”

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

The Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy

The Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy

Donald Trump made news when he suggested it might be time to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. U.S. military forces have been there about 18 years. That’s an easy number for me to remember because my daughter is 18 years old. She was born in 2001. Then 9-11 happened, and I’m kind of glad she wasn’t old enough to remember it.

Going into Afghanistan seemed like a no-brainer at the time. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan and were harboring Al-Qaeda. It seemed the only people who opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan were the kind you can count on to oppose virtually any U.S. military action (far left with a sprinkle of libertarian types). In the wake of the worst attack on American soil in my lifetime, W’s approval rating was high even among Democrats.

Of course, that didn’t last. Opinions on the Iraq war were more divided, and today it seems there is a broad consensus that Iraq was a mistake. Not only that, people are even questioning whether it makes sense to stay in Afghanistan. Eighteen years later the Al-Qaeda threat looks significantly diminished, yet Afghanistan seems like an endless quagmire.

More traditional hawks tend to reject this Afghanistan revisionism. If we leave Afghanistan now, aren’t we admitting that going in to get Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda was a mistake? After all the dollars spent and American lives lost, how can we just give up?

This, of course, is the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s primarily a principle of economics, but it applies in a wide range of scenarios. The idea is that in deciding whether to spend additional money or resources on a project that is in progress, a rational actor should consider whether the future benefits are likely to outweigh the future costs. It is a fallacy to consider costs incurred in the past—the “sunk” costs—because there is nothing you can do to change them.

In other words, it’s a fallacy to continue pursuing a venture that is not going to be profitable on the ground that you’ve already invested time and money in it.

Sound familiar, litigators? If you have any experience with litigation, you have probably experienced the sunk-costs fallacy firsthand. Let’s consider an example from my favorite hypothetical lawsuit, Paula Payne Windows v. Dawn Davis.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Litigation

Dawn Davis was the top sales person at Paula Payne Windows, but she became disgruntled when her business development budget was cut and she couldn’t do her annual trip to Vegas with her best customers. So she accepted a job offer from Paula Payne’s fierce competitor, Real Cheap Windows.

Then Paula Payne sued Dawn, claiming breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets. But the judge thought the non-compete was too broad and denied Paula Payne’s motion for a temporary injunction.

Six months later, Paula Payne had obtained no relief and spent over $50,000 on legal fees. Documents produced by Real Cheap showed that Dawn had brought several customers to Real Cheap, generating about $100,000 in revenue. Paula Payne’s CFO estimated that Paula Payne would have made about $20,000 in profit on those sales if the customers had stayed with Paula Payne.

“Paula, we’ve got to make a decision,” the company’s lawyer said to the founder and CEO. “Our trial date is only six months away,” he said, “and we need to hire a CPA as a damages expert.” And here’s the kicker: “I know a good one we can use, but he’ll need a deposit of $15,000.”

Paula grimaced. “Ok, and how much are your fees going to be from now through the trial?” she asked. “Hard to say,” her lawyer said, “but you’re looking at paying us at least another $50,000.” “So you may want to think about settling,” he said, “especially considering your damages may be less than $50,000.” He added that Real Cheap’s lawyer already indicated Real Cheap would be willing to do a walk-away settlement.

“No way,” Paula shot back. “What was the point of suing Dawn and Real Cheap and paying you $50,000 if I’m just going to quit now?”

And there it is. The Sunk Cost Fallacy. A rational business person would coldly look at the cost of going forward (around $65,000), the potential benefit (let’s assume a recovery of around $50,000), and the chance of success. Even assuming a better than even chance of success, it looks like the smart move for Paula Payne would be to settle for whatever she can get, or even to walk away.

The Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy

But of course real people—even sophisticated business people—don’t think like that. It doesn’t feel right to spend $50,000 on a project and then decide to shut it down. It’s easy to understand that emotion.

