California State Bar Rules Attorney’s Fees Not Unconscionable Because No Element of Fraud

In a recent opinion, the State Bar Court of California found an attorney not guilty of charging an unconscionable fee because the attorney’s actions did not contain an element of fraud or overreaching. The case, In the Matter of Breyon Jahmai Davis, concerned a newly admitted attorney who, it was alleged, improperly charged legal fees in two matters. 

In the first matter, a wrongful foreclosure case, she charged her clients a contingency fee in the amount of $20,666 even though her agreement did not provide for a contingency fee. When her clients objected to the fee, she returned $6,666 to the client trust account.

In the second matter, for the same clients in an unrelated employment case, the attorney charged an hourly fee totaling $14,250. However, her agreement provided only for a contingency fee in that case, not an hourly fee. When her clients filed a complaint with the state bar, the attorney refunded the entire $20,666 and stopped efforts to collect the $14,250.

The attorney was charged by the state bar with a violation of Rule 4-200(A), charging and collecting an unconscionable fee in the foreclosure matter, and charging, but not collecting, an unconscionable fee in the employment matter. She furthermore was charged with violating Rule 4-100(A) for failing to maintain the disputed amount in her client trust account after her clients disputed the fee. At hearing, the judge found the attorney did not violate Rule 4-200(A) because she held an honest, mistaken, belief that she was entitled to the fees. However, a Rule 4-100(A) violation was found for the attorney’s failure to return the funds to the client trust account. The State Bar appealed, arguing the hearing judge improperly dismissed the charge related to Rule 4-200(A).

On review, the Review Department noted that while a gross overcharge by an attorney may constitute an unconscionable fee, such cases usually contain some element of fraud or overreaching. In the instant case, it was found that the attorney sent her clients her fee agreement and inadvertently left out the contingency fee provision. The hearing judge found the client’s testimony that there was no agreement to a contingency fee not credible, and found the attorney’s testimony that the parties agreed to a contingency fee credible. Therefore, because the attorney’s actions in charging the excessive fees were based on a mistaken act rather than an intentional act of fraud, the fee was not unconscionable. Similarly, in the employment case, the attorney charged what she believed was a reasonable amount for her services. There was no evidence to support a finding that she charged the amount in an effort to deter her clients from seeking return of the contingency fee collected, as alleged by her clients. The Review Department further considered mitigation factors, which included the attorney’s responsiveness and candor during the proceedings, as well as her recognition of wrongdoing and remorse. In consideration of all factors, the hearing judge’s findings were affirmed. The attorney was found to have violated Rule 4-100(A) for failing to return the disputed funds to the client trust account and received as punishment public reproval and was required to receive ethics training and take the MPRE.

It is important for attorneys to understand their ethical obligations when it comes to client fees and their handling, especially when it comes to proper management of the client trust account. Here, the attorney was not found culpable in charging an unconscionable fee because the element of fraud or overreaching was not present. Despite this, her failure to properly fund the client trust account when the client disputed her fees did result in disciplinary action. It should be remembered by all attorneys that if at any time a client disputes a fee, it must be returned to the client trust account until the dispute is resolved to avoid discipline.

This article was originally posted on September 26 by Marc Zimet on the Insurance Defense Blog. Click here to read the original post. 

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Categories: Employment/Labor Law | Evidence

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On March 11, 2013, the National Football League and the General Electric Co. announced that they are teaming up to create a Head Health Initiative that will provide $60 million dollars to assist leading neurologists in researching traumatic brain injuries and developing technology able to monitor these ailments.  $40 million will go towards developing imaging technologies, and the remaining $20 million will be available to others who seek to prevent, identify, and develop treatments for brain injuries.  Athletic apparel company Under Armour will also be providing $5 million dollars in support for the cause.

