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Lefoldt v. Horne, L.L.P.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 6, 2019

H. KENNETH LEFOLDT, JR., in his capacity as Trustee for the Natchez Regional Medical Center Liquidation Trust, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
HORNE, L.L.P., Defendant-Appellee

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

          Before HAYNES, GRAVES, and HO, Circuit Judges.

          JAMES C. HO, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         For over a century, Mississippi has required that a public board speak and act only through its minutes. See Bridges v. Clay Cty. Sup'rs, 58 Miss. 817, 820 (Miss. 1881). Mississippi courts will not give legal effect to a contract with a public board unless the board's approval of the contract is reflected in its minutes. "Otherwise, an individual member of the board or agent thereof would be capable of binding the board and expending the public taxpayers' money without the benefit of the consent of the board as a whole." Butler v. Bd. of Sup'rs for Hinds Cty., 659 So.2d 578, 579 (Miss. 1995). The public interest protected by the minutes rule is "paramount to other individual rights which may also be involved," id., and Mississippi courts "strict[ly] adhere[]" to the rule even when "the rule may work an apparent injustice." Id. at 581-82 (quoting Colle Towing Co., Inc. v. Harrison Cty., 57 So.2d 171, 172 (Miss. 1952)).

         In this case, a private accounting firm, Horne, L.L.P., asks us to enforce the minutes rule against the Natchez Regional Medical Center, a community hospital owned by the Adams County Board of Supervisors. The Medical Center (through its bankruptcy trustee, H. Kenneth Lefoldt) brought this suit against Horne alleging accounting malpractice. Horne claims the suit must fail because there can be no accounting malpractice claim without proof of a professional relationship, and there is no record evidence on the minutes here that the Medical Center ever entered into a professional relationship with Horne.

         We agree with Horne, as did the district court. Accordingly, we affirm.

         I.

         From 2009 to 2014, Horne served as the Medical Center's auditor. Horne's services were provided pursuant to a series of engagement letters with the Medical Center. Each of those engagement letters contained an arbitration clause. The letters were executed by Charles Mock, the Medical Center's chief financial officer. But none of them were ever incorporated into the Medical Center's board minutes.

         In 2014, the Medical Center filed for bankruptcy. The United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Mississippi established a liquidation trust and appointed H. Kenneth Lefoldt as its trustee. Acting in this capacity, Lefoldt filed the underlying action against Horne, contending that Horne was guilty of professional malpractice when it failed to detect significant flaws in the Medical Center's financial controls. According to the complaint, Horne's supposed lapse resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in unbilled revenue that contributed to the Medical Center's descent into bankruptcy.

         After the complaint was filed, Horne moved to stay the proceeding so that the parties could start the arbitration process as stipulated in the engagement letters. The district court denied the motion. The Medical Center successfully argued that, as a public body, it could speak and act only through the minutes of its board of trustees, and that the arbitration agreement was never approved in the board's minutes.

         On appeal, we affirmed on this point. We noted that, out of all the minutes entered into the record, the board only referenced its contractual relationship with Horne three times. Lefoldt v. Horne, L.L.P., 853 F.3d 804, 808-09 (5th Cir. 2017). And each of those occasions referred only to a one-year contract signed in 2009. No mention was made of two subsequent agreements executed in 2010 and 2012. Accordingly, we held that the 2010 and 2012 engagement letters failed as a matter of law. Id. at 813-14.

         On remand, Horne moved for summary judgment on all claims stemming from the 2010-2013 audits, using the same argument that the Medical Center successfully invoked to void the arbitration agreement-that the agreement failed under the minutes rule. As Horne explained, the Medical Center must prove the existence of a professional relationship in order to prevail on its malpractice claim. Horne argued that, by voiding the 2010 and 2012 engagement letters under the minutes rule, the Medical Center invalidated the basis for that relationship. The district court granted summary judgment to Horne.

         In response, the Medical Center attempted to submit additional evidence into the record to prove the existence of a professional relationship with Horne-namely, minutes from the board's regular session meetings on January 19, 2011 and March 16, 2011, as well as minutes from the board's executive session meetings. Based on this new evidence, the Medical Center asked the district court to reconsider its grant of summary judgment.

         The Medical Center admitted, however, that this evidence was in fact not new at all-the Center had access to its own minutes throughout the proceedings. It nevertheless sought to excuse its tardiness on the ground that the minutes became relevant only when the district court granted summary judgment to ...


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