Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label trademark. Show all posts
Showing posts with label trademark. Show all posts

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Judge Jackson Media Law, Torts Tour: From Big Meat 'COOL' to 'A Love of Food' and 'Everlasting Life'

[A revised version of this post is available to download as a paper on SSRN.]
The Hon. KBJ (Wikicago CC BY-SA 4.0)

Profiles of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson have proliferated since her announcement as a leading contender for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Breyer, and President Biden announced her nomination yesterday.

Judge Jackson has practiced in both criminal and civil environments, and in public and private sectors.  She focused in different practice roles on criminal law and appellate litigation, and she served on the federal bench at the trial and appellate levels.  So much of her work, and that which has garnered the most attention, for example in the excellent SCOTUSblog profile by Amy Howe, interests me as a citizen in general more than as an academic and media-law-and-torts aficionado.

Nevertheless, I compiled here cases of interest to me, which I found whilst poking around in her trial-court record on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (D.D.C.).  You might not see these discussed elsewhere, but they might be of interest to comparative-bent, media-law types like me, if that's even a thing.  In my ordinary-joe capacity, I am not in step with Judge Jackson's inclinations in some other areas of law.  But any Supreme Court Justice, just like any political candidate, is going to be a mixed bag, especially in a compulsorily two-party system.

In the cases below, a decidedly unscientific sample, I like some of what I see, especially skeptical diligence in access-to-information cases, sound reasoning in intellectual property law, careful application of preemption doctrine in medical-product liability, and a couple of thought-provoking First Amendment entanglements.  I see a mixed record on venue for transnational cases, something I've been worrying about lately, but the outcomes are defensible as consistent with lousy U.S. law.


Main topics:
● Civil procedure/statute of limitations:
WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc. (2017)
Copyright/music royalties: Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co. (2018)
Defamation, false light/actual malice: Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC (2017)
First Amendment/child pornography: United States v. Hillie (2018)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech: Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric. (2013)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement: Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. Dept. Justice (2017)
FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process: McKinley v. FDIC (2017)
FOIA/deliberative process/personal privacy: Conservation Force v. Jewell (2014)
FSIA/CCFA, forum non conveniens: Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth. (2018)
FSIA/torture: Azadeh v. Iran (2018)
Insurance/settlement: Blackstone v. Brink (2014)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary: Kubicki v. Medtronic (2018)
Trademark/infringement: Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper (2016)
Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence: Whiteru v. WMATA (2017)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens: In re Air Crash ... So. Indian Ocean (2018)

Quirky pro se claims:
Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations: Ray v. Olender (2013)
Copyright/infringement: Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent. (2020)
Copyright/pleading: Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit (2013)
Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction: Miller v. Library of Congress (2018)
FTCA/FOIA, civil rights: Cofield v. United States (2014)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity: Smith v. Scalia (2014)

And the case with the best name:
A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (2014)


WMATA (D.C. Metro) (Max Pixel CC0)
Civil procedure/statute of limitations.  WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc., 269 F. Supp. 3d 196 (D.D.C. 2017).  The transit authority of the District of Columbia alleged that negligent maintenance by the Union Station America Restaurant, defendants' enterprise, resulted in a burst sewer pipe that severely damaged the Metro Red Line in 2011.  Judge Jackson opened the opinion cleverly, with what could almost be a dad joke: "This is a case about whose interests the [WMATA] serves when it spends money to repair damaged transit infrastructure in the Metrorail system—a proverbial third rail of this region's politics."  (My emphasis.  How could I not?)

D.C. has a generous five-year statute of limitations, but even that time had run.  Determining that the corporate-body WMATA remained a creature of government for relevant purposes, evidenced by its operational subsidies—cf. WMATA, infra, in negligence/sovereign immunity—Judge Jackson applied "the common law nullum tempus doctrine, which dates back to the thirteenth century," to exempt WMATA, as sovereign, from the statute of limitations.  The court explained: "Although the nullum tempus doctrine originated as a 'prerogative of the Crown[,]' the doctrine's 'survival in the United States has been generally accounted for and justified on grounds of policy rather than upon any inherited notions of the personal privilege of the king.' .... Specifically, 'the source of its continuing vitality ... is to be found in the great public policy of preserving the public rights, revenues, and property from injury and loss, by the negligence of public officers'" (citations omitted).

Pixabay
Copyright/music royalties.  Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co., 306 F. Supp. 3d 422 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed a trade-group-plaintiff claim against automakers that their in-car CD hard drives created digital music recordings (DMRs) within the meaning of the federal statute, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (AHRA), entitling copyright holders to royalties.  The AHRA was intended by Congress to protect the music industry against the alarming ease of creating high-fidelity copies of digital music by requiring manufacturers, importers, and distributors to employ copy-control technology.  Though having earlier allowed the claim to proceed against other technical challenges under the AHRA, the court decided, with the benefit of the first phase of discovery, that the defendant automakers' devices were not digital audio recording devices within the meaning of the statute.  In a methodical analysis, Judge Jackson explained that the content of the hard drives was excluded from the statutory definition of a DMR because of the coordinate presence of play software and other data.  The court rejected industry's theory that the appropriate frame of analysis was a particular partition of the drive, where music code might be located more readily.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 947 F.3d 849 (2020).