Jeff Immelt, GE Chairman and CEO, indicated that scientific support for the research would be top-notch.  “We’re trying to do this with the best minds anywhere in the world,” he noted in a news conference.  He declared that the funds would utilize GE’s expertise in sophisticated diagnostic imaging technology to increase general scientific knowledge on brain functions, noting “With this initiative, we will advance our research and apply our learning to sports-related concussions, brain injuries suffered by members of the military and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  Advancing brain science will help families everywhere.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also expressed satisfaction with the initiative, stating: “The NFL has made tremendous progress in making the game safe and more exciting.  But we have more work to do.  Our collaboration with GE and Under Armour . . . puts us on an accelerated path to progress . . that will benefit athletes, the military, and all members of society.”

As orignally published at www.sportslawinsider.com March 13, 2013.
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Do you talk or text while driving? If so, you better check out the status of the law in your state. Here are two links that will give you important information on these laws. And local governments are getting in on the act. For example, this Wednesday Mission, Kansas, begins the process of enacting an ordinance allowing only hands-free phones while driving.

http://www.distraction.gov/content/get-the-facts/state-laws.html

http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html

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Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence governs the admissibility of demonstrative evidence at trial, assuming that evidence is determined to be relevant under Rule 401. Pursuant to Rule 403, a demonstrative exhibit may be excluded from the courtroom if its probative value is substantially outweighed by its unfair prejudice, its cumulative nature or if it is confusing or misleading.

Does the exhibit (1) relate to a piece of admissible substantive proof; (2) fairly and accurately reflect that substantive proof; and (3) is it sufficiently explanatory or illustrative to assist the jury? These are the questions used to establish a proper foundation for use at trial.

In addition, the exhibit should convey what it is designed to convey. For example, a computer enhanced photograph should not make an accident scene look better or worse than it actually was. Similarly, the demonstrative evidence should convey representational accuracy. The scale, dimensions and contours of the underlying evidence should all be accurately depicted. Today more than ever, the creative use of software permits trial counsel to manipulate demonstrative exhibits in ways often difficult to spot.

In an excellent article titled, “5 Demonstrative Evidence Tricks and Cheats to Watch Out For,” Ken Lopez, fouinder of A2L Consulting, provides a useful guide for spotting misleading charts and explains why they are misleading. Lopez discusses five such tricks (which are somewhat difficult to convey without having all of the graphics Lopez uses in his article to illustrate his points):

1. The Slippery Scale. This trick involves setting the the vertical y-axis on a graph in a narrow range that does not include “0.” By not including “0,” it is easy to make a relatively small change look enormous.

2. Compared to what? If the trial lawyer seeks to demonstrate a small change on a percentage basis, all he needs to do is carry the horizontal x-axis so that time is literally “on his side”

3. The Percentage Increase Trick. How many times have you heard someone talk about a 200% or 300% increase and really wonder what they mean? 

4. Tricking the Eye with 3D Charts. Flat charts with no depth or 3D aspect are harder to trick the viewer with, so always scrutinize your opponent’s charts when a third dimension is introduced. On a pie chart, when a slice of the pie (e.g., the percentage of customers injured by a purportedly defective product) is closer to the viewer, it looks much bigger.

5. Misleading Emotional Imagery. Putting an image of a homeless person in the background of a chart about increasing homelessness is designed to evoke emotion. Similarly, showing an oil-covered bird in the background in an explanation of how much oil was spilled in an accident does not add to one’s understanding of the amount of oil spilled, but seeks to trigger an emotional response in the viewer.

Perhaps the single most important Rule 403 objection you can make in a jury trial is the exhibit’s capacity to generate an emotional response such as pity, revulsion or contempt. Under these circumstances, the capacity to evoke emotion far outweighs the value of the evidence on the issues before the court and exclusion is appropriate.

