Paul Versus the Rapper: How YouTube Tutorials and Creative Lawyering Played Key Roles in Recovering Judgment Against Elusive Defendant

In almost two decades of practicing in the post-judgment arena, My clients and I have run the emotional gamut from near-intoxicating highs (the “unicorn” fact patterns where the debtor pays up immediately or, even better, the debtor forgets to empty his bank account and when we freeze it, there’s more than enough funds to satisfy the judgment) to disappointment (when the debtor files bankruptcy and there is a long line of prior creditors) to abject frustration (the debtor appears to have no physical ties anywhere yet profusely broadcasts his life of luxury on all social media channels – think Instagram selfie in tropical locale) to the unnerving (a debtor or two have threatened bodily harm).

But occasionally, I’m faced with a fact pattern that requires both tenacity (they all do) and creative collection efforts. Here’s an example of a recent case that fell into this category. The facts are simple: the debtor – a well-known rapper – failed to show for a scheduled concert in another state and gave no notice. The club promoter filed suit in that state and ultimately got a money judgment for his deposit along with some incidental expenses and attorneys fees.

After I registered the judgment here in Illinois, I began hitting snags in rapid succession. I quickly realized this debtor didn’t fit the normal template: meaning, he didn’t have an official job from which he received regularly scheduled payments, had no bank account and owned no real estate. While the debtor’s social media pages were replete with concert videos and robust YouTube channel offerings, the debtor seemed a ghost.

Add to that, the debtor and his record company used UPS stores as its corporate registered office and the debtor’s entourage ran interference and covered for him at every turn.

Here’s what I did:

(1) Source of Funds: Concerts and Merchandise

I looked at the debtor’s website and social media pages to determine where he would be performing over the next several weeks. Then, I researched the business entities that owned the concert venues and prepared subpoenas to them. For the out-of-state venues, I lined up attorneys there to (1) register the Illinois registration of the foreign judgment, and (2) subpoena the venue owners for contracts with the debtor so I could see what percentage of the “gate” would flow to debtor. My plan was to eventually seek the turnover of funds funneling from venue – to management company – to debtor.

On another front, I tried to identify who was in charge of the debtor’s T-shirt and merchandise sales. Since the website was vague on this, I requested this information from the debtor’s management company through an omnibus citation Rider.

(2) Creating Buzz and a Discovery Dragnet: Getting Others Involved

I then served citations to discover assets on debtor’s management company and booking agent. (I was able to locate these companies through the debtor’s social media pages.) This allowed me to cast a wide net and involve third parties whom I surmised the debtor wasn’t keen on getting dragged into this.

From the management company and booking agent, I sought documents showing payments to the debtor including licensing and royalty fees, tax returns, pay stubs, bank records and any other documents reflecting company-to-debtor payments over the past 12 months.

(3) Licensing and Royalties: Zeroing In On Industry Behemoths

In reviewing the management company’s subpoena response, I noted the debtor was receiving regular royalty payments from ASCAP – the national clearinghouse that distributes public performance royalties to songwriters. Based in New York, ASCAP likely wasn’t going to respond to an Illinois subpoena. So I would have to register the judgment in New York. I lined up a New York attorney to do this and notified debtor’s counsel (by this time, debtor, management company and booking agent hired a lawyer) of my plans to register the judgment in NY and subpoena ASCAP for royalty data. They didn’t like that.

Sensing I may be onto something with the ASCAP angle, I dove deep into the byzantine (to me, at least) world of music licensing law. I learned that while ASCAP (BMI is another public performance royalty conduit) handles performance rights licensing, the pre-eminent agent for “mechanical” licenses (licenses that allow you to put music in CD, record, cassette and digital formats) is the Harry Fox Agency, Inc. or HFA – also based in New York. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this but I found YouTube a treasure trove of music licensing law building blocks.

Armed with my published and video licensing law research, I alerted debtor’s counsel of my plans to subpoena HFA for mechanical royalties in lockstep with my ASCAP subpoena once I registered the judgment in New York.