Zimmerman
(All Pro Reels CC BY-SA 2.0)
Defamation, false light/actual malice.  Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC, 246 F. Supp. 3d 257 (D.D.C. 2017).  Two professional baseball players, both called Ryan (a Zimmerman and a Howard), sued Al Jazeera America over a documentary, The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers (2015), in which an interviewee linked the pair to performance-enhancing drugs.  The plaintiffs were clearly public figures, so actual malice was at issue.  In a thorough explication of the making of the film followed by a straightforward recitation of the media torts, Judge Jackson narrowed the plaintiffs' claims to allegations stated in the film, excluding liability for promotional content.  The court found it plausible, upon "contextual clues," that a reasonable viewer could attribute the interviewee's statements to the filmmakers: "The film weaves [the source's] statements into a broader narrative about doping in sports that the producers themselves have purportedly confirmed through their own investigation."  Judge Jackson then explicated the actual malice standard and its amped up, St. Amant, iteration of recklessness.  Critically, the plaintiffs alleged that the source had recanted his claims about the Ryans during a subsequent, yet pre-publication, interview, giving Al Jazeera serious cause to doubt the source's veracity, if not actual knowledge of falsity.

Naturally, this case might be of interest to Court watchers, given the present hubbub over the Sullivan actual malice standard.  I'm no fan, and I'll have more to say about that in the future.  Zimmerman hardly depicts a Judge Jackson ready to pitch in with Justices Thomas and Gorsuch to upend the status quo.  But she understands the standard and at least might be amenable to a semantically sincere construction of "reckless disregard."

First Amendment/child pornography.  United States v. Hillie, 289 F. Supp. 3d 188 (D.D.C. 2018).  Criminal cases are not usually my jam, but this one had a First Amendment angle.  Judge Jackson allowed conviction of a defendant for sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of images of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.  On the facts as explicated by the court, that sure seems like it was the defendant's intent: "carefully placing and positioning the camera in hidden locations in J.A.A.'s bedroom and bathroom" and "succeed[ing] in capturing several extended images of J.A.A.'s exposed genitals."  Missing, though, was the express "lasciviousness" required by federal statutes, a fatal flaw for the prosecution, the D.C. Circuit ruled.  14 F.4th 677 (2021).  The defendant relied on statutes, not the First Amendment, but the D.C. Circuit referenced First Amendment case law extensively to support its interpretation of what Congress required.  Despite the substantial latitude to which the government is entitled to prosecute child pornography, beyond the legal constraints of outlawing obscenity as to adults, the appellate court concluded that Judge Jackson erred in permitting the jury to infer the defendant's lascivious objective.  One might expect that social conservatives would side with Judge Jackson on this case. 

Labeled French beef
(by Yuka for Open Food Facts CC BY-SA 3.0)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech.  Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric., 968 F. Supp. 2d 38 (D.D.C. 2013).  This must have been a grilling initiation to the federal bench for Judge Jackson.  A meat industry trade association challenged "country of origin labeling" regulations (truly, "the COOL Rule") promulgated by the Department of Agriculture, on, as one might expect from Big Meat, any legal theory that might stick to the cast iron: namely, the statutory authority of the Agricultural Marketing Act, promulgation under the Administrative Procedure Act, and the First Amendment.  The first two make my eyes glaze over; it's the First Amendment that grabbed me.  Meat and the First Amendment are, of course, long-time frenemies, going back to the heyday of The Jungle, and on through the secret grocery workers of journalism ethics fame.  Then there was the whole pink slime era, and animal-welfare activists came trespassing through to take pictures.  Oh how we laughed until we cried.

Anyway, in this case, Judge Jackson capably explicated the niche case law of compelled commercial speech and charted the fine if squiggly line separating free speech and business regulation.  The risk of deception was more than merely speculative here, she opined, and consumers were demonstrably confused.  Industry mistakenly claimed a burden on its pocketbook, rather than its speech rights, Judge Jackson admonished.  The COOL Rule was reasonable and hardly burdensome for its expectation of truthful and uncontroversial disclosure.  Preliminary injunction was denied.

Big Meat was not easily deterred; the case went for a rodeo ride the following year.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 746 F.3d 1065 (Mar. 28, 2014), vacated upon granting rehearing en banc, No. 13-5281 (Apr. 4, 2014), and then reinstated affirmance (July 29, 2014).

U.S. Defense Department image (C)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement.  Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. DOJ, 296 F. Supp. 3d 109 (2017).  Privacy advocate EPIC sued DOJ under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to learn more about past wiretap spying under the post-9/11 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  EPIC was especially keen to see how the government had justified surveillance requests it set before the famously amenable Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).  Namely, EPIC sought: "(1) Westlaw printouts that were attached to a certain brief that the government submitted to the [FISC], and (2) portions of certain reports that DOJ issued to Congress, consisting of summaries of FISC legal opinions, descriptions of the scope of the FISC's jurisdiction, and discussions of process improvements."  DOJ produced a Vaughn index.  Ex parte and in camera, Judge Jackson reviewed the materials and adjudged them properly withheld under exemptions 1 (national security as to the congressional reports), and 3 and 7(E) (national security statutes and law enforcement techniques, as to everything else), with some nitpicks as to redactions and notations.  I'm sure EPIC did not care for the result, but the transparency problem seems to be a statutory one.  Judge Jackson did a pretty deep dive on the docs.

FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process.  McKinley v. FDIC, 268 F. Supp. 3d 234 (D.D.C. 2017), then No. 1:15-cv-1764 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2018).  Judicial Watch, per experienced FOIA-requester attorney Michael Bekesha, represented a plaintiff against the FDIC.  In the reported opinion in 2017, the court compelled the FDIC to produce a Vaughn index. The Judicial Watch plaintiff was investigating FDIC placement of Citibank into receivership in 2008 and 2009.  The FDIC sought to protect 12 documents as trade secrets and eight documents as deliberative process.  The court faulted the FDIC for failing to support either claim of exemption with any contextual explanation, including the nature of its decision-making authority on the latter claim.

I note that Judge Jackson's reasoning on the trade-secret analysis might have been undermined subsequently by the Supreme Court's industry-deferential ruling on exemption 4 in Food Marketing Inst. v. Argus Leader Media (U.S. 2019).  (I signed on to an amicus on the losing side in FMI.)  In an earlier FOIA case, Government Accountability Project v. FDA, 206 F. Supp. 3d 420 (D.D.C. 2016), Judge Jackson similarly relied on pre-FMI doctrine to reject, as unduly conclusory, FDA resistance, at the behest of a pharma trade association, to production of records on antimicrobial medications.

Vaughn index in hand on remand, plaintiff persisted in challenging the adequacy of the FDIC search and "whether withheld information 'has already been made public through an official and documented disclosure.'"  Judge Jackson rejected both claims in a short opinion in 2018.  She found the first merely speculative.  As to the second, the plaintiff "argued that the FDIC's withholdings were improper because the requested information was 'officially' acknowledged by Former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair in the book Bull by the Horns—a book that Bair published after leaving office."  Judge Jackson held that "that contention, too, must be rejected. A book or other material that a former government official publishes in her personal capacity does not qualify as an 'official acknowledgment' of the information contained therein for the purpose of FOIA."

Bison trophy at Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Vancouver, B.C.
(by Nikkimaria CC BY-SA 3.0)
FOIA/deliberative process, personal privacy.  Conservation Force v. Jewell, 66 F. Supp. 3d 46 (D.D.C. 2014).   A nonprofit foundation that promotes big-game hunting sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife, in the Department of Interior, under the FOIA to obtain records related to denials of permits that would allow the import into the United States of hunting trophies of Canadian bison.  For the record, I'm fine with denying those permits, and I could be persuaded to block importation of the hunters, too.  Nevertheless, transparency....  

Judge Jackson authored a workmanlike exploration of various exemption theories asserted by Interior: accepting attorney-client privilege (exemption 5) and personal-information exemption (6); rejecting deliberative-process exemption, crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, and work product privilege (all exemption 5).  She cited House reports to bolster her interpretations of what exemptions 5 and 6 require.  In a pattern that became familiar, or maybe just speaks to agency neglect, she faulted Interior for a conclusory ("woefully short") Vaughn index that failed to support exemption.  As to exemption 6, which has been aggressively enlarged by federal courts in furtherance of the privacy rage, Judge Jackson accepted Interior's redaction of employee personal information as more or less immaterial to the sought-after accountability.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed summarily in No. 15-5131 (Dec. 4, 2015).

FSIA/CFAA; forum non conveniens.  Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth., 305 F. Supp. 3d 149 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson was reversed in this one, 926 F.3d 870 (D.C. Cir. 2019), but I prefer her analysis.  Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and for common law conversion and unfair competition, plaintiff, a Kansas City, Mo., businessman, sued a business partner, a public investment authority (RAKIA) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE, specifically the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah), after their business relationship soured, alleging that RAKIA "commissioned the repeated surreptitious hacking of his personal and business laptops ... and then published disparaging material that was illicitly gleaned from Azima's computers...."  RAKIA sought dismissal under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) on grounds of sovereign immunity, under a contractual forum selection clause, and, relatedly, under the common law venue doctrine of forum non conveniens.

Judge Jackson rejected all three grounds.  The plaintiff plausibly portrayed RAKIA, an investor rather than governing entity, as a commercial actor and alleged tortfeasor, bringing into play the FSIA commercial and tort exceptions.  As alleged, the hacking would have inserted malware into the plaintiff's computer systems, even if the insertion occurred abroad, so the locus of alleged tortious injury was Kansas City, bolstering the FSIA analysis.  The forum selection clause did not pertain, Judge Jackson reasoned, because it was articulated in the parties' contract for a prior commercial venture; the contract hardly covered subsequent hacking.

As to venue, Judge Jackson faulted RAKIA for failing to meet its "heavy burden" to show that Azima would get a fair shake in RAKIA's preferred venue of London, where RAKIA might have hoped for a more favorable outcome on immunity.  I like that analysis—but cf. infra, re wrongful death/forum non conveniens.  My comparative law class just read Professor Vivian Curran's masterful recent work on foreign law in U.S. courts, in which she convincingly demonstrated U.S. federal judges' penchant to over-employ forum non conveniens and thus shirk their responsibility to adjudicate.  

Perhaps proving Prof. Curran's thesis, the D.C. Circuit disagreed, holding that the forum selection clause burdened the plaintiff with having to show why London would not work as an appropriate venue, else face dismissal for forum non conveniens.  I would be remiss not to mention also: Prof. Curran further faulted the courts for lazy reliance on partisan evidence (my words) when foreign law is concerned, and both Judge Jackson and the D.C. Circuit declared a lack of any responsibility to investigate themselves the adequacy of London as a forum.