As originally posted on January 9, 2013 in Toxic Torts Litigation Blog
 
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A Pennsylvania district court in CAMICO Mutual Insurance Co. v. Heffler, Radetich & Saitta, LLP (E.D. Pa. Jan. 28, 2013), refused to allow an insurer access to its insured’s defense file, holding that that the insurer was not a client of the insured’s defense counsel.  There, CAMICO Mutual Insurance Co. insured Heffler, Radetich & Saitta, L.L.P. (“Heffler”) which was sued for misappropriating class action settlement proceeds.  In response to the suit, Heffler selected its defense counsel, and CAMICO agreed to pay defense counsel’s fees.  

CAMICO filed this declaratory judgment action seeking a finding apparently regarding the available policy limits.  In connection therewith, CAMICO sought production of certain documents related to the underlying lawsuit.  Heffler refused, and CAMICO moved to compel.  CAMICO argued the application of exceptions to the attorney-client privilege, which the parties agreed would have otherwise protected the documents from production.

CAMICO relied on the co-client exception, which concerns where two or more clients share the same attorney.  CAMICO argued that the exception applied because defense counsel represented the joint interests of Heffler and CAMICO with respect to the underlying lawsuit.  The district court disagreed, relying on several authorities for the proposition that the insurer is not automatically a client of defense counsel, even when it funds its insured’s defense.  Further, the district court found that based on the factual record, CAMICO was not a client of defense counsel.  Therefore, the district court denied CAMICO’s motion.

Notably, the district court glossed over three important issues, which merit a brief discussion here:  (1) Heffler’s choice of its own defense counsel, (2) the common interest exception as an exception to the attorney-client privilege, and (3) CAMICO’s providing a defense to Heffler in the underlying lawsuit while seeking to litigate the extent of coverage.  

First, that Heffler chose its own defense counsel made the arguments in favor of the co-client exception peculiar.  If CAMICO had appointed defense counsel for Heffler, there probably would have been a better argument for a co-client exception.  

Second, several courts recognize the common interest doctrine as an exception to the attorney-client privilege.  E.g., Waste Management, Inc. v. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co., 144 Ill. 2d 178, 579 N.E.2d 322 (1991).   Although the district court asserted, without more, that CAMICO’s counsel did not share information with Heffler’s defense counsel, that is the point—CAMICO desired that defense counsel provide its counsel with otherwise privileged information.  This may have been a legitimate exception to the attorney-client privilege.   And, the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania have not taken a position on whether they will follow the Illinois Supreme Court’s interpretation of the common interest exception as set forth in Waste Management. 

Third and finally, that CAMICO was not seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend or indemnify suggests that CAMICO and Heffler could have a common interest with respect to the underlying lawsuit.  Most courts that have criticized the Waste Management reject, in pertinent part, the concept that the insurer can seek to vindicate its disclaimer of coverage in a declaratory judgment action, yet have a common interest with its abandoned insured in the underlying tort action.  While subject to debate, that CAMICO was merely seeking to litigate the available limits suggests that the common interest exception may be available here.

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In a thoughtful decision handed down in Reeps v. BMW of North America, LLC, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 33030(u), on December 16, 2012 in New York County Supreme Court, the Hon. Louis B. York excluded the expert testimony of plaintiff’s two key causation experts in a toxic tort case where plaintiff alleged that a child’s birth defects were attributable to the mother’s in utero exposure to gasoline vapors.

In an earlier article on this blog about the same case, we examined the decision by the First Department, on an interlocutory appeal, which determined that: (1) defendants had failed to demonstrate that the infant’s parents disposed of their BMW with knowledge of its potential evidentiary value; and (2) that plaintiff’s claims against the BMW dealer, sounding in product liability and breach of implied and express warranty, should be dismissed because the dealer was a service provider, not a product seller.

In that article, we also discussed plaintiff’s burden in having to prove general causation at trial, that is, whether exposure to chemical components in gasoline fumes have been associated in the scientificliterature with cerebral palsy and the other abnormalities alleged. We discussed that if plaintiff is able to prove general causation, she will then have to prove specific causation, that is, whether the dose and duration of exposure to the purported teratogen was sufficient to cause the specific birth defect.

