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.

 

 

Feelin’ Minnesota? Most Likely (Court Pierces Corporate Veil of Copyright Trolling Firm To Reach Lawyer’s Personal Assets)

After being widely lambasted for its heavy-handed and ethically ambiguous (challenged?) BitTorrent litigation tactics over the past few years, an incarnation of the infamous Prenda law firm was recently hit with a piercing the corporate veil judgment by a Minnesota state court.

In Guava, LLC v. Merkel, 2015 WL 4877851 (Minn. 2015), the plaintiff pornographic film producer, represented by the Alpha, LLC law firm (“Alpha”), filed a civil conspiracy suit and state wiretapping claim against various defendants whom plaintiff claimed illegally downloaded adult films owned by the plaintiff.

Alpha’s lone member is Minnesota attorney and Prenda alum Paul Hansmeier, who has garnered some negative press of his own both for his copyright trolling efforts and his more recent ADA violation suits against small businesses.  In October 2015, the Supreme Court of Minnesota instituted formal disciplinary proceedings against Hansmeier for various lawyer misconduct charges.

The Alpha firm’s litigation strategy in the Guava case followed the familiar script of issuing a subpoena blitz against some 300 internet service providers (ISPs) to learn the identity of the movie downloaders.  Many of the ISP customers fought back with motions to quash the subpoenas.

After assessing monetary sanctions against Alpha for bad faith conduct – trying to extract settlements from the ISP customers with no real intent to litigate – the trial court entered a money judgment against Alpha for the subpoena respondents and John Doe defendants.

Through post-judgment discovery, the subpoena defendants learned that Hansmeier had transferred over $150,000 from Alpha, defunding it in the process.

The judgment creditor defendants then moved to amend the judgment to add Hansmeier individually under a piercing the corporate veil theory. After the trial court granted the motion, Alpha and Hansmeier appealed.

Held: Affirmed

Rules/Reasoning:

In Minnesota, a district court has jurisdiction to take actions to enforce a judgment when the judgment is uncollectable and where refusing to amend a judgment would be inequitable.

A classic example of an equitable remedy that a court can apply to amend an unsatisfied money judgment is piercing the corporate veil. A Minnesota court will pierce the corporate veil where (1) a judgment debtor is the alter ego of another person or entity and (2) where there is fraud.

The alter ego analysis looks at a medley of factors including, among others, whether the judgment debtor was sufficiently capitalized, whether corporate formalities were followed, payment or nonpayment of dividends, and whether the dominant shareholder siphoned funds from an entity to avoid paying the entity’s debts.

The fraud piercing factor considers whether an individual has used the corporate form to gain an undeserved advantage. The party trying to pierce the corporate veil doesn’t have to show actual (read: intentional) fraud but must instead show the corporate entity operated as a constructive fraud on the judgment creditor.

Here, the defendants established both piercing prongs. The evidence clearly showed Alpha was used to further Hansmeier’s personal purposes, there was a disregard for basic corporate formalities and the firm was insufficiently and deliberately undercapitalized.

The court also found that it would be fundamentally unfair for Hansmeier to escape judgment here; noting that Hansmeier emptied Alpha’s bank accounts after it became clear that defendants were trying to enforce the money judgment against the Alpha firm.

Afterword:

While a Minnesota state court ruling won’t bind other jurisdictions, the case is post-worthy The case lesson is clear: if a court (at least in Minnesota) sees suspicious emptying of corporate assets when it’s about to enter a money judgment, it has equitable authority to modify a judgment so that it binds any individual who is siphoning the corporate assets.

The case is also significant because it breaks from states like Illinois that specify that piercing the corporate veil is not available in post-judgment proceedings. In Illinois and other states, a judgment creditor like the Guava defendants would have to file a separate lawsuit to pierce the corporate veil.  This obviously would entail spending time and money trying to attach assets that likely would be dissipated by case’s end.  The court here avoided what it viewed as an unfair result simply by amending the money judgment to add Hansmeier as a judgment debtor even though he was never a party to the lawsuit.

“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.