FSIA/torture.  Azadeh v. Iran, 318 F. Supp. 3d 90 (D.D.C. 2018).  Plaintiff was an inmate of an Iranian jail and alleged torture and intentional torts at the hands of the republic.  A U.S. court ruling in such a matter is principally symbolic.  Iran will not respond; a plaintiff might hope to recover against a U.S. government claim on frozen assets.  Accordingly, in this case, a magistrate judge recommended entering default judgment in favor of the plaintiff.  I have here omitted cases in which Judge Jackson adopted in toto a magistrate's report; in this case, she did not.

Relying on a manual of the U.S. district courts, the plaintiff had effected service on the state of Iran erroneously, under the wrong order of process under the FSIA.  Judge Jackson wrote: "Judges are sometimes called upon to set aside heart-wrenching and terrible facts about a claimant's treatment at the hands of a defendant and enforce seemingly draconian, technical mandates of law. This is an especially difficult duty when the machinery of the judicial system itself appears to have played a role in the claimant's mistaken view of the applicable legal requirements. The somber circumstances of the instant case present one such scenario...."  The court put the default judgment on hold and gave the plaintiff a second crack at proper service.  Judge Jackson subsequently entered default judgment against Iran, in the sum of $36,411,244, in No. 1:16-cv-1467 (D.D.C. Sept. 5, 2018).  Reproduced therein, the magistrate's report detailed the plaintiff's ordeal.

Insurance/settlement.  Blackstone v. Brink, 63 F. Supp. 3d 68 (D.D.C. 2014) (D.C. law).  In an insurance dispute arising from the alleged wrongful death of a pedestrian, plaintiffs and their attorney apparently changed position on whether to settle with defendant-driver's insurer, State Farm, for the defendant's $100,000 policy limit.  After a telephone conversation, State Farm sent a check and a release form to the plaintiffs' attorney.  The check crossed in the mail with a letter from the attorney rejecting the offer.  Applying D.C. law, Judge Jackson determined that the parties had reached an enforceable agreement on the telephone, evidenced by the specificity of the attorney's instructions on how and where to send the check.  The court wrote of the parties' competing narratives: "On this record, it is far more plausible that [plaintiff counsel] accepted [State Farm's] offer on behalf of his clients [plaintiffs], intended that it be final and binding, and later had misgivings about his earlier decision to accept. Unfortunately for Plaintiffs, courts have long held that such buyer's remorse does not vitiate a demonstrated initial intent to be bound by the settlement agreement" (original emphasis).

A Medtronic product (Alan Levine CC BY 2.0)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary.  Kubicki v. Medtronic, 293 F. Supp. 3d 129 (D.D.C. 2018) (D.C. law).  Parents of a diabetic consumer who suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of low blood-sugar levels sued the manufacturers of an insulin pump, alleging various theories of product liability.  Judge Jackson threw out some claims, against one manufacturer and upon one theory, as time barred, because plaintiffs had added them to the complaint too late for the District's three-year statute of limitations.  Judge Jackson navigated the tricky shoals of preemption doctrine to find some but not all liability theories expressly preempted, and the remainder not impliedly preempted, by FDA medical-device approval.  A sliver of remaining plaintiff theories survived summary judgment for presenting triable questions of fact on causation and on the learned intermediary doctrine relative to alleged failure to warn.

Trademark/infringement.  Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper, 195 F. Supp. 3d 287 (D.D.C. 2016).  The defendant ran the Everlasting Life Restaurant & Lounge as an enterprise of the African Hebrew Israelite community, "who claim to be descendants of biblical Israelites and who follow a strict vegan diet," until their relationship soured.  The plaintiff-community sued when the defendant persisted in doing business as "Everlasting Life," which a community leader had registered as a service mark (pictured).  Trial did not go well for the defense; Judge Jackson wrote that the defendant "displayed some signs of dissembling, such as the evasive nature of his answers with respect to the existence of a purportedly independent and unincorporated food business that he claimed to have created by himself in his home garage prior to the Community's formation of its restaurant businesses."  The court found likelihood of confusion and, accordingly, infringement.  If only defendant had partnered with Big Meat to serve litigious hungry hunters returning from Canada.

Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence.  Whiteru v. WMATA, 258 F. Supp. 3d 175 (2017).  This time the WMATA, the D.C. transit authority, was a negligent defendant rather than plaintiff—cf. WMATA, supra, in civil procedure/statute of limitations—and this time, the authority was ruled not sovereign for purposes of immunity.  In what was essentially a slip-and-fall, the plaintiff-decedent's estate and parents blamed the WMATA for not discovering the decedent—a lawyer, by the way—injured on a train platform, in time to provide life-saving medical treatment.  A creature of state compact and D.C. statute, the WMATA enjoys an immunity analogous to that of federal defendants under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).  Borrowing the FTCA rule of immunity for discretionary governmental functions, which often presents a frame-of-reference problem in its granular application, Judge Jackson rejected the WMATA theory that officials' conduct was discretionary.  Rather, properly, I think, the court accepted the plaintiff's framing of the case as alleging unreasonable comportment with the WMATA standard operating procedures for platform inspection.

At that time in 2017, factual questions in the case precluded summary judgment.  However, in 2020, Judge Jackson awarded the WMATA summary judgment upon the plaintiff's contributory negligence.  480 F. Supp. 3d 185.  The District is not a comparative fault jurisdiction.  The plaintiff's heavy intoxication when he fell was undisputed, and, Judge Jackson opined, video evidence plainly showed that the plaintiff fell because he over-relied on a low wall for support.  Just this month, the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded,  ___ F.4th ___ (Feb. 11, 2022), holding that under D.C. law for common-carrier liability, contributory negligence is not the complete defense that it usually is in negligence in the District.