(4) Settlement: Persistence Pays Off

The combined threat of liening the debtor’s concert and merchandise monies and subpoenaing his public performance and mechanical license royalties was enough to motivate debtor to finally – after months of fighting – come to the table with an acceptable settlement offer. While another creditor beat me to the punch and got to the concert venue owners first, our aggressive actions planted enough of a psychological seed in the debtor that his royalties might be imperiled. This proved critical in getting the debtor’s management company (again, without their involvement, this never would settle) to pay almost the whole judgment amount.

Afterwords: My Younger Self May Have Given Up

This case cemented the lesson I’ve learned repeatedly through the years that as a judgment creditor, you have to be persistent, aggressive and creative – particularly with judgment debtors that don’t neatly fit the 9-to-5-salaried-employee paradigm.

Through persistence, out-of-the-box thinking, internet research and wide use of social media, my client got almost all of its judgment under circumstances where the “old me” (i.e. my less experienced self) may have folded.

 

 

British Firm’s Multi-Million Dollar Trade Secrets Verdict Upheld Against Illinois Construction Equipment Juggernaut – IL Fed Court

Refusing to set aside a $73-plus million jury verdict for a small British equipment manufacturer against construction giant Caterpillar, Inc., a Federal court recently examined the contours of the Illinois trade secrets statute and the scope of damages for trade secrets violations.

The plaintiff in Miller UK, Ltd. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 2017 WL 1196963 (N.D.Ill. 2017) manufactured a coupler device that streamlined the earthmoving and excavation process.  Plaintiff’s predecessor and Caterpillar entered into a 1999 supply contract where plaintiff furnished the coupler to Caterpillar who would, in turn, sell it under its own name through a network of dealers.

The plaintiff sued when Caterpillar terminated the agreement and began marketing its own coupler – the Center-Lock – which bore an uncanny resemblance to plaintiff’s coupler design.

After a multi-week trial, the jury found for the plaintiff on its trade secrets claim and for Caterpillar’s on its defamation counterclaim for $1 million – a paltry sum dwarfed by the plaintiff’s outsized damages verdict.

The Court first assessed whether the plaintiff’s three-dimensional computerized drawings deserved trade secrets protection.

The Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, defines a trade secret as encompassing information, technical or non-technical data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers that (1) is sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (2) is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality.

Misappropriation means “disclosure” or “use” of a trade secret by someone who lacks express or implied consent to do so and where he/she knows or should know that knowledge of the trade secret was acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain its secrecy or limit its use.  Intentional conduct, howver, isn’t required: misappropriation can result from a defendant’s negligent or unintentional conduct.

Recoverable trade secret damages include actual loss caused by the misappropriation and unjust enrichment enjoyed by the misappropriator.  Where willful and malicious conduct is shown, the plaintiff can also recover punitive damages.  765 ILCS 1065/4.

In agreeing that the plaintiff’s coupler drawings were trade secrets, the Court noted plaintiff’s expansive use of confidentiality agreements when they furnished the drawings to Caterpillar and credited plaintiff’s trial testimony that the parties’ expectation was for the drawings to be kept secret.

The Court also upheld its trial rulings excluding certain evidence offered by Caterpillar.  One item of evidence rejected by the court as hearsay was a slide presentation prepared by Caterpillar to show how its coupler differed from plaintiff’s and didn’t utilize plaintiff’s confidential data.

Hearsay prevents a litigant from using out-of-court statements to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  An exception to the hearsay rule applies where an out-of-court statement (1) is consistent with a declarant’s trial testimony, (2) the party offering the statement did so to rebut an express or implied charge of recent fabrication or improper motive against the declarant, (3) the statement was made before the declarant had a motive for fabrication, and (4) the declarant testifies at trial and is subject to cross-examination.

Since the slide show was made as a direct response to plaintiff’s claim that Caterpillar used plaintiff’s confidential information, the statement (the slide show) was made after Caterpillar had a motive to fabricate the slide show.

The Court then affirmed the jury’s $1M verdict on Caterpillar’s defamation counter-claim based on plaintiff’s falsely implying that Caterpillar’s coupler failed standard safety tests in written and video submissions sent to Caterpillar’s equipment dealers.  The plaintiff’s letter and enclosed DVD showed a Caterpillar coupler bucket breaking apart and decapitating a life-size dummy. (Ouch!)  The obvious implication being that Caterpillar’s coupler is unsafe.

