Has the Wisconsin Court of Appeals Shown A Path to Change Successor Liability Law?

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Ordinarily, an appellate court’s per curiam opinion—an unsigned ruling issued “by the court” rather than in the name of the authoring judge—does not merit close examination. In Wisconsin, per curiam opinions are unpublished and may not be cited in future cases, even for persuasive value.

Thus, it would be easy to overlook the court of appeals’ recent per curiam opinion in Veritas Steel, LLC v. Lunda Construction Company. At first blush, the decision appears to be a straightforward affirmance of the circuit court’s order dismissing two claims: successor liability and fraudulent transfer. However, the analysis is illuminating, and it seems to telegraph—pretty clearly—that the Wisconsin Supreme Court should reconsider long-standing precedent that narrows the exceptions to the general law of non-liability for corporate successors.

Facts:

PDM was a steel fabricating entity. It had a credit agreement with multiple lenders, who in turn had first-priority liens on PDM’s assets. When PDM defaulted, the lenders granted forbearance in exchange for PDM’s agreement to sell itself with the help of an investment bank. None of the bids to acquire PDM were sufficient to cover PDM’s outstanding debt to secured creditors (much less to unsecured creditors like Lunda, which had obtained a $16 million judgment against PDM).

Atlas, the common parent company of the lenders, was the highest bidder. Through a series of transactions, Atlas and the lenders acquired PDM’s assets and shed any obligations to pay additional debts. They did this in several steps. First, a “transition support agreement” between PDM and the lenders expressed “a mutual desire” to transition PDM’s business to the lenders. In the wake of that agreement, Atlas and its affiliates purchased all of PDM’s outstanding debt directly from the lenders at a steep discount. Then Atlas created a new entity, Veritas Steel, which was assigned a first-priority lien on PDM’s assets. Finally, PDM conveyed its assets to Veritas in exchange for the discharge of the secured debts. “Under Veritas’s ownership,” PDM continued operating as it had before these transactions, employing the same workforce and pursuing the same type of work.  See slip op. ¶13.

Meanwhile, Lunda took steps to execute its judgment against PDM. Eventually, Veritas responded by seeking a judicial declaration that Lunda had no claim against Veritas for payment of the judgment against PDM. Lunda counterclaimed against Veritas and brought a third-party complaint against Atlas and others. Lunda alleged that the defendants schemed to control PDM and continue to operate it, “albeit under a different name.” Id. ¶ 15. Applying Wisconsin precedent, the circuit court dismissed Lunda’s successor liability and fraudulent transfer claims.

Court of Appeals decision:

In its discussion of the successor liability claim, the court of appeals began with the general rule that when an acquiring corporation purchases assets of a target corporation it does not also succeed to the liabilities of the target corporation. There are well-recognized exceptions to this general rule, two of which Lunda invoked: (1) the “de facto merger exception,” which applies when the transaction amounts to a consolidation or merger of the two corporations, and (2) the “mere continuation exception,” which applies when the acquiring corporation is essentially a continuation of the target corporation.

The court of appeals recognized that earlier precedent supported Lunda’s argument. In Tift v. Forage King Industries, the Wisconsin Supreme Court expanded these exceptions and allowed piercing the corporate veil so that a court could “look to the substance and effect of business transformations or reorganizations to determine whether the original organization continues to have life or identity” in a subsequent organization. Id. ¶24 (quoting Tift, 108 Wis. 2d 72, 78–79, 322 N.W.2d 14 (1982)).

However, the court of appeals concluded that later Supreme Court precedent cut the other way. This newer precedent, Fish v. Amsted Industries, Inc., rejected “relaxation of the traditional test of successor liability and instead requires attention to concrete evidence of identity of ownership.” Id. ¶27 (citing Fish, 126 Wis. 2d 293, 300–02, 376 N.W.2d 820 (1985)). As the court of appeals noted, this focus on the “identity of ownership” appears to require a transfer of stock to trigger the de facto merger exception, and the common identity of officers, directors, and stockholders for the mere continuation exception. As neither key element was present here, neither exception applied and Lunda’s successor liability claim failed.

The court of appeals cited federal case law that similarly understood Fish to foreclose claim, even where the results may be “‘unsettling’ because an asset transfer has occurred under what appear to have been ‘quite cozy’ circumstances.” Id. ¶28 (quoting Gallenberg Equip., Inc. v. Agromac Int’l, Inc., No. 98-3288, slip op. at 5 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 1999)). The court of appeals also observed that Lunda’s argument would have “traction” in other jurisdictions, but not in Wisconsin “at this time.” Id. (emphasis added). And the court of appeals cautioned that it may be “impossible to square our reading of Fish with statutory merger language under ch. 180” of the Wisconsin Statutes. Id. ¶32, n.11. Finally, the court of appeals noted that Fish was a closely decided case, from which three justices dissented, “urging more flexible approaches to the exceptions.” Id. ¶33. But the court of appeals ultimately acknowledged its hands were tied, as only the Supreme Court can overrule its prior decisions.