Suggested search area for MH370 debris
(Andrew Heneen CC BY 4.0)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens.  In re Air Crash Over the Southern Indian Ocean, 352 F. Supp. 3d 19 (D.D.C. 2018) (multi-district litigation).  This case marks a tragic disappointment.  Judge Jackson dismissed for improper venue, forum non conveniens, the claims of families of passengers of missing airliner MH370 against defendants including Malaysia Airlines and Boeing.  The claims arose under the Montreal Convention on international air carriage, common law wrongful death, and product liability.  The thrust of the problem is that what happened to MH370, including the final resting place of the fuselage and an understanding of what went wrong, remains a mystery, and even less was known in 2018.  My money is on pilot hijacking, by the way; read more in the definitive account to date by the incomparable William Langewiesche for The Atlantic. 

Judge Jackson opined:

All told, the Montreal Convention cases in this MDL involve only six U.S. citizens with a direct connection to the Flight MH370 tragedy, as either plaintiffs or decedents. Among the hundreds of passengers on that flight, only three were citizens of the United States, and while the United States undoubtedly has a strong public interest in the claims involving their deaths, its interest pales in comparison to Malaysia's interest in litigating these claims. Malaysia's public interest includes not only an interest in the untimely deaths of the Malaysian pilot and crew, but also an interest in determining precisely what happened to Flight MH370, given that a Malaysian airline owned, operated, and maintained the aircraft; the flight took off from an airport in Malaysia for a destination outside the United States; and it disappeared from radar when Malaysian air traffic controllers were handing off the flight. And Malaysian authorities made substantial investments of time and resources in the wake of this disaster: Malaysia conducted extensive civil and criminal investigations, and changes in Malaysian law led to the creation of a new national Malaysian airline. It is Malaysia's strong interest in the events that give rise to the claims at issue here that makes this a distinctly Malaysian tragedy, notwithstanding the presence of the few Americans onboard Flight MH370. 

I really want to lash out against this reasoning.  But probably it would be like when I was a little kid fed up with allergy-testing shots and kicked my doctor.  Despite my reservations about forum non conveniens, see Prof. Curran, supra, I admit that my frustration stems from doubt that the case could be fairly prosecuted in Malaysia, even if the plane is found, rather than a confidence that the United States is a logical venue.  It might not even matter, as the Montreal Convention probably would curb recovery even in U.S. courts.  Insofar as I have any legitimate gripe, it's in part that forum non conveniens is just a witless rule out of step with a globalized world, and in part that Judge Jackson should have done some independent investigation of the adequacy of Malaysia as a forum.

The aftermath of the MH370 disappearance revealed concerning deficits in transparency, and, thus, potentially in accountability, in the Malaysian investigative process.  And while I don't think Boeing is to blame, having watched Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (2022) on Netflix just last weekend—Langewiesche wrote about the 737 MAX for The New York Times—leaves me distrustful.  Indeed, however relying upon precedent, Judge Jackson declined MH370 plaintiffs' last-ditch demand that, at least, Boeing be compelled to promise to abide by U.S. discovery in connection with any subsequent litigation abroad.

The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 946 F.3d 607, and the Supreme Court denied cert., 141 S. Ct. 451, in 2020.

⚖️

Here are some quirky pro se claims, just to stimulate the noggin.

Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations.  Ray v. Olender, No. 13-1834 (D.D.C. Nov. 21, 2013).  Judge Jackson dismissed an odd $5m pro se defamation claim against an attorney, apparently based on a 1965 suit for copyright infringement and counter-suit.  She held the claim barred by the one-year D.C. statute of limitations and, anyway, based on statements in pleadings, protected by the litigation privilege.

Copyright/infringement.  Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent., No. 18-cv-3028 (D.D.C. May 26, 2020).  In a wide-ranging complaint, pro se plaintiff accused defendant music producers of stealing from songs he submitted for consideration.  Dismissed, because three of four songs were not registered; plaintiff could not show that any producer actually received a copy of the fourth song demo tape; and plaintiff anyway failed to allege substantial similarity, beyond allegation of "steal[ing]," between defendants' hits and the plaintiff's "I Gos Ta Roll." 

Copyright/pleading.  Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit, No. 13-1684 (D.D.C. Oct. 23, 2013).  Pro se plaintiff accused the state of copyright infringement for using his name in all capital letters.  Dismissed for failure to plead adequately.  BUTLER.

Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction.  Miller v. Library of Congress, No. 1:18-cv-02144 (D.D.C. Nov. 5, 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction a $100m pro se copyright infringement claim by an author of "a book of songs" who alleged that the Library of Congress stole the book and allowed it to be used by others.  Held, he should have filed in the Federal Claims Court.  I'd return the book, but the fines....

FTCA/FOIA, civil rights.  Cofield v. United States, 64 F. Supp. 3d 206 (D.D.C. 2014).  A Maryland prisoner, pro se plaintiff sought billions in damages against ICANN and the Obama Administration for improper FOIA denials and race discrimination.  On the latter count, the plaintiff essentially accused the government of establishing a business monopoly in ICANN that leaves African-American persons "intentionally omitted, to be left behind when it comes to technology ... by design[.]"  An intriguing idea, but not the best spokesperson.  The court dismissed for sovereign immunity, as the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) authorizes neither FOIA complaints, which do not entitle a plaintiff to tort damages, nor constitutional claims.