The Court agreed with the jury that the plaintiff’s conduct was actionable as per se defamation.  A quintessential defamation per se action is one alleging a plaintiff’s lack of ability or integrity in one’s business.  With per se defamation, damages are presumed – meaning, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove mathematical (actual) monetary loss.

Instead, all that’s required is the damages assessed “not be considered substantial.”  Looking to an earlier case where the court awarded $1M for defamatory statements in tobacco litigation, the Court found that the jury’s verdict against the plaintiff coupler maker here was proper.

Afterwords:

The wide use of confidentiality agreements and evidence of oral pledges of secrecy can serve as sufficient evidence of an item’s confidential nature for purposes of trade secrets liability.  Trade secrets damages can include actual profits lost by a plaintiff, the amount the defendant (the party misappropriating the trade secrets) was unjustly enriched through the use of plaintiff’s trade secrets and, in some egregious cases, punitive damages.

The case also shows that a jury has wide latitude to fashion general damage awards in per se defamation suits.  This is especially so in cases involving deep-pocketed defendants.

 

Random Florida-to-Illinois Texts, Emails and Phone Calls Not Enough to Subject Fla. LLC to IL Jurisdiction

In McGlasson v. BYB Extreme Fighting Series, LLC, 2017 WL 2193235 (C.D.Ill. 2017), the plaintiff sued a Florida LLC and two Florida residents for pilfering the plaintiff’s idea to host MMA fights on cruise ships off the coast of Florida.

Plaintiff claimed that after he sent a rough video of the concept to them, the defendants hijacked the concept and then formed their own MMA-at-sea event, causing the plaintiff monetary damages.

All defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims on the basis that they weren’t subject to Illinois jurisdiction.

The Court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and in doing so, discussed the requisite contacts for an Illinois court to exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant who commits an intentional tort.

In breach of contract actions, personal jurisdiction turns on whether a defendant purposefully avails itself or the privilege of doing business in the forum state. With an intentional tort defendant, by contrast, the court looks at whether a defendant “purposefully directed” his conduct at the forum state.

Purposely directing activity at a state requires a finding of (1) intentional conduct, (2) expressly aimed at the forum state, with (3) defendant’s knowledge the effects would be felt in the forum state.  If plaintiff makes all three showings, he establishes that a defendant purposefully directed its activity at the forum state.

A plaintiff in an intentional tort case cannot, however, rely on his own unilateral activity to support jurisdiction over a defendant.  Similarly, a defendant’s contact with a third party with no connection to a forum state isn’t relevant to the jurisdictional analysis.

Here, the lone Illinois contacts alleged of defendants were a handful of emails, phone calls and text messages sent to the Illinois resident plaintiff.  To strengthen his case for jurisdiction over the Florida defendants, plaintiff alleged he suffered an economic injury in Illinois.

Rejecting plaintiff’s argument, the court viewed e-mail as not existing “in any location at all:”  instead, it bounces from server to server and the connection between where an e-mail is opened and where a lawsuit is filed is too weak a link to subject an out-of-state sender to jurisdiction in a foreign state.

The Court also noted that (a plaintiff’s) suffering economic injury in Illinois isn’t enough, standing alone, to confer personal jurisdiction over a foreign resident.  The focus is instead whether the defendant’s conduct “connects him to [Illinois] in a meaningful way.”

Since plaintiff’s MMA-at-sea idea had no connection to Illinois and the defendant’s sporadic phone calls, emails and texts weren’t enough to tie him to Illinois, the Court lacked personal jurisdiction over the Florida defendants.

Take-aways:

1/ In intentional tort setting, a foreign defendant’s conduct must be purposefully directed at a forum state for that state to exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant;

2/ plaintiff’s unilateral actions vis a vis an out-of-state defendant don’t factor into the jurisdictional calculus;

3/ A defendant’s episodic emails, texts and phone calls to an Illinois resident likely won’t be enough to subject the defendant to personal jurisdiction in Illinois.