Prunty v. Vivendi, Civil No. 1:14-cv-02073 (APM)

Decision Date01 July 2016
Docket NumberCivil No. 1:14-cv-02073 (APM)
Citation195 F.Supp.3d 107
Parties Robert R. PRUNTY, Plaintiff, v. VIVENDI, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Robert R. Prunty, Arcadia, FL, pro se.

Jessica Ring Amunson, Jenner & Block LLP, Washington, DC, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Amit P. Mehta, United States District Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

After prevailing on their Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, Defendants Vivendi SA, UMG Recordings, Inc., and The Island Def Jam Music Group have moved for an award of attorney's fees as to two categories of Plaintiff's claims: (1) his civil rights claims and (2) his copyright infringement claims. Defendants also seek an award for fees incurred in filing their Motion for Attorneys' Fees. The court has carefully scrutinized Defendants' Motion along with the supporting evidence. For the reasons explained below, it grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and orders Defendant to pay $18,292.32.

II. BACKGROUND

Briefly, the relevant facts are as follows. Plaintiff Robert R. Prunty filed a five-count1 Amended Complaint against Defendants. Am. Compl., ECF No. 6. In Counts Four and Five, he asserted claims under two civil rights statutes, 42 U.S.C. § 1982 and 42 U.S.C. § 1985. The basic premise of those claims was that an adverse decision in a case before another judge of this court, Prunté v. Universal Music Grp. , 699 F.Supp.2d 15 (D.D.C.2010), was the product of racial animus, in which Defendants conspired. See Mem. Op., ECF No. 28, at 2. In Counts Three and Six, Plaintiff advanced common law claims of fraud, alleging that Defendants also had conspired with the judge in Prunté to conceal the judge's alleged financial interests in Defendants Vivendi SA and UMG Recordings, Inc. Id. Finally, in Count Two, Plaintiff claimed that Defendants infringed his copyright to the lyrics of a particular song in violation of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq. Id.

The court granted Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint in its entirety. See Mem. Op, ECF No. 28; Prunty v. Vivendi , 130 F.Supp.3d 385 (D.D.C.2015). Defendants then filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees, arguing that, as the prevailing parties, they are entitled to an award of fees incurred in defending against Plaintiff's two civil rights claims and his single copyright claim. Mot. for Attorneys' Fees, ECF No. 30 [hereinafter Defs.' Mot.], at 1-2. Defendants also seek to recover attorney's fees arising out the fees petition that is now before the court. Id. at 1 n. 1; Defs.' Reply Mem. in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. for Attorneys' Fees, ECF No. 36 [hereinafter Defs.' Reply], at 7.

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants' Motion requires the court to resolve two issues. First, the court must determine the claims, if any, on which Defendants are entitled to an award of attorney's fees. Second, if a fees award is appropriate, the court must determine the proper amount.

A. Defendants Need Not Have First Filed a Motion Under Rule 11

Before turning to the specific statutory grounds for an award of fees, the court takes up a threshold issue raised by Plaintiff. He argues, in essence, that Defendants are precluded from seeking an award of attorney's fees because they did not first file a motion for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11. See Pl.'s Mot. in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Attorneys' Fees, ECF No. 33 [hereinafter Pl.'s Opp'n], at 4-5. There is, however, no such pre-filing requirement. Rule 54(d) clearly states that "[a] claim for attorney's fees ... must be made by motion" that specifies "the ... statute, rule, or other grounds entitling the movant to an award." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(2)(B)(ii). Rule 54 contains no requirement that, as a precursor to seeking fees, a party must first file a motion under Rule 11. Nor would such a requirement make sense in light of the text of the Rule 54(d), which plainly provides that fees may be sought under a "statute" or a "rule." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(2)(B)(ii). Therefore, the court rejects Plaintiff's assertion that Defendants' Motion should be denied because they did not first file a motion under Rule 11.

B. Grounds for an Attorney's Fee Award
1. Civil Rights Claims

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), a court may allow the "prevailing party" "[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce," as relevant here, Sections 1982 and 1985, "a reasonable attorney's fee." The awarding of fees is limited to prevailing plaintiffs. Congress enacted the statute in part to "protect defendants from burdensome litigation having no legal or factual basis." Christians burg Garment Co. v. EEOC , 434 U.S. 412, 420, 98 S.Ct. 694, 54 L.Ed.2d 648 (1978). Defendants in such civil rights actions can collect fees under Section 1988"upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." Id. at 421, 98 S.Ct. 694.