In a Frye decision (tantamount to a dismissal), Judge York analyzed plaintiff’s expert disclosures made pursuant to CPLR 3101(d) for Shira Kramer, Ph.D., and Linda Frazier, M.D., M.P.H. Both experts submitted detailed reports. In support of its Frye motion, BMW submitted affidavits by its own experts, Anthony Scialli, M.D. and Peter Lees, Ph.D. Dr. Scialli is an OB-GYN and reproductive toxicologist. Dr. Lees is a specialist in industrial hygiene and environmental health science. The experts on both sides of the dispute were highly credentialed with impressive CV's.
The timeline of events leading up to the filing of the case is as follows:

1991-In March and again in November, the Reeps bring their 1989 BMW 525i to Hassel Motors, a licensed BMW dealer, to fix an exhaust odor inside the car. Dealer fails to identiify an exhaust odor in March, but later identifies problem as a split fuel hose and repairs it under warranty.

1992-In May, Sean Reeps is born with birth defects, including cerebral palsy, which plaintiffs attribute to Debra Reep's inhalation of gas fumes early in her pregnancy.

1994-BMW recalls BMW525i vehicles due to a safety defect that caused odor due to feed fuel hose.

Plaintiff’s experts attributed the child’s birth defects to gasoline vapors his mother inhaled during the first trimester of her pregnancy while driving her BMW. Dr. Kramer offered the opinion that gasoline vapors and specific chemical constituents of gasoline, such as toluene and other solvents, are casually related to an elevated risk of birth defects among children exposed to these chemicals in utero. Dr. Kramer applied a “weight-of-evidence” assessment of the association between exposure to gasoline vapors, and the chemical constituents of gasoline vapors, and an increased risk of birth defects and other adverse birth outcomes. She based her assessment on the epidemiological, medical and toxicological literature.

For her part, Dr. Linda Frazier opined that the mother was exposed to developmental hazards due to substances and compounds found in gasoline vapors, which included toxic substances capable of severely damaging a developing fetus during the first trimester. She was able to determine that the exposure levels by the mother to gasoline were high, based upon her reported symptoms of headache, nausea and irritation of the throat. Studies have found that these symptoms occur at gasoline vapor concentrations of at least 1,000 ppm.

 As noted by the Court, Dr. Scialli concluded that no scientific publication has ever established a causal relationship between the inhalation of gasoline during pregnancy and the birth defects diagnosed in Sean Reeps. Further, he criticized Dr. Kramer’s reliance on two human case report articles suggesting an association between leaded gasoline and birth defects for lack of “specificity.” The adverse outcomes in those studies were different from those in Sean Reeps’ case. Other studies cited by plaintiff’s experts discuss the effects of gasoline’s ingredients (such as toluene, ethylbenzene, zylene and benzene) on reproductive and developmental outcomes. However, taken together, these components account for no more than 2% gasoline vapors. To have inhaled a significant amount of these gasoline components would have had fatal consequences for the mother.

Finally, Dr. Scialli asserted that plaintiff’s experts failed to consider causes other than gasoline vapor inhalation for the developmental delays diagnosed in Sean Reeps. For example, intrauterine infection is among the most common causes of cerebral palsy. Mrs. Reeps had a history of herpes simplex infection and a rash during her pregnancy.

In ruling on the motion, the Court made several significant holdings, which defense lawyers should find useful. My observations about  some of the notable points in Judge York’s decision are as follows:

1. Plaintiff contended that a motion for a Frye hearing should be precluded by the procedural posture of the case. Plaintiff pointed out that defendant had already made and lost a summary judgment motion. In response, the Court determined that a Frye hearing is evidentiary, separate from dispositive motions, and can be held prior or during the trial. Thus, the Court found it appropriate, at this juncture in the case, to consider a Frye challenge. Although trial courts may apply different procedural rules, it may be not always be necessary for the defendant to mount  Frye challenge as part of a dispositive motion;