Defendant-Justice Scalia (Shawn CC BY-NC 2.0)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity.  Smith v. Scalia, 44 F. Supp. 3d 28 (D.D.C. 2014).  Yup, that Scalia.  The pro se plaintiff was denied admission to the Colorado Bar after "refus[ing] to submit to a mental status examination," and then sued officials, including judges who denied his appeals.  Even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which rated among plaintiff's theories, cannot overcome federal sovereign and judicial absolute immunities, Judge Jackson held.  She declined to order Rule 11 sanctions, but did hit the frequent-filing plaintiff with a pre-filing injunction, going forward.
Maoz Falafel, Paris
(Björn Söderqvist CC BY-SA 2.0)

⚖️


Finally, I don't really care what happened in this case; I just love its name: A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (D.D.C. 2014).  Plaintiff Love of Food was "a franchise of Maoz's vegetarian quick service restaurant" in D.C.  When the business failed, Love of Food blamed Maoz.  Maoz had failed to register its offering prospectus properly with the state of Maryland, but, Judge Jackson held, that omission did not give Love of Food standing.  The court issued mixed results on the, uh, meatier claims of misrepresentation, finding a material dispute of fact over the veracity of startup estimates.

Just wait 'til Big Meat hears about this.

I gos ta roll.

Monday, January 24, 2022

American Airlines resists transparency, sues 'Points Guy' for tortious interference, trademark infringement

Photo by RJ Peltz-Steele at O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg,
South Africa, 2020 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Points Guy (TPG) has become embroiled in litigation with American Airlines over how the TPG app lets users manage their frequent flyer miles, the airline charging the website with tortious interference and trademark infringement.

I read TPG every day.  The website is funded by product placements and advertising, especially by credit card companies.  One has to know that and take the content with heaps of salt.  But I find TPG incomparable and nonetheless worthwhile for keeping up with the travel industry.  And TPG advice has been especially helpful to me with advice on frequent flyer programs, for example, letting me know how much miles are worth on average in real dollars, so I know whether dynamic redemption tables are offering a good deal.

I also like some of the writers at TPG, because they set a tone that resonates with me, mixing a desire for industry accountability, especially for airlines, with a sense of humor and a lighthearted wonder of the world.  Baltimore-based senior editor Benét J. Wilson (LinkedIn, Muck Rack, Twitter; see also Poynter) is especially fabulous; check out her wider world at Aviation Queen.  I met Benét when she taught an outstanding program on advanced Google research tools for the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), and thereby for my FOI Law students, who participated.

Last year, TPG launched an Apple app.  I haven't used it, because I'm an Android user.  I avoid Apple products because I've never been a fan of Apple intellectual property (IP) policies, which I mention because it's relevant here.  Apple's limited submission to a right of repair for Apple smartphones is a step in the right direction; more on that momentarily.  Anyway, TPG is working on the Android version of the app.

Among many features, the TPG app empowers users to manage their frequent flyer miles.  TPG deep-links to data from sites such as that of American Airlines (AA), within users' accounts there.  Obviously, this access improves the user's ability to maximize the value of their miles, recognizing good deals and, key, getting advance warning when miles are set to expire.

AA was not happy about that.  The company accused TPG of violating the terms and conditions of the website and frequent flyer program, AAdvantage, thus, allegedly, interfering with AA's contract with its customers and infringing on AA IP.  According to media reports, TPG sued AA in Delaware state court the week before last.  I assume TPG sought declaratory relief; at the time of this writing, the complaint is not yet available from Delaware courts.

Then on Tuesday last week, AA sued TPG in federal court, in AA's home Northern District of Texas.  The complaint alleged tortious interference with, inter alia, contract, unfair competition by misappropriation, (virtual) trespass, trademark infringement and dilution, copyright infringement, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

For Law360, Jasmin Jackson filled in some background last week (limited access without subscription).  Jackson reported that TPG initially sought AA's partnership in the app.  AA declined.  Since the app's launch, the two were discussing their differences.  AA claimed surprise at TPG's Delaware filing and accused TPG of leveraging its position with litigation costs and compelling, AA said, the suit in Texas.

I see the case as a high-tech relation of the right-to-repair problem.  AA is gaining a business advantage through obfuscation of customer data and control of information under the guise of IP protection.  The same strategy is why I have to pay a high-dollar technician to tell me what's wrong with my car when the check-engine light comes on, and it's why 11% of McDonald's Taylor-made McFlurry machines are broken.

Customer frustration with companies' resistance to transactional transparency to maximize profit margins is manifesting in a wave of state legislation to protect consumers (see N.Y. Times July, Oct. 2021; repair industry website; U.S. PIRG).  Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a right-to-repair ballot initiative in 2020, despite a $25m no campaign by the auto industry (on this blog).  Industry promptly sued, principally claiming federal preemption.  The outcome of a 2021 trial in Alliance for Automotive Innovation v. Healy is still awaited, as the parties battle over a state motion to reopen trial evidence.

There is a Fair Repair Act bill in Congress, even if its odds of passage are dismal.  And the President last summer made overtures, however feeble, ordering the Federal Trade Commission to regulate to protect independent repair shops.  Industry claims it needs exclusive repair rights to protect consumers from incompetent independent technicians.  But a May 2021 FTC report located such industry claims somewhere between baseless and overstated.