Conclusion:

It may very well be that the court of appeals deemed this an open-and-shut case, meriting no more than an unsigned ruling. It may also be true that the court of appeals felt aggrieved by an unsecured judgment creditor getting the short end of the stick and went out of its way to explain why it could not offer relief. However, given the tone, the length, and the word choice of this opinion, the court of appeals may indeed have been urging litigants to ponder, and perhaps even providing rhetorical ammunition to use in, pursuing a change in the controlling precedent by seeking further review at the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Wisconsin Court of Appeals Affirms Limited Scope of Insurance Agents’ Duties to Insureds

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District III of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently addressed the scope of an insurance agent’s duties to an insured when retained to procure insurance coverage.  See Olson et al. v. Wisconsin Mutual Ins. Co. et al., Case No. 2017AP1567 (Oct. 2, 2018) [https://wscca.wicourts.gov/caseDetails.do?caseNo=2017AP001567&cacheId=FD38D2808B90DA8A4890651728193F6B&recordCount=1&offset=0].  By affirming the circuit court’s decision to dismiss the insured’s negligence claim against its agent, the Court confirmed that, absent unique circumstances, in Wisconsin an insurance agent is not obligated to actively advise an insured regarding the appropriate coverages for the insured’s circumstances.  Rather, an agent is obligated to exercise reasonable care in procuring only the coverages specifically requested by the insured.

At issue in this case was coverage for injuries suffered by the Olsons due to an automobile collision with Jeffrey Keyes, who was in the process of towing a gooseneck trailer full of cattle between his family farm properties.  Keyes was towing the trailer with a truck that he owned personally.

Keyes had in place a personal automobile insurance policy issued by Wisconsin Mutual Insurance Company, as well as a $1 million umbrella liability endorsement attached to a farmowners policy for his family farm issued by Rural Mutual Insurance Company. Keyes submitted a claim to both insurers for the accident with the belief that the umbrella endorsement attached to the Rural policy would cover any damages that exceeded the limit of the Wisconsin Mutual policy.

Rural denied the claim based on an exclusion in the endorsement disclaiming coverage for personal injury or property damage arising from off-farm use of personal automobiles.  This exclusion was in line with Rural’s standard business practice of not providing umbrella coverage for personal automobiles unless the insured purchased primary automobile coverage from Rural.  While Keyes asserted a contextual ambiguity argument to try to avoid the exclusion, the court found the provision unambiguous and concluded that the Rural policy did not provide coverage for the Olson claim.

In the alternative, Keyes pursued a claim against his agent, Lon Truax, for failure to procure coverage arising from the use of off-farm personal automobiles as part of the umbrella endorsement attached to the Rural policy.  In support of his claim, Keyes cited to evidence demonstrating that he had informed Truax that he wanted “full coverage” for “anything and everything,” that Truax sold only Rural insurance products and was aware of Rural’s practice to not offer umbrella automobile insurance unless the insured purchased primary automobile insurance from Rural, and that Keyes and Truax had specific conversations about switching Keyes’ automobile coverage from Western Mutual to Rural.  Keyes asserted that, under these circumstances, it was reasonable to expect Truax to inform him of the off-farm automobile exclusion in the umbrella endorsement, which he had failed to do.

The court was not persuaded by this argument.  The court noted that in Wisconsin an insurance agent-insured relationship is an ordinary agency relationship in which the agent assumes only a limited duty to carry out the principal’s instructions in good faith and, absent special circumstances, is not obligated to advise the insured regarding the availability or adequacy of coverage.  The court found that Keyes’ generalized requests for full coverage were insufficient to put Truax on notice that he specifically sought umbrella coverage for off-farm use of personal automobiles and, despite the specific conversations about switching his primary automobile coverage to Rural, there was nothing in the record sufficient to establish that Truax was obligated to advise Keyes regarding any potential gaps in the procured coverage.  The court accordingly held that the circuit court had properly granted summary judgment for Truax on this issue.

The Olson decision demonstrates how important it is for commercial enterprises and businesses to take an active role in procuring adequate insurance to protect their interests.  In Wisconsin, insurance agents are not fiduciaries that should be relied on to weigh in regarding the adequacy of an insurance portfolio unless they specifically offer such services and agree to do so (likely for an additional fee).  In any event, before procuring insurance products, commercial entities should ensure that their coverage forms are reviewed carefully by those who are familiar with all aspects of their operations and resulting risk profile (either an internal risk management department and/or coverage counsel) to minimize the potential for any coverage gaps.

Court of Appeals Interprets Wisconsin’s Fraudulent Transfer Law in a Garnishment Action

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The Wisconsin court of appeals clarified in Beck v. BidRX, LLC the requisite elements to proving a fraudulent transfer claim under Wis. Stat. Ch. 242. App. No. 2017AP2043 (Ct. App. Aug. 15, 2018). The court reversed the circuit court’s ruling that a fraudulent transfer occurred because there was no evidence that the transfers were for an antecedent debt.

The Becks were awarded $108,235 in a default judgment against BidRX, LLC (“BidRX”) for an unpaid promissory note.  The Becks filed a nonearnings garnishment action against BidRX as the debtor and Fiscal Intermediary Third Party Funds Services, LLC (“Fiscal”) as garnishee. The Becks alleged in the garnishment action that BidRX fraudulently transferred funds to Fiscal. In addition to pointing to bank records allegedly showing a number of transfers between BidRX and Fiscal, the Becks argued that Fiscal was an “insider,” in part, because the entity had been formed by an attorney working for BidRX. The circuit court held that BidRX made fraudulent transfers to Fiscal under Wis. Stat. § 245.05(2). Additionally, the circuit court imposed a judgment of $2,073.77 against BidRX. The court of appeal reversed.