2. Under Frye, it is not sufficient to merely utilize accepted methodology in reaching an opinion. Rather, it is necessary that the accepted technologies be properly performed and generate results accepted as reliable within the scientific community.  Plaintiff’s experts, Judge York determined, were merely playing lip service to accepted methodology “while pursuing a completely different enterprise”. Thus, the court should explore not just whether plaintiff's expert cites to an accepted methodology, but whether than methodology was properly applied by the expert in reaching a causation opinion;

3. Plaintiff’s failure to submit affidavits from their experts in opposing defendant’s motion proved fatal in hindsight. In bringing a Daubert or a Frye motion, or in responding to a Daubert or a Frye motion, it is generally sound practice to submit an expert affidavit on behalf of the challenged expert to either explain, or to bolster, the expert’s opinion. Here, defendant’s motion provided plaintiff a roadmap report to the purported weaknesses in the experts’ arguments. Affidavits responding to the criticism of their reports could only have helped their cause.

4. Judge York drew an analogy to a deficiency in Dr. Kramer’s expert report to the expert report in the landmark Court of Appeals case, Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp. In Parker, plaintiff’s expert concentrated on the relationship between benzene and the risk of developing AML – an association that was not in dispute. Key to the Parker litigation, however, was the relationship, if any, between gasoline containing exposure as a component and AML.

In the instant case, the Court found that Dr. Kramer was essentially mixing apples and oranges in attempting to extrapolate from the studies concerning gasoline components to gasoline itself.  Parker remains the touchstone in New York toxic tort jurisprudence.

5. According to the decision, Dr. Kramer’s conclusion on general causation was inadequate because Dr. Kramer failed to state unambiguously that exposure to gasoline vapors during early gestation is causally related to the specific conditions diagnosed in the infant plaintiff specifically.

6. Dr. Kramer failed to meet the Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp. requirement that the expert assess the threshold level at which maternal exposure to gasoline vapors is capable of producing adverse effects generally, or in the case at bar, specifically. Citing Parker, Judge York held that “the threshold level of exposure is an element of general causation.”

 7. The expert's statement that there is an “association” between a specific chemical and an adverse birth outcome is not sufficient to establish “causation.” Citing the Appellate Division's decision in Fraser v. 301-52 Townhouse Corp,  the Court held that “association” is not equivalent to “causation.”  Words matter--how the expert characterizes her opinion is important.

Reflecting the importance that New York state courts need to give to proof of both "general" and "specific" causation, the Court summarized its view as follows:

“Dr. Kramer’s and Dr. Frazier’s opinions do not comport with methodologies prevailing in the epidemiological and toxicological scientific communities and on occasion depart from generally accepted rules of drawing conclusions from premises. They provide insufficient support for the conclusion that exposure to gasoline in some unidentified concentration in the first trimester of pregnancy can cause cerebral palsy, microcephaly or any other condition found in Sean Reeps (general causation), or that such exposure actually led to his illness (specific causation).

In words that any defendant’s trial counsel would want to hear, the Court held, “The Frye’s ‘general acceptance’ test is intended to protect juries from being misled by expert opinions that may be couched in formidable scientific terminology but that are based on fanciful theories.”

The Court found that conducting a separate Frye hearing would be “redundant” considering that plaintiff’s extensive reports fully presented their arguments.

It is likely that this decision will be appealed given what is at stake. Stay tuned.

As originally published in the Toxic Torts Litigation Blog on January 17, 2013
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Law.com’s Legal Blog Watch recently noted a viral Facebook photo involving a “footlong” sandwich that appeared to be less than 12 inches long:  http://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch/2013/01/how-many-inches-is-your-subway-footlong-sub.html.  Citing a post from Today where restaurant customers were posting pictures of footlong sandwiches, http://lifeinc.today.com/_news/2013/01/17/16565128-wheres-the-inch-subways-footlong-falls-short?lite, Legal Blog Watch asked whether a class action or two or three would soon follow.  One might reasonably question whether customers suffered any damages by the claimed shortfall.  One might further question how plaintiffs’ counsel could possibly prove any sort of claim on a class-wide basis.  Nonetheless, the fact that such questions come to mind shows the pervasiveness of class action litigation in today’s society.  The issues inherent in the current use of the class action device are of such importance that the U.S. Supreme Court’s current docket features five merits cases involving class action claims.  Those Supreme Court cases, along with a number of other cutting-edge class action topics, will be the subject of DRI’s 2013 Class Action Seminar, which will take place at the Washington Court Hotel in Washington, DC on July 25 and 26.  DRI members interested in this area of law will want to attend this Program.