The cause should be, and at least sometimes is, bipartisan.  As I have commented many times, free markets depend on transparency, the free flow of information between business and consumer.  So even economic conservatives should be able to get behind the right to repair.  That bipartisan impulse has fueled congressional appetite for now pending bills to enhance antitrust in the tech sector.  Apple's seemingly open-minded move to allow smartphone repair might have been calculated to head off antitrust enforcement.

Summons issued last week in the lawsuit filed by AA, which is American Airlines, Inc. v. Red Ventures LLC, No. 4:22-cv-00044 (N.D. Tex. filed Jan. 18, 2022).

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Netflix's 'Enola Holmes' tangles with family copyright

Brown (image by Gage Skidmore 2017 CC BY-SA 2.0)
I quite enjoyed the film Enola Holmes, released on Netflix in 2020, a welcome respite from #QuarantineLife.  Stranger Things sensation Millie Bobby Brown was delightful as the lesser known teen sister of the super-sleuth Sherlock, played with rich arrogance by Henry Cavill.  I did not know then that the movie was based on a YA book series, by fantasy writer Nancy Springer, dating to 2006. 

The Arthur Conan Doyle estate seemed content to let Springer go about the quiet business of spin-off fan fiction, but got its hackles up when Netflix got into the game.  The copyright picture behind Sherlock Holmes is complicated: one might say, a puzzle to be solved.  Some of the works have fallen into the public domain and some have not, and the matter is further complicated by a U.S. copyright regime that protects copyright a full generation longer than British law.

The Doyle estate sued Springer and Netflix in federal court in New Mexico in June for copyright and trademark infringement.  The estate's U.S. licensing representative lives in Santa Fe, an attorney explained to the Las Cruces Sun News.  The case, Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. v. Springer (D.N.M.), was dismissed in December upon stipulation, suggesting the parties reached a settlement.

Claims of copyright in fictional characters are always dicey, because they press the limits of the doctrinal dichotomy in copyright law that only fixed representations, and not ideas, may be protected by copyright.  A character has one foot fixed in a tangible medium of expression, as the law requires, and, at the same time, has one foot in the wind of idea.  In the instant case, the plaintiff advanced one remarkable theory to bolster its position.

The plaintiff suggested that Arthur Conan Doyle in fact authored two distinct versions of the Sherlock Holmes character, and that the fictional Holmes universe created by Springer and Netflix employed specifically the latter incarnation—which, suitably for the plaintiff's case, remains copyrighted.  The complaint explained that before WWI, Holmes was famously "aloof and unemotional," quoting Watson from "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" on Holmes's "deficien[cy] in human sympathy," "aversion to women," and "disinclination to form new friendships."  Then:

All of this changed. After the stories that are now in the public domain, and before the Copyrighted Stories, the Great War happened. In World War I Conan Doyle lost his eldest son, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley. Four months later he lost his brother, Brigadier-general Innes Doyle. When Conan Doyle came back to Holmes in the Copyrighted Stories between 1923 and 1927, it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind. Holmes needed to be human. The character needed to develop human connection and empathy.

Conan Doyle made the surprising artistic decision to have his most famous character—known around the world as a brain without a heart—develop into a character with a heart. Holmes became warmer. He became capable of friendship. He could express emotion. He began to respect women.

Thus, the complaint posits, Enola Holmes, the story of Sherlock's sister, a figure long marginalized but now primed for redemption, is derivative specifically of post-WWI Sherlock Holmes—©.

Despite the dismissal, you still can enjoy untangling the skein of intellectual property claims in Conan Doyle Estate v. Springer with Alice Chaplin, writing on February 4 for A&L Goodbody's Ireland IP and Technology Law Blog.  Then solve a mystery with Enola Holmes on Netflix.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Despite IP exclusion, insurer bound to defend in right-of-publicity case over running shoes, Mass. high court holds

Upon an underlying case involving the right of publicity coupled with consumer protection and equity claims, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today held insurers duty-bound to defend an insured running-shoe maker, despite the exclusion of intellectual property claims from coverage.

Abebe Bikila in Rome, 1960
Massachusetts-based Vibram USA, through its affiliate Vibram FiveFingers, named a line of "minimalist" running shoes after Ethiopian Olympic athlete Abebe Bikila, who ran barefoot when he set a marathon world record in Rome in 1960.  (See clips from 1960 and Bikila's 1964 marathon win in Tokyo on the Olympic Channel).  Seriously injured in a car accident in 1969, Bikila died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1973.  Since then, the family has made commercial use of the Bikila name in enterprises including a Spanish retail sporting goods chain, a Bikila biography, a Japanese commercial, and a biographical feature film.  The family objected to Vibram's association of its shoe with Bikila without permission.

The complaint comprised four counts: (1) right of publicity under the Washington Personality Rights Act, (2) violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act, (3) unfair competition under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), and (4) unjust enrichment.  Vibram's general insurance and liability policies with two providers, Salem-based Holyoke Mutual and Maryland Casualty, covered "personal and advertising injury liability," without defining "advertising injury"; however, the coverage excluded intellectual property liability.  The insurers sought, and the superior court granted, declaratory relief from coverage.  The SJC reversed.