If want to put it in economic terms, you could say there is a psychological cost to giving up on a venture when you have already invested your time, money, and energy in it. The mental pain that Paula will feel if she quits is real, and in theory you could assign a dollar value to it. Isn’t that similar to what juries do when they consider “mental anguish” damages?

When you take that pain into account, then maybe the economic critique of the Sunk Cost Fallacy is itself a fallacy. The economic problem with the critique is that it doesn’t take all of the relevant costs into account.

Putting aside economics, there’s a more practical problem for Paula Payne’s lawyer. If he approaches the issue from purely an economic standpoint, he’s going to under-appreciate the importance of Paula’s emotions, and he won’t have a happy client. In other words, presenting the issue to Paula as purely dollars and cents doesn’t reflect high “emotional intelligence.”

It turns out there is a second principle at play: the Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy. It’s a fallacy to think that a client who has sunk costs should make decisions based purely on a rational assessment of the future economic costs and benefits. After all, Paula’s not a robot. In the words of Bob Schneider, she’s only blood and bones.

The First Law of Holes

Let’s assume that Paula Payne’s lawyer gets that. He has high emotional intelligence and is aware of the Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy. That means he will not be too quick to dismiss Paula’s objection that she has already spent $50,000 on the lawsuit. He will understand that for Paula, simply giving up is not an option, even if walking away makes economic sense. He will “feel her pain.”

dark-excavation-graphic-1601495
I’m fixing a hole, where the rain gets in

So, full speed ahead! Forget the fact that Paula Payne may have to spend over $65,000 on lawyer and expert fees to go to trial on a $40,000 lost profits claim. At least she’ll be able to look herself in the mirror and know she stood up for the rights of her company. Right?

Maybe. But here’s the problem. Chances are, the case is still going to settle. I’ve taken a non-compete case to trial before, but it’s rare. A trial of any kind of case is rare. Nine times out of ten (or more), it’s just a question of when the case settles, and for how much.

Let’s assume that six months in, Paula Payne Windows decides to keep moving forward. Then she spends another $30,000 on legal fees over the next three months. At that point, Real Cheap offers $20,000 to settle the case. Now Paula has an even more difficult decision. Settling is going to be even more painful because now she’s spent over $80,000.

This brings us to a third principle: the First Law of Holes. The First Law of Holes says when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Yes, the pain of walking away after spending a lot of money is real. But that pain is only going to increase after you’ve spent even more money. In our hypothetical, Paula would have been better off—and probably felt better about the outcome—if she had stopped digging at the six-month mark.

So we’ve come full circle. In a sense, the First Law of Holes is just a version of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. But the First Law of Holes brings home the crucial point that sunk costs keep increasing. Better to cut your losses now than later.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. was wrong to go into Afghanistan, or that Paula Payne made a mistake when she decided to sue Dawn Davis and Real Cheap Windows. She understandably felt she had to do something to protect her company. And it is not to say that business people should never press forward with a lawsuit. Then I would be out of a job.

But whether we’re dealing with litigation, foreign policy, or day-to-day business decisions, we should be self-aware enough to recognize when the Sunk Cost Fallacy is tugging at our heart strings. Even if it’s just human nature, we should resist that pull. And sometimes the right decision will be to stop digging.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Can You “Plead Around” the TCPA?

Can You “Plead Around” the TCPA?

Does the First Amendment protect the right to burn the American flag? Well, it depends. Consider three scenarios:

  1. A Boy Scout troop burns a worn-out American flag because that is the proper and respectful way to dispose of it. See 4 U.S.C. § 8(k) (“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”)
  2. A radical burns the flag at a lawful protest while yelling “down with American imperialism” (which tells you the radical is probably old enough to qualify for Medicare).
  3. A teenager lights an American flag in the school gym as a prank, setting off the sprinkler system and fire alarm.

One of these things is not like the other. The first two examples arguably involve some expressive component. Burning the flag is intended to express a certain viewpoint. But in the third example, there is no real communication, just conduct. Thus, the teenager would be hard pressed to argue that his flag-burning was a communication protected by the First Amendment.