 

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Misunderstood heroes. Space travel. Alien worlds. Humanoids. Greed. Imperialism. Violence. Exploitation. Intercultural war. Redemption. And Copyright Infringement?

Everyone’s seen the movie Avatar. How many people have read the book Bats and Butterflies? How many people have even heard of it? The author of Bats and Butterflies alleges that James Cameron’s Avatar is a rip-off.

Background
Elijah Schkeiban, author of the book Bats and Butterfliesfiled a lawsuit against Cameron, author, director, and co-producer of Avatar, and Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc., Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, and Dune Entertainment LP.  Schkeiban alleges in his lawsuit that he created the Bats and Butterflies “franchise of products” in 1988 based on his script and novel of the same name.  He alleges that he registered the copyrights for the script and novel in 2000 and 2001. 

Schkeiban alleges that in 2005 he started shopping the script to various people in Hollywood, including an actor named Billy Zane. He alleges that Cameron’s Avatar copied Bats and Butterflies, and that the two stories are “substantially similar” in plot, sequence of events, characters, themes, moods, setting, and pace.  He alleges that Cameron and the other defendants therefore infringe his copyrights.  You can’t watch the movie Bats and Butterflies, to decide for yourself whether Schkeiban’s claims have merit, because the movie hasn’t been made.  But you could read the novel.

Anyway, the court dismissed his Complaint, noting (correctly) that the Complaint was missing an essential element of a copyright infringement claim:  it made no allegation whatsoever that Schkeiban gave or showed his script to Cameron or the other defendants, or that they had access to it. This was a fatal omission. 

Schkeiban then filed an “Amended” Complaint, in which he now alleged that when he gave his script to Zane in 2005, he asked Zane to give a copy of it to Cameron, and that Zane later told him that he had done so.  Again, the court dismissed the Amended Complaint.  The court noted that Schkeiban’s new allegation only alleged that Zane allegedly told Schkeiban that he (Zane) had given the script to Cameron.  This allegation simply wasn’t enough, the court said, to establish that Cameron actually saw the script. 

Schkeiban responded by filing a Second “Amended” Complaint.  In this third pleading, Schkeiban pointed out that Zane is an actor who had been in Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, and therefore was close to Cameron.  Schkeiban further alleged that he had had a telephone call with Zane in 2005 in which Zane assured him that he had given the Bats and Butterflies script to Cameron.  Otherwise, there were no changes from the previous Complaints.

Copyright Law Protects the Expression of Ideas
Before turning to the court’s final decision, a little about copyright law.  Many people who don’t work in intellectual property don’t realize that copyright law cannot and does not protect ideas.  It protects only the actual expression of those ideas. 

  • In literary works, such as novels or scripts, you can’t copyright what are called “scenes a faire,” meaning standard plots, scenes, characters, or themes. 
  • You can’t copyright plots, such as “boy-meets-girl, boy-breaks-up-with-girl, boy-reunites-with-girl, and boy-and-girl-live-happily-ever-after.” 
  • You can’t copyright scenes, such as “boy-meets-girl-in-a-dimly-lit-bar.” 
  • You can’t copyright characters, such as heroes, villains, victims, etc.
  • And you can’t copyright themes, such as “misunderstood and conflicted soldier in invading culture falls in love with a member of the invaded culture, switches allegiance, and leads the invaded culture in repelling his own culture.  This persistent theme in human literature is nicely explored in the Wikipedia entry for the film Avatar.   (Consider:  the novel Tarzan and the film Dances With Wolves.) 
In order for a court to find copyright infringement in a script or novel, there has to be almost exact copying of the actual mode of expression – i.e., the words and sentences.  Therefore, Schkeiban would have to show not only that Cameron saw or had access to his script, but also that Cameron literally or almost literally copied from it.

