Archives for September 2015

“Make Sure You Get My Good Side” – Blogger’s Use of Photo is Transformative, Fair Use – Defeats Copyright Suit (11th Cir.)

As someone who eats, drinks and sleeps social media marketing and blogging, this 11th Circuit case naturally captured my attention.

The plaintiff in Katz v. Chevaldina, 2015 WL 5449883 (11th Cir. 2015), Raanan Katz, a Miami businessman and co-owner of the Miami Heat, sued the defendant – one of plaintiff’s former commercial tenants and a full-time blogger – for using his photograph in 25 separate blog posts that derided Katz’s real estate business practices.  The “embarrassing”, “ugly,” and “compromising” photo (according to Katz) was taken by a photographer who originally published it on-line in an Israeli newspaper, the Haaretz.  Defendant later found the photo on Google images and used it as an illustration in her scathing posts.

After taking an assignment of the photo’s copyright from its photographer, Katz sued the defendant for copyright infringement.  The District Court granted summary judgment for the blogger on the basis that her use of the photograph was satirical commentary and a fair use of the image.  Katz appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasons:

Section 107 of the Copyright codifies the fair use doctrine which posits that use of a copyrighted work that furthers “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research” is not an infringement.  17 U.S.C. s. 107.

The four factors a court considers to determine whether fair use applies are (1) the purpose and character of the allegedly infringing use (here, reproducing the photo of plaintiff on defendant’s blog), (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount of the copyrighted work used; and (4) the effect of the use on the potential market or value of the copyrighted work. (*2).

The Court held that three of the four factors (1, 2 and 4) weighed in favor of a fair use and affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.

(1) Purpose and Character

This factor requires the court to consider whether the use serves a nonprofit educational purpose as opposed to a commercial one and the degree to which the infringing use is “transformative” as opposed to a “superseding” use of the copyrighted work.

A use is transformative where it adds something new to a copyrighted work and infuses it with a different character and “new expression, meaning or message.”  A use of a copyrighted work doesn’t have to alter or change the work for the use to be transformative.

The court found that defendant’s use of plaintiff’s photo was both educational and transformative.  It found that the defendant posted the photo as an adjunct to articles in which she sharply criticized plaintiff’s business practices and she made no money from her use of the photo.  Her use of the photo satisfied the “comment” and “criticism” components of the fair use doctrine.

The use of photo was transformative because the defendant used it to make fun of (“satirize”) the plaintiff and impugn his business ethics.  At bottom, the defendant’s use of the photo was a critical statement and therefore transformative under copyright law.

(2) Nature of Copyrighted Work

Copyright law gives more protection to original, creative works than to derivative works or factual compilations.  Courts consider whether a work was previously published and whether the work is creative or factual.  Here, the photo was previously published in an Israeli newspaper and its use in the defendant’s blog was mainly factual.

Noting that “photography is an art form” rife with creative decisions such as tone, lighting, and camera angle, the Katz photo was a simple candid shot taken in a public forum.  It lacked any badges of creativity that could give it strengthened copyright protection.  The court also pointed out there was no evidence the original photographer sought to convey emotion or ideas through the photo.

(3) Amount of Work Used

This fair use factor considers the amount of the copyrighted work used in proportion to the whole.  This factor is less relevant when considering a photograph though since most of the time the entire photo must be used to preserve its meaning.  That was the case here: defendant had to use all of Katz’s photo to preserve its meaning.  Ultimately, because the defendant used the whole photo as an adjunct to her blog posts, the “amount used” factor was a wash or “neutral”.

(4) Effect of the Infringing Use on the Potential Market for the Work

This factor asks what would happen if everyone did what the defendant did and whether that would cause substantial economic harm to the plaintiff by materially impairing his incentive to publish the work.  The court found this fair use factor easily weighed in defendant’s favor.  In fact, the plaintiff profoundly disliked the photo and did not want it published anywhere at any time.  According to the court, because Katz used copyright law to squelch defendant’s criticism of him, there was no potential market for the photo.

Afterword:

Since three of the four fair use elements weighed in favor of the defendant, the court found that her use of the plaintiff’s photo was a fair use and immune  from copyright infringement liability.

This case provides a useful detailed summary of the four fair use factors along with instructive analysis of each factors sub-parts.  The Katz case is especially pertinent to anyone facing a copyright claim predicated on a claimed infringing use of a Google images photograph used to enhance on-line content.

 

 

 

 

 

Commercial Landlord’s Suit for Rent Damages Accruing After Possession Order Survives Tenant’s Res Judicata Defense

18th Street Property, LLC v. A-1 Citywide Towing & Recovery, Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 142444-U examines the res judicata and collateral estoppel doctrines in a commercial lease dispute.

The plaintiff landlord obtained a possession order and judgment in late 2012 on a towing shop lease that expired March 31, 2013. 

About six months after the possession order, the lessor sued to recover rental damages through the lease’s March 2013 end date.  The defendant moved to dismiss on the basis of res judicata and collateral estoppel arguing that the landlord’s damage claim could have and should have been brought in the earlier eviction suit.  The trial court agreed, dismissed the suit and the lessor plaintiff appealed.

Held: Reversed.

Q: Why?

A:  Res judicata (claim preclusion) and collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) seek to foster finality and closure by requiring all claims to be brought in the same proceeding instead of filing scattered claims at different times.

Res judicata applies where there is a final judgment on the merits, the same parties are involved in the first and second case, and the same causes of action are involved in the cases.  