But of course, communication is conduct, so we shouldn’t overstate the distinction. The point is that some conduct does not involve communication.

Conduct vs. communication in TCPA litigation

This point is important in other areas of law, too. Like, oh I don’t know, the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA).

Coincidentally, I may be arguing about the TCPA in court today, and I will give a presentation on it tomorrow for the Houston Bar Association.

The conduct vs. communication distinction can be critical in TCPA litigation. How? First, let’s back up and review what we’ve learned before:

  • The TCPA is an “anti-SLAPP” statute that allows a defendant to file a motion to dismiss that requires the plaintiff to offer evidence to support all elements of its claim.
  • The TCPA applies to any lawsuit that is based on a communication about a “matter of public concern,” which can be just about anything.
  • The TCPA is not limited to its stated purpose of protecting constitutional rights; Texas courts have interpreted the TCPA’s definitions broadly to apply to just about any type of lawsuit.

As a result, the TCPA has fundamentally changed Texas litigation, including departing employee litigation, which I often handle. It has also produced some of Five Minute Law’s greatest hits, like A SLAPP in the Face to Texas Trade Secrets Lawsuits, How to Kill a TCPA Motion, and Houston Judge Calls Out Texas Supreme Court’s Simplistic “Textualist” Approach to TCPA.

As the promotional announcement for my presentation says, the TCPA has “swept through the Texas litigation world like a prairie fire.” Now that’s good marketing.

But sooner or later, you know the Empire is going to strike back. Companies that want to enforce their non-competes and protect their (alleged) trade secrets are going to push back on broad application of the TCPA. But what can they do?

One option is to try to “plead around” the TCPA. I touched on this in Much Ado About Nothing? The TCPA broadly applies to claims that are based on communications. So maybe you can avoid the TCPA by alleging conduct, not communication.

Does the TCPA apply to securities litigation?

This approach was successful in a recent case that involved yet another type of lawsuit, Texas Securities Act litigation. I also have some experience with that, having co-authored Claims and Defenses Under the Texas Securities Act, which critics have praised as the longest Texas Securities Act paper they have ever seen. But I digress.

The case was Smith v. Crestview.[1] It involved a failed investment in a scheme to develop a vaginal rejuvenation product derived from human amniotic cells.

This reminds me of the sage advice my grandpappy gave me before he passed: “Put your money into real estate. They can’t make any more of it. Oh, and one more thing. Don’t ever invest in an unproven vaginal rejuvenation product derived from human amniotic cells.”

But seriously, while the product was unusual, the basic fact pattern was all too familiar. The crucial conversation went something like this:[2]

Armstrong: Hi, Mr. Crestview Managing Partner. I’m Mary Armstrong. I’ve got a great investment opportunity for your company.

Crestview: Well, that sounds interesting, but we adhere to a conservative investment strategy, so I’ll need a lot of information.

Armstrong: No problem. I own a startup called NuVivo Bioscience Solutions. We’ve got a novel product derived from human amniotic cells.

Crestview: That sounds like a pretty speculative investment. How do I know we’ll get a good return?

Armstrong: Let me tell you what we’ve already done. We’ve manufactured prototypes. We’ve hired doctors at Stanford to test it. We have a sales force ready to go. Several surgeons have verbally committed to using the product, and we should be ready to sell it in less than 120 days.

Crestview: 120 days? What about FDA approval?

Armstrong: That’s the beauty of it. It’s a human-cellular or tissue-based product, so it’s not subject to federal testing, approval, and labeling regulations.

Crestview: Ok, that sounds good, but what if it doesn’t work?

Armstrong: Oh, I know it works. I had myself injected with the product, and it worked just like we expected.

Crestview: I’m glad to hear that but still, you’re just one person. I don’t think I can risk our partners’ money on something this risky.

Armstrong: Wait, did I mention that Dr. Jesse Smith has agreed to provide the product? We even have his name on our proposed website design.