The Court’s Decision – Avatar Not “Substantially Similar” to Bats and Butterflies
The court again dismissed Schkeiban’s Second Amended Complaint, pointing out that this was Schkeiban’s third attempt to make out a copyright infringement claim.  The court noted that to prove copyright infringement, a claimant must prove: 

1. ownership of a valid copyright, and
2. copying by the alleged infringer (Cameron) of elements of the infringed work (Bats and Butterflies) that are original to that work. 

In turn, copying can be proven by showing that: 
1. the defendant had access to the infringed work, and
2. that the works at issue are “substantially similar.” 

The court noted that, even on his third attempt, Schkeiban’s effort to show that Cameron had access to Bats and Butterflies was vague.  But, even assuming Cameron had access, the court found that the elements of Bats and Butterflies and Avatar are not “substantially similar.” Bats and Butterflies is a fantasy work that involves a bullied human teenager, Joshua, who is magically transported to a planet and finds a war between bats and butterflies.  Joshua helps the butterflies defeat the bats and helps a caterpillar princess mature into a queen butterfly.  As we all probably know, Avatar involves a disabled war veteran/mercenary soldier who flies to a planet; through cloning technology is transformed into one of the native beings on that planet in order to spy on them; and eventually sides with the natives and helps them defeat the invading humans – his own people. 

Although both works involve humans who go to a distant planet and become involved in a war between two cultures there, the similarities end there, according to the court.  Schkeiban argued that his script and Cameron’s film were similar because both involved ideas of alien lands, deaths of family members, and battles between groups with competing interests.  The court found that the plots and sequences of events between the two stores are substantially different and that any similarities are merely general ideas, which cannot be copyrighted.  Similarities between Schkeiban’s hero, a bullied teenager, and Cameron’s hero, a paraplegic war veteran, are not copyrightable.  Any random similarities of plot scattered between the two stories are “scenes a faire.”  Both stories arguably involve themes of racism, genocide, imperialism, and environmentalism, but, again, themes cannot be copyrighted.  As a result, the court found that, after three attempts, Schkeiban could not prove copyright infringement, and dismissed his claim with finality (“with prejudice”).

Another note about copyright law:  In contrast to the standard “American Rule,” whereby each party in litigation pays its own attorneys’ fees, the copyright statute allows the prevailing party (here, Cameron, et al.) to recover its fees. After persuading the lower court to dismiss Schkeiban’s Complaint, the defendants moved for recovery of their attorneys’ fees.  The court denied their motion.

The court docket reveals that Mr. Schkeiban has filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.   Bats in the Belfry?

Stay tuned.

*This article was originally posted to "The IP Stone" by Walter Judge on December 19, 2012. Read the original post here


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What does Rocky Mariciano, one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, have to do with evidentiary privileges? Plenty, as it turns out, for it was a libel case arising from Mariciano’s comments following his famous 1952 fight against Jersey Joe Walcott that solidified the then-evolving theory that the government-information privilege applies in civil actions.

The Government-Informant Privilege

The government-informant privilege protects from compelled disclosure the identity of persons, or informers, who supply information about legal violations to the appropriate law-enforcement personnel. Despite the name’s implication, the privilege belongs to the government, not the informer, but protects informers from retaliation or retribution and encourages citizens to communicate their knowledge of violations of law to government officials.