The court of appeals stated that a plaintiff must prove the following elements to establish a fraudulent transfer claim:

  1. The creditor’s claim arose before the transfer,
  2. The transfer was made to an insider for an antecedent debt,
  3. The debtor was insolvent when the transfer was made, and
  4. The insider-transferee had reasonable cause to believe the debtor was insolvent.

The only evidence the Becks submitted was over 300 pages of bank records showing transfers between BidRX to Fiscal. The court held that the Becks failed to prove element number two, and that no evidence was offered to show “why any transfer was made and for what debt.” ¶ 16. “The fact of a transfer to an insider is not enough; it is the preferential payment of prior debts to insiders to which the statute is addressed.” Id. The court rejected the Becks’ argument that Wis. Stat. 242.05(2) assumes the existence of an antecedent debt as the reason for the conveyance.

The court of appeals further held that the circuit court did not have the authority to order a judgment against BidRX because BidRX was the debtor, and not the garnishee, in this garnishment action. The purpose of a garnishment action is to recover debtor’s property held by third parties that is owed to a creditor; nothing in the garnishment statutes permits a court to issue a money judgment against non-garnishees.

Beck v. BidRX, LLC is the first Wisconsin case to definitively set out the elements for a fraudulent transfer claim under Wis. Stat. 242.05(2), and follows other courts across the nation in construing the elements in accordance with the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act. Additionally, this case establishes that circuit courts may not impose money judgments against debtors in garnishment actions.

Court of Appeals Suggests Possible Path To Waiver of PFC Review

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Court of Appeals Suggests Possible Path To Waiver of PFC Review

Can a municipality and a public safety employee agree to waive the disciplinary process before a police and fire commission under Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5). Yes, at least in some circumstances, according to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

City of Janesville v. WERC, 193 Wis. 2d 492, 535 N.W.2d 34 (Ct. App. 1995), held that Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5) provides the exclusive method for law enforcement officers to challenge discipline and that a labor union’s proposal for arbitration of grievances related to discipline was a prohibited subject of bargaining. City of Menasha v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Comm’n, 2011 WI App 108, 335 Wis. 2d 250, 802 N.W.2d 531, recognized that by enacting Wis. Stat. §§ 111.70(4)(c)2.b. and (4)(mc) the Wisconsin Legislature had abrogated the City of Janesville decision. In 2011, the legislature then reversed itself, abolishing those sections,[1] essentially resuscitating City of Janesville from the legal graveyard.

But this legislative yo-yo on the ability to “opt out” of the PFC disciplinary process was of no consequence to the court in State ex rel. Beck v. Lamb, 2017AP969 (Wis. Ct. App. July 25, 2018). In Beck, the waiver was made in the context of a “Last Chance Agreement” between Officer Beck and his employer, the City of Fond du Lac. The LCA was the product of a 2014 settlement between Beck and the City to resolve an investigation of Officer Beck’s honesty.

Pursuant to the LCA, Beck received a short suspension and agreed that any further “untruthful conduct” by him would constitute “cause” for his immediate discharge. He also agreed that any investigation into his alleged untruthful conduct would include a Loudermill hearing[2] but would not be subject to the PFC procedure under Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5). Instead, reminiscent of the procedures that could be used during the brief period when Wis. Stat. § 111.70(4)(c)2.b. was in effect, the LCA afforded Lamb the right to appeal the investigation’s findings to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (“WERC”).

Lamb tried to have it both ways. He resigned his employment, in order to preserve his vacation pay, and then grieved the matter to the WERC. But the WERC dismissed the grievance on the basis that Beck had voluntarily resigned. Beck then filed an action in circuit court seeking a writ of mandamus to order his reinstatement, alleging the LCA was a void and unlawful agreement to circumvent Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5). The circuit court agreed and ordered Beck’s reinstatement.

The court of appeals reversed. Rejecting Beck’s reliance on City of Janesville, the court stated that Beck failed to show “that a procedure that is exclusive and mandatory is also necessarily individually unwaivable.” Beck, ¶ 16 (emphasis added). The court also rejected Beck’s reliance on Faust v. Ladysmith-Hawkins School Systems, 88 Wis. 2d 525, 277 N.W.2d 303, on motion for reconsideration, 88 Wis. 2d 525[JM1] , 281 N.W.2d 611 (1979) (per curiam) for the proposition that statutory procedures protecting both a private interest and a public policy purpose could not be waived. Concluding that Faust was limited to its peculiar facts, the court held it did not apply to void the LCA under which Beck knowingly and intentionally waived his statutory rights in the context of settling misconduct allegations. Beck, ¶¶ 17-21.

The result in Beck should not be construed broadly. The court emphasized that the question of a “prospective officer forsaking statutory PFC rights to land a job are not the facts before us.” Beck, ¶ 24. It emphasized that there was substantial caselaw addressing waivers of rights in the context of LCA agreements, suggesting that its holding here may be limited to that context.

