Appeals court vacates summary judgment, sending Waste Management's case against rivals accused of bribing Nagin to trial

By Charmaine Little | May 13, 2019

NEW ORLEANS – On April 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit sided against a company accused of bribing a former New Orleans mayor to close a landfill and reversed a previous summary judgment ruling in its favor.

"This close case — where the evidence could support a verdict for either side, depending upon the evidence the jury credits and the reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence — is tailor-made for a trial, not summary judgment," the ruling states.

In its lawsuit, Waste Management of Louisiana LLC claimed defendants River Birch Inc., Albert J. Ward, Jr., Frederick R. Heebe, and Highway 90 LLC bribed previous mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin to close a landfill after Hurricane Katrina. The plaintiff alleged  the defendants gave Nagin $20,000 toward his campaign in an effort to get Waste Management’s landfill, Chef Menteur, closed down. The defendants operated competing landfills. 

Waste Management said as a result of being closed down, it lost business that the defendants ended up benefiting from. 

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted the defendants their motion for summary judgment. It determined that the Rule 56 evidence shown to the jury didn’t raise a jury question related to the actual causation. Particularly, the lower court said that when it comes to proving the campaign donation was a bribe, there was no genuine issue of material fact that concerned the jury. 

The appeals court disagreed. While Circuit Judge W. Eugene Davis wrote the opinion and Circuit Judge Gregg Costa concurred, Circuit Judge Andrew S. Oldham dissented.

“We are persuaded that the evidence, which is primarily circumstantial in nature, is sufficient for a jury to make positive findings on both plaintiff’s claim that the $20,000 payment to Nagin was a bribe and that the bribe was causally related to Nagin’s action in shuttering the Chef Menteur landfill,” Davis wrote. 

Considering this, it vacated and remanded the judgment.

The appeals court also evaluated the definition of a bribe, and pointed to the Louisiana’s public bribery statute as well as state courts that have said in order to be considered a bribe, one being accused of it is required to have “specific intent” to actually bribe someone.

"In this case, based on (former Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Commissioner Henry) Mouton’s testimony that there was a scheme to shutter the Chef Menteur landfill, the evidence suggesting defendants’ intent to bribe Mouton can be considered by the jury in determining defendants’ motive and intent in connection with their contribution to Nagin’s campaign," Davis wrote. 

Oldham dissented, saying the allegation looks "trashy" but that plaintiff failed to create a jury question.

“This case certainly smells fishy," Oldham wrote. "We should be especially careful to heed that lesson in civil RICO cases like this one. Before asking a jury to separate official acts motivated by bribery from those motivated by the public interest, we should be quite sure there is some evidence that could satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of proof."

He added that his key issue was that there was no indication of why Nagin refused to reauthorize Waste Management’s landfill. He said Nagin wither possibly didn’t want to face any criticism for green-lighting the landfill that was already declining in popularity or that he succumbed to "the sinister allegation" — that he was bribed.

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