Res judicata bars the (later) litigation of claims that could have brought in an earlier case while collateral estoppel prevents a party from relitigating an issue of law or fact that was actually decided in an earlier case.  (¶¶ 20-21, 30)

In Illinois, a commercial landlord’s claim for past-due rent and for future rent on an abandoned lease are different claims under the res judicata test.

This is because the payment of future rent is not a present tenant obligation and a tenant’s breach of lease usually will not accelerate rent (i.e. require the tenant to immediately pay the remaining payments under the lease) unless the lease has a clear acceleration clause.  Each month of unpaid rent gives rise to fresh claims for purposes of res judicata.

The landlord’s remedy where a tenant breaches a lease is to (a) sue for rents as they become due, (b) sue for several accrued monthly installments in one suit, or (c) sue for the entire amount at the end of the lease.

The commercial lease here gave the landlord a wide range of remedies for the tenant’s breach including acceleration of rental payments. 

The tenant defendant argued that since the lessor failed to try to recover future rent payments in the earlier eviction case, it was barred from doing so in the second lawsuit.  The landlord claimed the opposite: that its claims for damages accruing after the possession order were separate and not barred by res judicata or collateral estoppel.

The court held that res judicata did not bar the lessor’s post-possession order damage suit.  It noted that while the lease contained an optional acceleration clause, it was one of many remedies the landlord had if the tenant breached.  The lease did not require the landlord to accelerate rents upon the tenant’s breach. 

The court also noted that the lease required the landlord to notify the tenant in writing if it (the landlord) was going to terminate the lease.  Since terminating the lease was a prerequisite to acceleration, the Court needed more evidence as to whether the lessor terminated the lease.  Without any termination proof, the trial court should not have dismissed the landlord’s suit.

Afterwords:

1/ If a lease does not contain an acceleration clause, a landlord can likely file a damages action after an earlier eviction case without risking a res judicata or collateral estoppel defense.

2/ If a lease contains mandatory acceleration language, the landlord likely must sue for all future damages coming due under the lease or else risk having its damages cut off on the possession order date.

 

 

Corporate Officer Can’t Tortiously Interfere with His Company’s Contract; No Punitives for Breach of Contract – ND IL

In Richmond v. Advanced Pain Consultants, P.C., 2015 WL 4971040 (N.D.Ill. 2015), the plaintiff sued the defendants – two companies that operated suburban (Chicago) pain clinics and their doctor principal – claiming several thousand dollars in unpaid computer and accounting services plaintiff performed at the clinics over a several-month period.  The plaintiff brought claims for overtime under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and joined companion state law claims for breach of contract, quantum meruit and tortious interference with contract.  The defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims arguing preemption and the failure to state a claim, among other things.

In dismissing some of plaintiff’s claims (and sustaining others), the Northern District stressed some vital pleading rules and substantive law principles that apply in Federal court litigation.

Federal Notice Pleading Requirements

Federal Rule 8(a)(2) requires a “short and plain statement of the claim showing a pleader is entitled to relief.”  The plaintiff must provide enough factual context to rise above a speculative level so that a defendant has “fair notice” of what the plaintiff’s claim is.  However, “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action” are not enough to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal motion.

Preemption and Punitive Damages

The defendant first argued the plaintiff’s common law claims (breach of contract, quantum merit, tortious interference) were preempted by the FLSA.  FLSA preempts common law claims that seek to recover overtime or minimum wage compensation.  But if the plaintiff’s claim seeks something other than overtime or minimum wage payments, those claims aren’t preempted.  Here, several of the plaintiff’s claims were for “regular wages” (not overtime) and so were not preempted by FLSA.

The court next struck plaintiff’s punitive damages claim from his breach of contract suit.  Under Illinois law, contract law’s sole purpose is to compensate the nonbreaching party.  It does not seek to punish the breaching party or give an economic windfall to the plaintiff.  This is true even if the breach is intentional.  Punitive damages can only be allowed in the breach of contract setting where the breach is itself an actionable, independent tort (e.g. a civil conspiracy, fraud, etc.).  Since there was no independent tortious conduct over and above the breach of contract – failure to pay plaintiff for his office services – the court struck plaintiff’s punitive damages claims.

Tortious Interference Against A Single-Member Corporation

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s tortious interference claims against the individual defendant – the sole shareholder of the two corporate defendants.

To state a claim for tortious interference with contract, a plaintiff must allege: (i) the existence of a valid and enforceable contract between a plaintiff and another; (ii) defendant’s awareness of the contractual obligation; (iii) defendant’s intentional and unjustified inducement of a breach of contract; (iv) breach of the contract by the third party caused by the defendant’s wrongful conduct.

A colorable tortious interference claim requires the involvement of at least three entities: (1)-(2) the parties to the contract and (3) the person inducing the breach.

Here, the individual defendant was the sole officer and manager of the two defendant medical offices who had unchallenged authority to make all hiring and firing decisions for the two entities.  The court noted that the two corporate defendants wouldn’t exist without the individual defendant.  There were no other shareholders or parties who had an interest in the corporate defendants.  Since the individual defendant was the only operator and stakeholder in the corporate defendants, he could not tortuously induce a breach of (effectively) his own contract with the plaintiff.

Afterwords:

The case provides some useful damages law reminders including that in a breach of contract suit, punitive damages normally can’t be recovered.  The plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach is itself an intentional tort for a punitive claim possibly to lie.

Advanced Pain Consultants also makes clear that an officer of a corporation cannot tortiously interfere with a contract involving that corporation where that officer is the only shareholder of the corporation and has sole responsibility for the corporation’s business.