The privilege is qualified, meaning that it may be overcome upon a sufficient showing of need by the defendant. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court in Roviaro v. United States, 353 U.S. 53 (1957), explained that the privilege must “give way” when disclosure of the informer’s identity is relevant and helpful to the defense or is essential to a fair determination of the cause. And to determine whether either of these standards is met, courts must balance the public’s interest in keeping the informer’s identity confidential against the defendant’s right to prepare a defense.

There is no fixed rule on when disclosure is required; courts must make the assessment on a case-by-case basis,and have sole discretion to determine whether the evidence justifies disclosure.  The court must consider several factors when balancing the competing interests, such as the crime charged, the possible defenses, significance of the informer’s testimony, and danger to the informant if his identity is revealed.

Does the Privilege Apply in Civil Actions?

The government-informant privilege is routinely asserted in criminal cases, with the typical situation involving a criminally accused seeking to discover the identity of the informer who provided police with the tip that led to the accused’s arrest.  But the question arises whether this privilege may be applied in civil actions and, if so, whether the same standard governs the privilege.

The situation can arise in two situations.  First, a plaintiff may seek disclosure of an informer’s identity during a civil action against the government, such as a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C § 1983.  Similarly, a party involved in a civil action against another private party may seek third-party discovery from a law-enforcement agency.  Second, the question arises whether private entities may assert the government-informant privilege to preclude disclosure of a whistleblower, or one who reported misconduct up the corporate chain of command in addition to a regulatory enforcement agency.

In the latter situation, most courts hold that the privilege does not apply where the whistleblower’s identity is sought from the private entity, but in the former situation, most courts hold that the privilege applies where the informer’s identity is sought from a governmental agency.  And a case involving one of the greatest fights–and knockout punches–of Rocky Marciano’s career illustrates the point.

Rocky Marciano & the Greatest Punch of All-Time

With a record of 49-0, Rocky Marciano is the only boxer to retire as heavyweight champion with an undefeated record and is recognized as one of the greatest boxers of all time.  Marciano won his title on September 23, 1952 when he defeated reigning champion Jersey Joe Walcott by a Round 13 knockout.  Marciano later described the knockout punch as “the best punch I ever landed,” and boxing historians generally agree that Marciano’s punch was one of the greatest punches in all of boxing history. 

As originally posted on November 27 on Presnell on Privileges
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ON YOUR MARK…., GET SET…., SHOP!

Posted on November 15, 2012 02:17 by Philip M. Gulisano

With the start of the holiday shopping rush just a week away, retailers should be mindful of their responsibility to keep customers safe when large crowds gather to take advantage of well-advertised and highly-anticipated sales. Customers, drawn by the promise of “doorbuster savings” and warned of limited quantities, do not always act in the most courteous manner when rushing to enter the store and running toward the products they desire.  Sadly, it has become all too common for injury, whether accidental or intentional, to occur as customers dash into and through stores during these special sales, and when a customer is injured during the clamor, a retailer can be held liable.

Although the law varies from state to state, in many states, a retailer’s duty to use reasonable care to protect customers from reasonably anticipated injuries includes foreseeing that large crowds might gather due to the advertised sales and that individuals might be injured due to the overcrowding, the congestion at the door, or the unruliness of the other customers.  Consequently, a retailer may be held liable to a customer who is injured due to pushing, crowding, trampling, or jostling by other customers when the retailer conducts a promotional activity or sale that will foreseeably cause crowds to gather and push.

At least one jury has determined that reasonable care when undertaking a special promotion that might cause people to run, push, and shove includes the retailer giving warnings of the dangers involved, taking steps to control or police the crowd, using loud speakers to warn the crowd not to run over people, and warning the elderly or children to stay out of the crowd.    Given the tragedies that have occurred in the past several years during “Black Friday Sales,” it is advisable for retailers to, at the very least, implement the above measures.  However, the above measures may not be sufficient given the particular circumstances of a retailer.  That is why each retailer should conduct a careful risk assessment evaluation that is tailored to its location and history.  This assessment will allow the retailer to develop and implement a plan that keeps its customers safe and happy during this holiday season. Now go shopping!

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