Crestview: Dr. Smith, the renowned Fort Worth plastic surgeon? Why didn’t you say so?

Crestview then decided to invest and wired $500,000 to Armstrong’s company.

Let’s just pause here for a moment. Those of you who have experience with securities litigation probably know where this is going.

The rest of you will be shocked to learn that:

  • After receiving the half-million-dollar investment, Armstrong stopped communicating with Crestview.
  • Armstrong spent almost half of the 500 grand, mostly on personal expenses, including a trip to Vegas where she met Dr. Smith. [I will omit the joke my wife cracked when I shared this fact from the case.]
  • Armstrong’s company made no sales of the product.

If these allegations are true, then Crestview probably has a pretty good case against Armstrong. But do you think Armstrong is good for a judgment in excess of $500,000? Probably not.

Does aiding and abetting require a communication?

So, Crestview did what investors often do in these cases. It found a deeper pocket, suing Dr. Smith for aiding and abetting Armstrong’s securities fraud.[3]

Dr. Smith’s lawyers apparently read Five Minute Law, because they knew that Texas courts have broadly applied the TCPA. They filed a TCPA motion to dismiss, contending that the Texas Securities Act claim was “designed to chill Dr. Smith’s First Amendment rights of free speech and association.” The trial court denied the motion, and Dr. Smith appealed.

Crestview’s lawyers, no doubt remembering the flag-burning case from their Con Law course, responded with the conduct vs. communications distinction. They argued that the securities claim was based on Smith’s conduct, not his communications, and the Fort Worth Court of Appeals agreed.

The Court of Appeals relied heavily on Crestview’s pleading:

In this case, Crestview specifically and narrowly alleged that Smith’s actions aided Armstrong in her violations of the TSA, not his communications. None of the allegations leveled against Smith referred to communications with Armstrong. Rather, Crestview focused on Smith’s actions and inactions . . .

Aha! So you can plead around the TCPA. Just be sure to allege only conduct, not communication, by the defendant. For example, in a trade secrets case just allege that the former employee used the employer’s trade secrets after going to work for the competitor, rather than pleading that the employee disclosed the trade secrets to the competitor.

Not so fast. The Crestview court was careful to “recognize that artful pleading cannot be a detour around the TCPA.” Still, the court rejected Smith’s argument that the “actual, yet unpleaded” nature of Crestview’s claim was based on communications with Armstrong.

It appears two factors were important to the court. First, while Smith testified at his deposition that he had discussions with Armstrong about the product, “these discussions are not the basis of Crestview’s narrow claim against him.”

Second, the court did not want to open the floodgates: “The practical effect of Smith’s position—any action he took as an aider under the TSA necessarily involved communications—would seem to extend the definition of communication, and thus the reach of the TCPA, to noncommunications.”

So, Crestview teaches us that the TCPA does not apply to a claim for aiding and abetting liability that is not expressly based on communications between the “aider” and the primary actor.

We can build, a beautiful city . . .

The Crestview holding does not strike me as unreasonable. But it’s a little unsatisfying.

The first problem with the Crestview approach is that communication is implicit in just about any conduct someone can get sued for, but the case doesn’t really tell us how to distinguish between a claim that is based on the communication and one that isn’t. Perhaps the test is whether the cause of action could survive without proof of the communication. Or is it whether the communication was a factor that motivated the plaintiff to sue? We don’t know.

The second problem is more practical. The Crestview holding seems to open the door to plaintiffs “pleading around” the TCPA through “artful pleading.”

Imagine that I burn an American flag outside the Houston City Hall to protest the City’s rules against food trucks parking on downtown streets. To retaliate, the City charges me with burning property without a permit and, to try to get around the First Amendment, the City doesn’t say anything about any communication. Would that legal action be based on communication, or conduct?

As much as I like taco trucks, let’s not test it.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. The only time he was part of any flag-burning was in Boy Scouts.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Smith v. Crestview NuV LLC, __ S.W.3d __, No. 02-18-00220-CV, 2018 WL 6215763 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Nov. 29, 2018, no pet. h.).