Given that Beck is not recommended for publication, it is citable only “for its persuasive value.” Wis. Stat. § 809.23(3)(b). However, it does suggest that an individualized waiver of the PFC disciplinary process may be permissible, notwithstanding City of Janesville’s general prohibition upon opting out of the PFC process.


[1]           See 2011 Wisconsin Act 32, §§ 2407dg and 2409cp, effective July 1, 2011.

[2]           A due process hearing afforded under Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985).

Condemnor’s Duty to Negotiate in Good Faith is Limited to Compensation

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Condemnor’s Duty to Negotiate in Good Faith is Limited to Compensation

In Zastrow v. American Transmission Company LLC, Case No. 17-AP-1848 (July 3, 2018) (unpublished) the Wisconsin Court of Appeals confirmed that a condemnor’s duty to negotiate in good faith relates only to the issue of compensation.

American Transmission Company (ATC) held a pre-existing transmission line easement on the plaintiffs’ property.  In May 2014, ATC applied to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) for permission to construct and operate two new high-voltage transmission lines that would run across plaintiffs’ property, and which, if approved, would ultimately require an extension of the existing easement.  Plaintiffs participated in the PSC proceedings, opposing the project and specifically complaining that the vegetation management practices relating to the clearing of the right-of-way during construction and thereafter were too extensive.  The PSC staff recommended approval of the application, but with the condition that ATC employ the wire zone-border zone vegetation management technique that was preferred by plaintiffs.  In issuing its decision, the PSC acknowledged the concerns raised by plaintiffs and its own staff, but did not include the recommended conditions.  Despite ongoing discussions between the PSC and plaintiffs, no modifications were ever made to the vegetation management terms for the relevant area.  ATC proceeded through the statutory process for condemnation of the easement area, under Wis. Stat. § 32.06, serving its jurisdictional offer in August 2016.

Plaintiff filed suit challenging ATC’s right to condemn the property on the grounds that ATC had not negotiated in good faith relating to the vegetation management issue.  The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of ATC, finding Wis. Stat. § 32.06(2a) only required ATC to negotiate in good faith with respect to compensation.  The court of appeals affirmed, noting that while Wis. Stat. § 32.06(2a) includes multiple references to compensation or price, it does not include similar references to other topics.  Similarly, “(2a) grants landowners the right to appeal only one issue – i.e., the amount of compensation – [which] further indicates that the negotiation required by subsec. (2a) is limited to that topic.”  ¶ 18.

The court also rejected plaintiffs’ claims that ATC agreed to negotiate in good faith by accepting the PSC certificate because ATC has specifically advised plaintiffs that it did not generally negotiate on the vegetation issue.  Similarly, the court found no support for plaintiffs’ argument that ATC made any false statements in violation of Wis. Stat. § 32.29, and noted that even if there was a violation of the statute, the only penalty was a forfeiture and/or jail time.

Finally, the court held that the circuit court lawsuit was not the proper means of challenging the PSC’s decision.  Rather, the court noted that plaintiffs could have sought judicial review of the PSC’s decision and raised PSC’s failure to include any specific vegetation management conditions in the certificate.  By not seeking judicial review at that time, plaintiffs forfeited their right to challenge the substance of the PSC certificate.

Though this opinion is unpublished, it is instructive to parties involved in condemnation proceedings, particularly providing valuable instruction to condemnors on the scope of their obligations.  It also suggests that condemnors should be actively involved in PSC proceedings in attempt to manage potential issues that may arise in condemnation proceedings.

The Final Countdown: Changes to Discovery Rules (and more!) Await Litigants Starting Next Month

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As litigants turn the calendar on June, significant new rules await for cases filed after July 1, 2018. Rather than take its cues from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which traditionally governed procedural rules, the Legislature enacted substantial changes to Wisconsin’s laws on discovery. In 2017 WI Act 235, the Legislature implemented many new rules covered below that will affect civil procedure in Wisconsin.

New Limitations on Interrogatories and Depositions

The changes in Act 235 are highlighted by new limitations on interrogatories and depositions. Unless otherwise stipulated or ordered by the Court, parties are now limited to the following:

  • 25 interrogatory requests, including all subparts. Wis. Stat. § 804.08(1)(am).
  • 10 depositions, none of which may exceed seven hours in duration. Wis. Stat. § 804.045.

As in the Federal Rules, there remains no limit on the number of document requests that can be made. However, unlike the Federal Rules, Act 235 creates new limitations on requests for certain electronically stored information (ESI) as explained below.

In another noticeable departure from the Federal Rules, Act 235 does not require initial disclosures like those mandated by Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 26(a)(1). The initial disclosures under the Federal Rules help alleviate the need for discovery in light of the limits on interrogatories, but Act 235 provides no such requirement for the parties to identify individuals likely to have discoverable information, the categories of documents that support a claim or defense, a computation of damages, or any insurance agreements that may be available to satisfy a judgment. 

These changes will likely increase motion practice (requesting and/or opposing additional discovery) and demand more active court management.

Automatic Stay on Discovery

Act 235 creates a new provision that stays all discovery requests upon the filing of a motion to dismiss, a motion for judgment on the pleadings, or a motion for a more definite statement, “unless the court finds good cause upon the motion of any party that particularized discovery is necessary.” The stay applies for the shorter of 180 days or until the court rules on the motion. Wis. Stat. § 802.06(1)(b). By comparison, the Federal Rules permit discovery once the parties have a scheduling meet and confer conference under Rule 26(f) and otherwise provide no automatic stay.