Here, Defendants' entitlement to fees is clear. In dismissing Plaintiff's civil rights claims, the court found those claims to be "fanciful," "fantastic," and "factually frivolous." Mem. Op. at 3. Defendants easily have satisfied the prevailing-party standard under Christians burg Garment . Accordingly, Defendants are entitled to attorney's fees incurred in defending Plaintiff's statutory civil rights claims.

2. Copyright Claim

Defendants' demand for attorney's fees on the dismissed copyright claim warrants greater analysis. The Copyright Act authorizes a district court, "in its discretion," to award "a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs." 17 U.S.C. § 505. In Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc. , 510 U.S. 517, 114 S.Ct. 1023, 127 L.Ed.2d 455 (1994), the Supreme Court observed that "[t]here is no precise rule or formula" for determining when to award fees under the Copyright Act. Instead, courts are directed to apply a list of nonexclusive factors, such as "frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both in the factual and legal components of the case) and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence." Id. at 534 n. 19, 114 S.Ct. 1023 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). When applying these factors courts must be "faithful to the purposes of the Copyright Act" and evenhanded in their application. Id. ; see also ZilYen, Inc. v. Rubber Mfrs. Ass'n , 958 F.Supp.2d 215, 218 (D.D.C.2013) (applying Fogerty ). Here, Defendants contend that an award of attorney's fees is warranted because Plaintiff's copyright claim was objectively unreasonable and because such an award will deter the filing of other frivolous claims. Defs.' Mot. at 5. The court agrees that an award of fees is warranted on both grounds.

A claim under the Copyright Act is objectively unreasonable if it "is clearly without merit or otherwise patently devoid of legal or factual basis." ZilYen , 958 F.Supp.2d at 220. Conversely, a copyright claim is not objectively unreasonable if there is a "reasonable possibility" that the court would reach a different outcome on the merits of the claim. Id. Here, Plaintiff had no reasonable possibility of prevailing on his copyright claim. As the court found when comparing the alleged infringing lyrics to the Plaintiff's claimed infringed lyrics, "they bear little resemblance to one another and thus are not 'substantially similar.' " Mem. Op. at 5-6 (citing Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates , 281 F.3d 1287, 1295–96 (D.C.Cir.2002) ). The only similar aspects of the songs—the appearance of the word "Kingdom" in both songs' titles and the use of the phrase "keys to the kingdom" in both songs' lyrics—clearly were not copyrightable. See id. Plaintiff should have known that those similarities were insufficient to allow his copyright claim to prevail, because the district court in Prunté observed that "[o]f course, titles are not protectible, and neither are short, common phrases," 699 F.Supp.2d at 25, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's dismissal of Plaintiff's claims before he filed the instant suit, see Prunté v. Universal Music Grp. , 425 Fed.Appx. 1, 2 (D.C.Cir.2011).

Plaintiff's reliance in this case on Dawson v. Hinshaw , 905 F.2d 731 (4th Cir.1990), to argue that expert testimony was needed to evaluate the similarity of the songs, and therefore his claim should survive a motion to dismiss, see Mem. Op. at 6, did not imbue his claim with a reasonable possibility of success. As the court explained in its Memorandum Opinion, our Court of Appeals has not adopted the "flexible approach" to assessing substantial similarity adopted by the Fourth Circuit in Dawson . Id. Further, Plaintiff did not cite any case—and the court is aware of none—in which expert testimony was deemed necessary to decide whether ordinary song lyrics were substantially similar. Indeed, in Plaintiff's other copyright action, Prunté , the court expressly rejected the need for expert testimony regarding the issue of substantial similarity. See Prunté v. Universal Music Grp. , 563 F.Supp.2d 41, 43–44 (D.D.C.2008). He reasonably should have expected this court to do the same.

In addition to the copyright claim's objective unreasonableness, an award of attorney's fees also is warranted because of "the need ... to advance considerations of ... deterrence." Fogerty , 510 U.S. at 534 n. 19, 114 S.Ct. 1023. As Defendants point out, the "primary objective of the Copyright Act is to encourage the production of original literary, artistic, and music expression for the good of the public," and therefore, "a successful defense of a copyright infringement action may further the policies of the Copyright Act every bit as much as a successful prosecution of an infringement claim by the holder of a copyright." Id. at 524, 527, 114 S.Ct. 1023. Thus, as here, when a plaintiff pursues a meritless copyright claim without consequence, it invites others to do the same. See Scott Blanton v. Universal City Studios Prods. LLLP , 593 F.Supp.2d 171, 176 (D.D.C.2009) (observing ...

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