[2] Obviously I’m making up this dialog and have no knowledge of how the discussion actually went. But this does give you the gist of the facts recited in the court’s opinion.

[3] The Texas Securities Act does not actually use the words “aiding and abetting,” but the traditional phrase just has a nice ring to it.

Lordy, There are Text Messages! Lessons from the Roger Stone Indictment

Lordy, There are Text Messages! Lessons from the Roger Stone Indictment

Like most lawyers, I still recall the very first lawsuit I worked on. It was an insurance coverage case arising from a huge jury verdict. I remember going through the correspondence from the underlying case, mainly looking for evidence about why the insurance companies didn’t settle the case.

That’s thrilling stuff for one group: insurance coverage lawyers. For everyone else, not so much.

But here’s one thing I remember about that correspondence you might find interesting: there was not a single email or text message.

That was 1997. There were a lot of letters in that file, most of them by fax. We had email, of course, but I wasn’t surprised that the file had no emails. And very few people were texting then (certainly not about business or legal matters).[1]

Fast forward two decades, and emails are ubiquitous in litigation. Of course this change has not gone unnoticed. I remember a few years ago a senior litigator lamenting how emails had ruined litigation (he was mainly referring to the time and expense of e-discovery battles). But the degree of the change really hit me when I read the Roger Stone indictment last week: 90% of it is about emails and text messages.

The Stone Indictment

I’m sure you’ve heard about the Roger Stone indictment, but if you haven’t read it, first you’ll need a players list:

“Organization 1”: WikiLeaks

“Head of Organization 1”: Julian Assange

“Person 1”: political commentator Jerome Corsi

“Person 2”: radio personality Randy Credico

“Senior Trump Campaign official”: Steve Bannon

“Supporter involved with the Trump Campaign”: I’m not sure who this is.

For better readability I’m just going to use the proper names in my references below.

The seven-count indictment accuses Stone of three things: obstructing a Congressional investigation (Count 1), false statements to Congress (Counts 2-6), and witness tampering (Count 7).

If you’ve paid any attention to the Mueller investigation, or if you’ve just watched Law and Order, you’re familiar with Mueller’s “flipping” strategy. It’s the same approach prosecutors take to organized crime. You start by charging the lower-level people and getting them to flip on the people above them. You work your way up the ladder until you get the boss.

But the striking thing about the Stone indictment is that Mueller doesn’t need anyone to flip on Stone. Why not? Because he can prove his case against Stone with Stone’s own emails and text messages. Let’s break it down.

Count 1: The Special Counsel alleges that Stone obstructed the Congressional investigation by giving false testimony, failing to turn over responsive documents, submitting a false letter to Congress, and attempting to have Credico testify falsely to Congress. (¶ 41)

This count can be proven simply by the existence of emails and text messages that Stone either failed to produce or falsely stated did not exist. That’s before we even get to the substance of what they said.

Count 2: “STONE testified falsely that he did not have emails with third parties about Assange, and that he did not have any documents, emails, or text messages that refer to Assange.”

The emails show that Stone had communications with Jerome Corsi and Randy Credico about Assange. For example:

7/25/16 Email from Stone to Corsi: “Get to Assange [a]t Ecuadorian Embassy in London and get the pending WikiLeaks emails.” (¶ 13a)

8/2/16 Email Corsi to Stone: “Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps.” (¶ 13c)

Count 3: “STONE testified falsely that his August 2016 references to being in contact with Assange were references to communications with a single ‘go-between,’ ‘mutual friend,’ and ‘intermediary,’ who STONE identified as Randy Credico.”

The emails between Stone and Corsi show that Credico was not the only intermediary. See the examples under Count 1 above.

Count 4: “STONE testified falsely that he did not ask the person he referred to as his ‘go-between,’ ‘mutual friend,’ and ‘intermediary,’ to communicate anything to Assange and did not ask the intermediary to do anything on STONE’s behalf.”