Proportionality

Act 235 removes the “reasonably calculated” language that previously framed Wisconsin’s scope of discovery. In its place, the Act adds a “proportionality” standard borrowed from the Federal Rules. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(a). Parties may still obtain discovery concerning non-privileged matters relevant to the party’s claims or defenses, but now discovery requests must be proportional to the needs of the case. Courts must consider the following when weighing “proportionality”:

  • The importance of the issues at stake in the action;
  • The amount in controversy;
  • The parties’ relative access to relevant information;
  • The parties’ resources;
  • The importance of the discovery in resolving the issues; and
  • Whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.

Although early in its development under the Federal Rules, the proportionality test appears to have resulted in the federal courts taking a more proactive role in managing or tailoring discovery requests. See, e.g., O’Boyle v. GC Servs. Ltd. P’ship, No. 16-C-1384, 2018WL2271033, at * 5 (E.D. Wis. May 17, 2018) (denying motion to compel because requests are not “proportional to the needs of the case”).

New Limitations on ESI

Act 235 creates new rules related to electronically stored information (“ESI”) by requiring “substantial need” and “good cause” to request the following information:

  • Data that cannot be retrieved without substantial additional programming or without transforming it into another form before search and retrieval can be achieved;
  • Backup data substantially duplicative of more accessible data;
  • Legacy data remaining from obsolete systems; or
  • Data not available to the producing party in the ordinary course of business and not reasonably accessible because of burden or cost.

These new rules depart from the Federal Rules by carving out particular categories of ESI subject to the “substantial need” and “good cause” standard. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(e)1g. In light of the already frequent fights over ESI, this new standard could significantly alter the playing field in discovery disputes—especially when only one party holds significant ESI and there is less incentive to be reciprocally reasonable with respect to discovery responses.

Act 235 also limits requests for any document within five years of the accrual of the cause of action; this limit does not apply to health care, vocational, or educational records. Finally, parties should also be aware of the existing requirement that parties confer before requesting any ESI. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(e)1r.

New Standards for Protective Orders

Act 235 includes provision that the court “shall” limit discovery if either:

  • The discovery sought is cumulative or duplicative, can be obtained from another source that is more convenient, less burdensome, or less expensive; or
  • The burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit or is not proportional to the claims and defenses at issue.

Interestingly, the standard for a protective order—Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(am)2—does not exactly mirror the “proportionality” test found in the new scope of discovery. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(a). Among other differences, the standard for granting a protective order omits the “parties’ relative access to relevant information” as a consideration that is found under the “proportionality” test. Neither Act 235 nor legislative history appears to explain this discrepancy. It will remain to be seen if the courts apply these standards differently as a result.

Finally, like the Federal Rules, the new rules permit the court to allocate discovery expenses among the parties.

Amendments to Class Certification Rules

Act 235 authorizes an appeal as a matter of right from the circuit court’s class certification decision. The Act also requires detailed reasoning for the benefit of the appellate court and automatically stays all proceedings until the appellate decision. These changes come in conjunction with the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent adoption of changes to conform Wisconsin class action law to the requirements of Federal Rule 23.

Revisions to Statute of Limitations / Repose Periods

Act 235 shortens the Statute of Limitations from six years to three for:

  • Statutory claims (unless otherwise specified) (Wis. Stat. § 893.93(1m));
  • Injury to character, or rights of another (Wis. Stat. § 893.53); and
  • Certain claims by franchised motor vehicle dealers (Wis. Stat. § 218.0125).

Perhaps more significantly, Act 235 shortens the repose periods for personal injury claims following construction. Wis. Stat. § 893.89. Here, the Act shortens the period from ten years to seven years. Practitioners should take particular notice because this change took immediate effect on April 5, 2018. This change may result in litigation regarding whether the Act intended this change to have retroactive effect. See Gutter v. Seamandel, 103 Wis. 2d 1, 308 N.W.2d 403 (1981) (declining to apply a new statute of limitations to causes of actions accruing prior to the effective date of the new statute of limitation absent express language in the statute imposing retroactive effect).

Other significant changes

Under state law, unless otherwise provided by law, an insurer must pay insurance claims within 30 days after the insurer is furnished written notice of the fact of a covered loss and loss amount. Under prior law, overdue payments must bear simple interest at the rate of 12% per year. Wis. Stat. § 628.46(1). The Act changes the interest rate applicable to overdue payments to 7.5% per year (by comparison, offers of settlement accrue prime rate plus 1%—currently 4.5% per year. Wis. Stat. § 807.01).

Act 235 creates novel mandatory disclosures for a party to provide any agreement in which any person has a right to receive compensation contingent upon the proceeds of the civil action (this requirement does not apply to attorneys’ contingent fee representations).

Finally, Act 235 also limits the Secretary of Revenue from using third-party contingent agreements to enforce the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act.

Conclusion

Although some of the discovery provisions are already in effect (noticeably, the “proportionality” test that already exists in federal courts), the demarcation for most of Act 235’s changes is for cases filed after July 1, 2018. The Act creates new battlefronts on whether discovery is proportional, ESI is reasonably accessible, and the likely benefit of discovery justifies its costs. Forewarned of these changes, parties can proceed accordingly.