To trigger an insurer's duty to defend, the insured need show only "a possibility that the liability claim falls within the insurance coverage."  The duty to defend is broader than the duty to indemnify.  The Bikila complaint alleged that Vibram used Bikila as "an advertising idea."  Bikila family members alleged that they had "intentionally and specifically connected the name to running-related ventures, and the name itself conveys a 'barefoot dedication to succeed under any circumstances,' a desirable quality for any of these ventures."  The insurers were mistaken in arguing that the claim was limited to the right of publicity, or was synonymous with trademark infringement, both IP theories excluded from coverage.  Rather, the essence of the Bikila claim was that Vibram sought to profit from Bikila-associated ideas.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila Running Shoes (by Fuzzy Gerdes, CC BY 2.0)
From the court's opinion, it is not clear to me which or what combination of claims ensures that a complaint such as this one rises beyond the coverage exclusion.  Count 1 right of publicity by itself would not have been covered by the policy, and it is informative to see that the privacy tort now resides firmly in the IP household.  I suspect that count 3 under the Lanham Act also constitutes an excluded IP claim.  So perhaps statutory consumer protection and equitable quasi-contract each could do the trick.  Yet those theories, in any given case, could overlap wholly with IP claims.  The court's opinion suggests that there is something special about the misappropriation of an "advertising idea" that sets this case apart qualitatively from IP claims.  I'm not sure I see it.

Apparently the "advertising injury" language of the insurance coverage here is not without precedent, and the court gave an informative catalog of the "wide variety of concepts, methods, and activities related to calling the public's attention to a business, product, or service [that have] constitute[d] advertising ideas":
  • logo and brand name, Street Surfing, LLC v. Great Am. E&S Ins. Co., 776 F.3d 603, 611-612 (9th Cir. 2014);
  • patented telephone service enabling sale and promotion of products, Dish Network Corp. v. Arch Specialty Ins. Co., 659 F.3d 1010, 1022 (10th Cir. 2011);
  • advertising strategy of "trad[ing] upon a reputation, history, and sales advantage" associated with Native American made products, Native Am. Arts, Inc. v. Hartford Cas. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 729, 733 (7th Cir. 2006);
  • concept of "Psycho Chihuahua" obsessed with Taco Bell food to advertise business, Taco Bell Corp. v. Continental Cas. Co., 388 F.3d 1069, 1072 (7th Cir. 2004);
  • word "NISSAN" to promote vehicles to public, constituting "quintessential example of trademark functioning to advertise a company's products," State Auto Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. The Travelers Indem. Co. of Am., 343 F.3d 249, 258 (4th Cir. 2003);
  • use of internet domain, CAT Internet Servs., Inc. v. Providence Wash. Ins. Co., 333 F.3d 138, 142 (3d Cir. 2003);
  • artwork and product model numbers designed to promote products (claim for trade dress infringement), Hyman v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 304 F.3d 1179, 1189 (11th Cir. 2002);
  • word "fullblood," connoting desirable quality, to advertise Simmental cattle breed, American Simmental Ass'n v. Coregis Ins. Co., 282 F.3d 582, 587 (8th Cir. 2002);
  • agent misrepresenting himself as working for another company for purposes of inducing customers to make purchases, Gustafson v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., 901 F. Supp. 2d 1289, 1301 (D. Colo. 2012); and
  • patented technology used to market music for online sales, Amazon.com Int’l, Inc. v. American Dynasty Surplus Lines Ins. Co., 120 Wash. App. 610, 616-617, 619 (2004).
 "Advertising injury" is not "injury caused by other activities that are coincidentally advertised" (quoting Couch treatise).  "Otherwise stated, '[i]f the insured took an idea for soliciting business or an idea about advertising, then the claim is covered ... [b]ut if the allegation is that the insured wrongfully took a ... product and tried to sell that product, then coverage is not triggered'" (quoting Washington precedent and offering authorities in accord from other states).  Thus coverage is excluded in cases such as:

  • use related to manufacture and not marketing, Winklevoss Consultants, Inc. v. Fed. Ins. Co., 991 F. Supp. 1024, 1034 (N.D. Ill. 1998);
  • conspiracy to fix egg prices, Rose Acre Farms, Inc. v. Columbia Cas. Co., 662 F.3d 765, 768-769 (7th Cir. 2011);
  • disparagement of competitor's pineapples to undermine their advertising, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Inc. v. Transp. Ins. Co., 500 F.3d 640, 643, 646 (7th Cir. 2007);
  • advertising another's patented method for cutting concrete, Green Mach. Corp., v. Zurich-American Ins. Group, 313 F.3d 837, 839 (3d Cir. 2002);
  • design of product, Ekco Group, Inc. v. Travelers Indemnity Co. of Ill., 273 F.3d 409, 413 (1st Cir. 2001);
  • misappropriation of product design, Frog, Switch & Mfg. Co. v. Travelers Ins. Co.,
    193 F.3d 742, 749-750 (3d Cir. 1999);
  • taking of customer list and solicitation of customers from it, Hameid v. National Fire Ins. of Hartford, 31 Cal. 4th 16, 19-20 (2003);
  • manufacture and sale of patented product, Auto Sox USA Inc. v. Zurich N. Am., 121 Wash. App. 422, 427 (2004).

So memorize those, and let me know when you're ready for the exam.

The case is Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co. in Salem v. Vibram USA, Inc., No. SJC-12401 (Mass. Sept. 12, 2018).  Suffolk Law has the oral argument video of Feb. 6.  The case was heard by the full court upon granting direct appeal, and the unanimous opinion was authored by Associate Justice David A. Lowy, a Boston University law grad and former ADA and Goodwin Proctor litigator.