In fact Stone sent text messages and emails to Credico asking him to communicate specific requests to Assange. For example:

9/18/16 text message from Stone to Credico: “I am e-mailing u a request to pass on to Assange.”

9/18/16 email from Stone to Credico: “Please ask Assange for any State or HRC e-mail from August 10 to August 30 . . .”

Count 5: “STONE testified falsely that he and the person he referred to as his ‘go-between,’ ‘mutual friend,’ and ‘intermediary’ did not communicate via text message or email about WikiLeaks.”

Stone and Credico did communicate via text message and email about WikiLeaks, as shown by the examples above.

Count 6: “STONE testified falsely that he had never discussed his conversations with the person he referred to as his ‘go-between,’ ‘mutual friend,’ and ‘intermediary’ with anyone involved in the Trump Campaign.”

The emails and text messages show that, in fact, Stone discussed what he was learning from his intermediary with a “high-ranking Trump Campaign official” (Bannon) and a “supporter involved with the Trump Campaign”:

10/4/16 email from Bannon asking about the status of future releases by Organization 1. Stone replied that Assange had a “[s]erious security concern” but that WikiLeaks would release “a load every week going forward.” (¶ 16c)

10/4/16 text message from the supporter involved with the Trump Campaign to Stone, asking “hear anymore from London”? Stone replied, “Yes – want to talk on a secure line – got Whatsapp?” (¶ 16d)

Count 7: Stone “knowingly and intentionally corruptly persuaded and attempted to corruptly persuade another person, to wit: Randy Credico, with intent to influence, delay, and prevent the testimony of any person in an official proceeding.” (¶ 45)

You’d think this count would depend on the testimony of Credico. In that case, Stone’s strategy would be to deny pressuring Credico and to attack Credico’s credibility. But the problem for Stone is that he pressured Credico in his own text messages.

And this is where it gets juicy. Not only does Mueller have text messages where Stone leans on Credico, he has text messages with flavor. Here are some highlights:

Stone texts Credico: “‘Stonewall it. Plead the fifth. Anything to save the plan’ . . . Richard Nixon.” (¶ 37a)

Stone texts Credico to do a “Frank Pentangeli,” the character in The Godfather: Part II who testifies to a congressional committee that he doesn’t know anything. (¶ 37e)

More texts from Stone to Credico: “And if you turned over anything to the FBI you’re a fool.” “If you testify you’re a fool. Because of tromp I could never get away with a certain [sic] my Fifth Amendment rights but you can. I guarantee you you are the one who gets indicted for perjury if you’re stupid enough to testify.” (¶ 37f)

“I’m not talking to the FBI and if your smart you won’t either.” (¶ 39a)

My personal favorites: “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends-run your moth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds.” I’m going to “take that dog away from you” (referring to Credico’s therapy dog Bianca). “I am so ready. Let’s get it on. Prepare to die [expletive].” (¶ 39b)

“You are so full of [expletive]. You got nothing. Keep running your mouth and I’ll file a bar complaint against your friend” (¶ 39c)

Dang! If you’re a civil litigator like me, can you imagine finding dynamite emails like this? Not only do they prove Stone pressured Credico to stonewall Congress, they are the kind of zingers that a jury is going to remember. In the words of Bob Schneider, “the flavor’s too strong.”

There is also a sober lesson here. As the senior litigator lamented, fighting over discovery of emails may have taken the fun out of litigation. But the emails themselves—as well as the text messages—may have saved litigation.

The Emails Will Set You Free

Imagine a world where Roger Stone didn’t have email or text capability. Would he have written letters saying all that stuff to Corsi, Credico, and Bannon? Highly unlikely. And then it would come down to testimony from Corsi and Credico, with Stone claiming they made the whole thing up.

But no, Stone can’t reasonably dispute the emails and text messages. That’s why he and his lawyer have already signaled a different strategy. They will have to concede the false statements but argue that the statements were immaterial and unintentional. I’m no criminal law expert, but those arguments sound pretty weak to me. So the big lesson of the Stone indictment is the importance of the defendant’s emails and text messages.