Wis. Supreme Court Narrows Fraudulent-Transfer Exception, Suggests Stringent Pleading Requirements

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Generally, companies purchasing the assets of another company are not responsible for the seller’s liabilities. One long-established, but poorly defined, exception applies when the assets are transferred fraudulently in an effort to evade liabilities. In Springer v. Nohl Electric Products Corp., the Wisconsin Supreme Court took a step towards clarifying (and perhaps limiting) this fraudulent-transfer exception, over the dissent of Justice Abrahamson.

While the majority opinion focused on the legal issue presented in the case—the proper legal standard for fraudulent transfer exception—Justice Abrahamson’s dissent was most concerned with the outcome of the litigation and its broader implications for due process.

In a 5-2 decision, the Court held that the Wisconsin Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“WUFTA”), in chapter 242 of the Wisconsin Statutes, does not define the scope of the fraudulent-transfer exception to successor non-liability under common law. The Court additionally decided that summary judgment was appropriate because the plaintiff’s complaint did not clearly allege that the defendants were liable under a successor-liability theory. Justice Abrahamson dissented, briefly arguing that WUFTA should play a role in the fraudulent-transfer analysis, but focusing primarily on the Court’s decision to dismiss the case. She argued that even addressing an issue with the pleadings was inappropriate because the issue was not raised by the defendants and plaintiff had no opportunity to be heard on that issue.

Brief Background

Springer involved negligence and strict-liability claims against several companies for creating, distributing, and selling asbestos products. The complaint named Fire Brick Engineers Company, Inc. (“FBE2”) and its successor, Powers Holdings, Inc., as defendants. FBE2 was formed in the 1980s to purchase the assets of Fire Brick Engineers Company (“FBE1”), a company formed in the 1940s to manufacture and distribute asbestos products. FBE2 later merged with another company to form Powers.

After initially allowing the claims to continue to discovery, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, holding that FBE2 (now Powers) could not be liable because it was formed more than a decade after the plaintiff’s husband was exposed to asbestos. In response, Springer argued that there was a factual dispute about whether FBE2 (and thus Powers) could be held liable under the fraudulent-transfer exception to successor non-liability because a number of circumstances surrounding the sale indicated a possible fraudulent intent. These included the fact that a FBE2 shareholder was aware of FBE1’s potential liabilities, several FBE2 shareholders acted as attorneys for FBE1, and FBE1’s assets were sold for inadequate consideration, without appraisal or negotiation.

Springer appealed to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which reversed, finding that WUFTA should govern the fraudulent-transfer exception and that the evidence showed there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the transfer from FBE1 to FBE2 triggered the fraudulent-transfer exception. Powers then successfully petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court for review.

Fraudulent Transfer Exception and WUFTA

The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed, holding that WUFTA does not apply to the common law fraudulent-transfer exception. The Court pointed out that successor non-liability and its exceptions arose out of the American and English common law. On the other hand, WUFTA “exists independently from this common law history” and is focused not on holding successor entities responsible for their predecessors’ obligations, but on helping creditors collect claims which “may be frustrated by recent asset transfers.” 2018 WI 48, ¶27. After surveying a number of common law sources, the Court found WUFTA’s standard inapplicable to claims of fraudulent transfer regarding successor liability. Justice Abrahamson disagreed, stating that WUFTA should be a source of guidance for courts in identifying “indicia of fraud” for purposes of the fraudulent-transfer exception.

Summary Judgment and Justice Abrahamson’s Dissent

After determining that WUFTA does not govern the fraudulent transfer exception, the Court turned its attention to the procedural posture of the case. The Court noted that while Springer argued for successor liability in response to a motion for summary judgment, she never amended her complaint to allege successor liability. Evaluating the sufficiency of the pleadings, the majority found that Springer’s pleadings failed to “allege facts that plausibly suggest [she was] entitled to relief” against Powers and therefore affirmed the trial court’s order of summary judgment dismissing Powers.

Justice Abrahamson stridently disagreed with the Court’s decision to review the pleadings, noting that the defendants never challenged the sufficiency of the pleadings at any stage of litigation, including before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Justice Abrahamson insisted that the issue of the sufficiency of the pleadings was not “properly before this court.” Id., ¶49 (Abrahamson, J., dissenting). She was particularly troubled by the fact that the parties were not given notice that the Court “[was] concerned about these issues” and were therefore given no opportunity to address them. Id. Pointing to two recent cases, Justice Abrahamson lamented what she described as “the court’s growing bad habit of addressing issues without giving parties notice and the opportunity to address the issue . . . .” Id., ¶52. She voiced a concern that this trend might violate due process, which “requires (at a minimum) notice and an opportunity to be heard.” Id., ¶51.

Take-Away

Springer makes clear that the fraudulent-transfer exception to successor non-liability is rather narrow. It is also serves as a startling reminder of increasingly demanding pleading standards. The long-established flexibility of notice pleading was somewhat curtailed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Twombly and Iqbal decisions a decade ago, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has largely followed suit. Springer reminds litigants to take care to amend or seek leave to amend pleadings as part of the defense of a summary judgment motion, even when that motion does not expressly attack the sufficiency of the initial pleading.