But does such a strange case really tell us anything about ordinary litigation? The defendants in most cases are not so brazen, right?

Yes, we could dismiss Stone as an oddball. I mean, the dude has a tattoo of Nixon’s face on his back and dresses like a villain from an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Still, let’s not be too quick to treat the Stone indictment as a special case. I admit I’ve never seen an email in a business lawsuit where a guy threatens to take you’re little dog too (!) But I have seen some doozies. You’d be surprised the things people will put in an email. See, for example, the case featured in How Not to Handle “Bad” Emails in Litigation.

And with text messages it’s even worse. Just as people feel comfortable saying things in an email they would never say in a letter, they will put stuff in a text message they would never say in an email.

On the other hand, someone who never uses email or text messages doesn’t have to worry.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

photo credit: Eric Yi-Jun Wolfe

[1] According to this history, the first text message was sent in 1992, but texting did not become widespread until around 2000, eventually passing phone calls in 2007.

MLK Day Lessons from the Movie “Selma”

MLK Day Lessons from the Movie “Selma”

If you’ve read my morning routine you know that one piece of it is listening to sports talk radio to find out for the final time if Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan. Another perennial drive-time debate is whether Bill Belichik has won so many games with the New England Patriots because he has Tom Brady as his quarterback, or if Brady has won so much because he has Belichik.

Wherever you come down in this debate, you have to admit the Patriots have had an amazing run in the Brady-Belichik era. Thirteen AFC Championship appearances. Eight Super Bowl appearances. Five Super Bowl wins. So far.

This is infuriating for fans of other teams because the NFL is supposedly built for “parity.” In contrast to college football, it rewards winners by giving them worse draft picks. Perhaps this is why, sadly, the Patriots have replaced my Dallas Cowboys as the NFL’s most hated team.

Haters will claim it’s the cheating. But some part of the credit for the Patriots’ astounding run should go to the well-known philosophy posted in their practice facility: Do Your Job.

This is a great mantra because in three little words it conveys two distinct messages, one of exhortation, the other of relaxation. “Do Your Job” says first, take care of your responsibilities. Your teammates are counting on you. But second it tells you not to worry too much. You don’t have to do anything spectacular, just do your job. Trust that if your teammates do their jobs too, the team will succeed.

As I wait to watch the Patriots play on the day before Martin Luther King Day, this reminds me of a scene from the 2014 historical drama Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Selma tells the story of Dr. King leading the protests that culminated in the famous march(es) across Edmund Pettus Bridge, and ultimately, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend checking it out on Netflix.[1]

The scene that sticks in my mind takes place about 18 minutes into the movie, in the modest kitchen of the King home in Atlanta. Mrs. King is folding laundry at the kitchen table. The phone rings.

Coretta: Hello? [We hear a man speaking in ominous tones over the receiver, she hangs up as Martin walks in.]

Martin: Same thing? [She looks at him knowingly then turns away.] 

Coretta: When are y’all heading out? 

Martin: We, uh, head back to Selma at 5 am. Turned out to be an ideal staging ground. There’s a . . . a full couple of weeks planned, quite a bit to be done.

Coretta: [drinks from a glass of water] I see.  [Martin takes the trash bag out of the kitchen trash can.] That highway is nice now, get you there in a couple of hours. Good people in those parts, though. [She hands him a new garbage bag.][2] 

Martin: Well, I’m worried about the ones who ain’t so good. [He puts a new bag in the trash can]. This local sheriff, Jim Clark,[3] is supposed to be bad business. Won’t go down without a fight, they say. And since we don’t fight . . . Well, good a place to die as any, I guess. 

Coretta: I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.

Martin: It just takes the edge off. 

Coretta: You and your friends can joke about that. I don’t joke about that.

Martin: You’re right. I’m sorry.