Law Clerk Collin Weyers assisted with researching and writing this post.

Court of Appeals Reverses Agency Prohibition on Strip Searches at Juvenile Residential Care Centers

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In Milwaukee Academy v. Department of Children and Families, 2016 AP 2377, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals faced the question of whether residential care centers for minors are prohibited from ever strip-searching residents. The Court concluded that state law does not contain a blanket prohibition against strip searches in all circumstances.

The specific strip search at issue before the court took place at Milwaukee Academy, a DCF-licensed residential care center for girls ages ten through seventeen. The children placed at Milwaukee Academy include victims of sexual abuse, subjects of CHIPS cases (where children and parents are subject to court supervision due to findings related to abuse or neglect), children experiencing emotional and behavioral disorders who need respite care, and children who have been adjudicated delinquent. 

The subject of the search is identified only as J. The record is silent regarding the nature of her placement at Milwaukee Academy. After she cut her arms with pieces of plastic, J had been taken to the Milwaukee Mental Health Center.  When J returned to Milwaukee Academy, she refused to cooperate or answer questions about whether she had any weapons. J was taken to the “time out room” with four female staff members present. After J kicked one staff member in the head, the staff took her to the floor using a “team lateral restraint.”

Milwaukee Academy acknowledged that J was forcibly searched and her clothing was cut off. According to an internal investigation , “[s]taff were able to complete the body search but due to J’s continued attempt to kick, bite, scratch and pinch, the nurse had to cut off her bras (she had two of them on) and shirt, and removed her pants.” After the search, Milwaukee Academy staff called for assistance from sheriff’s deputies, who took J to the hospital and then to jail.

Milwaukee Academy subsequently prepared and filed a “Serious Incident Report,” as required by DCF regulations. DCF then imposed a forfeiture on Milwaukee Academy, stating that the relevant statutes and code sections impose an absolute prohibition against strip searches in a residential care center for minors. Milwaukee Academy’s administrative challenge to the forfeiture failed, as the Division of Hearings and Appeals concluded that the strip search had violated J’s rights under state law.  

Milwaukee Academy petitioned for review in circuit court. The circuit court concluded that, under the relevant statutes, minors in residential care centers have right comparable to those granted to patients under state law. According to the circuit court, those rights do not include an absolute right to be free from strip searches. As the circuit court explained, “[d]epending on the security needs and other circumstances of each kind of facility, [an RCC] resident’s right to be free from strip searches might be as limited as an inpatient’s.”

On appeal, DCF argued that, as a matter of law, strip-searching an RCC resident is never permissible. DCF based its argument on Wis. Admin. Code § DCF 52.31(1)(a), which cross-references Wis. Admin. Code ch. DHS 94, and Wis. Stat. § 51.61. Because this was an appeal of an administrative decision, the Court of Appeals reviewed the agency action, not the circuit court’s analysis, and it afforded due-weight deference, under which the agency’s legal interpretation is sustained unless there is a more reasonable interpretation.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals came reached the same result as the circuit court. It held that DCF’s interpretation—based on a distinction between a “patient” and an “inpatient”—lacked textual support in the statutes and regulations. Those sources, the Court determined, do not distinguish between “patient” and “inpatient” but use those terms interchangeably. As an example, the Court focused on the administrative code section that DCF cited, finding “no clear or meaningful distinction between the rights of a ‘patient’ and an ‘inpatient’ in § DHS 94.24(2)(d), contrary to DCF’s argument.” Slip op., ¶26.

The Court of Appeals held that the plain text of the relevant statutes and regulations led to a conclusion more reasonable than that reached by DCF: there is nothing in the DCF regulations that prohibits a strip search of an RCC resident in all circumstances. Instead, such searches are limited by the framework contained in § DHS 94.24(2)(d). Because the Courtdeemed the record insufficient to apply the governing regulations to this particular search,  it remanded the case to DCF for further proceedings.

While it is too early to know how Milwaukee Academy’s strip search of J will be adjudicated, this case may have a significant effect on juveniles’ out-of-home placements moving forward. It remains to be seen if courts will be more hesitant to place certain juveniles in RCCs, even when the juveniles need services that cannot be managed exclusively by the Department of Children and Families.

New Technologies Will Present New “Walking Quorum” Challenges for Governmental Bodies

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A “walking quorum” is a series of gatherings among separate groups of members of a governmental body, each less than quorum size, who agree, tacitly or explicitly, to act uniformly in sufficient number to reach a quorum. Recognizing that a walking quorum may produce a predetermined outcome and deprive the public the opportunity to observe the decision making process, Wisconsin courts have long warned public officials that any attempt to circumvent a public meeting through use of a walking quorum is subject to prosecution under the Open Meetings Act. See e.g., State ex rel. Newspapers v. Showers, 135 Wis.2d 77, 398 N.W. N.W.2d 154 (1987).

In State ex rel. Zecchino v. Dane County (February 27, 2018), the Court of Appeals (District IV) considered an Open Meetings Act claim based on a series of email messages between Dane County Board Supervisor Paul Rusk and no more than eight of his fellow supervisors prior to a controversial vote on the renewal of a billboard lease. The plaintiffs argued that the emails suggested the effort to assemble a walking quorum in violation of the Open Meetings Act, such that he should be allowed discovery to ascertain the full extent of informal communications.

The Court of Appeals dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. The Court first determined that the emails Zecchino already had did not indicate a “tacit agreement” between the defendants to vote against the lease. One of the emails dealt with a scheduling matter, while others asked supervisors for their opinion or expressed Rusk’s personal position. The Court also found that because the quorum of the Board on the day of the vote was eighteen, Rusk’s communications with eight supervisors could not establish a walking quorum. The court confronted the walking quorum prohibition in the context of email messages. Applying the walking quorum concept in light of newer technologies will raise new issues for Wisconsin governmental bodies. Today, members of governmental bodies can communicate using a wide variety of real-time communications platforms. Along with email, public officials can chat through tweets, Gchat, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Viber, Skype, HipChat, FireChat, Cryptocat, What’s App, and, of course, text messaging. Stafford Rosenbaum LLP’s Municipal Law team works with governmental bodies to navigate the challenges that new technologies present in complying with the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.

Seventh Circuit Predicts That Wisconsin Will Adopt Learned Intermediary Doctrine

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The Seventh Circuit recently addressed an open issue under Wisconsin products liability law—do manufacturers of prescription drugs or medical devices satisfy their duty to warn of product risks by informing prescribing physicians (rather than the patients themselves) of those risks?  In In re: Zimmer, NextGen Knee Implant Products Liability Litigation, No. 16-3957 (7th Cir. Mar. 8, 2018), the federal appeals court predicted that the Wisconsin Supreme Court likely would answer “yes” to that question by adopting the “learned intermediary doctrine.”

At issue in this case was a knee implant manufactured by Zimmer NexGen Flex, an entity that has been subject to numerous complaints from patients alleging that their implants are subject to premature loosening.  The claimant in this particular case, Theodore Joas, is a patient who had knee-replacement surgery in Eau Claire in 2008 and filed suit against Zimmer after beginning to feel pain in his new knee in 2011.

Due to the number of similar claims against Zimmer, all litigation involving the Zimmer knee implants, including Mr. Joas’ lawsuit, were transferred to a multidistrict proceeding pending in the Northern District of Illinois.  The judge in the multidistrict proceeding subsequently selected Mr. Joas’ suit as a bellwether—a test case—and scheduled his claim to move forward.

Prior to trial, Zimmer moved for summary judgment on all of Mr. Joas’ claims.  Zimmer argued that the testimony of Joas’ only medical expert must be excluded as unreliable. The doctor’s report applied a differential etiology method that identified the most likely cause of Joas’ injury by eliminating other potential causes. But the medical expert could not affirmatively prove a specific cause for the loosening. The judge excluded the doctor’s opinion under the Daubert standard as lacking any discernable basis for concluding which potential causes were reasonable.  The judge then granted Zimmer’s summary judgment motion, holding that, absent expert medical testimony, the factual record did not support Joas’ causation theories.  Slip. op. at pp. 3-4.

Rather than challenge the Daubert ruling, Joas argued on appeal that, even without his own medical expert's testimony, he could win by proving that Zimmer failed to adequately warn both himself and his doctor of the risks associated with the knee implants. Joas supported his positions with testimony from one of Zimmer’s experts, who opined that it would take two bags of cement to properly bond the knee implant to a patient’s shinbone.  Because his doctor used only one bag, Joas theorized that Zimmer failed to satisfy its duty to warn that two bags of cement were needed to properly bond the implant.  Id. p. 4.

The Seventh Circuit rejected this argument on a number of grounds.  With respect to Zimmer’s duty to warn Joas directly, the Seventh Circuit noted that this was an issue of first impression under Wisconsin law.  The Court noted, however, that the overwhelming majority of courts from other jurisdictions facing this issue have adopted the “learned intermediary doctrine,” which states that medical device manufacturers satisfy their duty to warn of product risks by informing the prescribing physicians of those risks.  The Court predicted that Wisconsin would follow suit. It reasoned that the doctrine recognizes the practical reality that patients cannot obtain such devices without physician intervention and that patients reasonably rely on their physicians to warn them of the risks associated with medical procedures.  Id. pp. 5-8.

The Court also noted that Joas’ argument suffered from a lack of evidence to establish causation.  A warning directly to Joas would not have changed the outcome given that it was his physician (rather than Joas himself) who selected to use the Zimmer brand of knee implant for his procedure.  Any warning directed towards Joas’ surgeon similarly would have failed to make a difference, as the surgeon testified that he performed the surgical cementing technique based on his medical fellowship and residency training and that he did not review Zimmer’s device instructions.  While Joas argued for a “heeding presumption” that would allow for a factfinder to presume that a proper warning would have been read and followed by a medical professional, he cited no Wisconsin authority in support of this argument. The Court determined that such a presumption likely would not be adopted by Wisconsin courts.  Id. pp. 8-13.

While the Seventh Circuit’s decision is not a binding statement of Wisconsin law, Wisconsin courts will likely follow its well-reasoned analysis adopting and applying the “learned intermediary doctrine” to insulate medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers from claims that they have a duty to warn patients directly.  Patients should also view In re: Zimmer, NextGen Knee Implant Products Liability Litigation as a warning that direct causal evidence likely will be needed to prevail on any liability claims against manufacturers of medical products

 

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