Coretta: I’ll uh, put these things away in your bag now, I didn’t realize you were leaving so early [she walks out carrying some folded clothes]. 

[Martin turns off kitchen light, hesitates.]

This is a great, economical scene. It conveys a lot of information without a lot of action or dialog. You know the Kings are receiving harassing phone calls. You sense tension in their marriage. You get the exposition about what’s happening with the sheriff in Selma. And, perhaps most important, you see that Dr. King is a real flesh and blood person who has to balance his family life with the very real possibility that his activism could get him killed.

But there’s one part of this scene that really resonated with me. Did you spot it? Remember, this is Martin Luther King, who we see in the opening scene preparing to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King, the hero who led the Civil Rights movement. I mean, today the dude has his own national holiday. Yet in this scene we see him taking out the trash?

Why did the director or screenplay writer include this detail? The Kings could have simply stood in the kitchen, or sat at the kitchen table, talking.

Maybe it was just to give the actors something to do so the dialog would sound more natural. But I suspect there was more to it. When we see Dr. King emptying the trash can, it’s a reminder. Even a person who is doing great things still has to deal with the mundane necessities of daily life.

Of course, when the people doing the great things are rich, they pay other people to do the tedious things. The wealthy can’t be bothered with even the simplest of tasks, like folding their own umbrellas.

But still, even Very Important People have to do a lot of the same things ordinary people do. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. Or to vary a common saying, their trash stinks too.

And seeing Martin Luther King take out the trash was a small but important lesson for white-collar “professionals.” It was especially necessary for me because I work in the profession with the whitest of collars: the law. There is a tendency for us lawyers—especially lawyers in the more “elite” firms—to think we’re above everyone else. We have advanced degrees. We have licenses. We don’t take out the trash; we have people who come through the office after 5:30 to do that.

And when your hourly rate is $500 or higher, you start to think your time is more valuable than other people’s. Why should you spend an hour doing yardwork when you could be billing that time?

I’m not saying lawyers–or other busy professionals–shouldn’t pay someone else to mow the grass. I’m more concerned with the mindset. Do you get frustrated with the time you have to spend doing “ordinary” things when you’re trying to accomplish something important? I know I do. And all I’m trying to do is build a law practice. It’s not like I’m leading a movement to overcome 100 years of state-sponsored terror and voter suppression.

But maybe we shouldn’t look at household chores as a hindrance. Why should we expect to be trusted with great things when we can’t be trusted with the little things? Selma reminds us that taking care of minor tasks we don’t really want to do is perhaps the simplest form of morality.

So do your job. Take out the trash. Or whatever the equivalent responsibility is for you.

And trust that if you do your job, and other people do theirs, great things can happen.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Like most lawyers he’s still at the office when the housekeepers empty the trash.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] I recommend the movie with one significant caveat. As you may recall, there was some controversy over the film’s historical accuracy, particularly its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant ally who King had to pressure into supporting the Voting Rights Act. Former Johnson aide Joe Califano blasted this portrayal as inaccurate. Director Ava DuVernay responded that she was telling a story, not making a documentary. This raises thorny questions: How much historical inaccuracy we should accept as artistic license? Do factual inaccuracies lessen the quality of a historical drama? Are minorities held to a double standard when they use artistic license? Interesting issues that I will save for another day.

[2] Apparently the clear plastic trash bag in the scene was an anachronism; such bags were not used in 1965. Also, you can see the blender on the counter is plugged into an outlet that has a green LED light. But let’s not quibble.

[3] Sheriff Clark was an ardent segregationist known for recruiting a horse-mounted posse of KKK members, wearing military style clothing, and carrying a cattle prod that he infamously used on black protestors. In his later life, Clark sold mobile homes, got accused of embezzlement, and even served time for conspiring to smuggle marijuana from Colombia. He was unrepentant to the end. In a 2006 interview, Clark said “I’d do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again.” See Jim Clark, Sheriff Who Enforced Segregation, Dies at 84.