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Bernstein v. Universal Pictures Inc.

decided: May 27, 1975.


Appeal from judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles L. Brieant, Jr., J., 379 F. Supp. 933 (S.D.N.Y. 1974), dismissing an antitrust complaint because the subject matter was within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Feinberg, Circuit Judge, and Jameson, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Chief Judge:

This elaborate class action was conceived by 71 talented creators, all composers and lyricists, members of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America [CLGA], and brought against 15 producers of motion pictures and television shows. Judge Brieant abruptly brought down the curtain on plaintiffs' production, however, when, sua sponte, he dismissed the complaint on the ground that the matter was within the exclusive jurisdiction of the NLRB. We find that the dismissal was premature since issues of fact remain to be resolved, and consequently that, in the tradition of the entertainment industry, the curtain must rise again.


The composers'*fn1 complaint alleges that the producers, acting -- appropriately enough -- in concert, refused to contract for their services except on certain standard terms, which reserved to the producers the copyright and other ownership rights in the words and music composed on their behalf. This was asserted to constitute a conspiracy in restraint of trade, as well as an attempt to monopolize the sheet music publishing industry.

The standard terms were contained in three contracts, entitled "Minimum Basic Agreements," negotiated and signed in 1960, 1965, and 1967 by CLGA and the trade association of the motion picture producers, the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers [AMPTP]. The three television networks, also defendants herein, were not members of AMPTP nor participants in the negotiations, but allegedly contracted with composers on terms similar to those contained in the agreements. Although each of the successive contracts, which represented the minimum terms under which composer's services could be obtained, provided increased wages and shares of the copyright royalties, the producers steadfastly refused to accede to CLGA's demand for copyright ownership by the individual composers.

This issue came to a head in November of 1971, when negotiations between CLGA and AMPTP reached an impasse over copyright ownership. On November 30, the composers launched what proved to be an unsuccessful strike, and simultaneously filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that AMPTP's refusal to bargain over copyright ownership violated § 8(a)(3) of the Act. On January 31, 1972, a general membership meeting of CLGA approved the commencement of an antitrust suit against the producers, and the complaint was filed seven days later. On March 7, CLGA withdrew its unfair labor practice charge*fn2 because -- the composers now assert -- they realized that the Board would have no jurisdiction, since they were independent contractors rather than employees.

The producers answered the antitrust charges with the usual denials; in addition they raised the affirmative defenses that their conduct was protected by the labor exemption to the antitrust laws, and that the subject matter of the controversy was within the primary and exclusive jurisdiction of the NLRB.*fn3 In July of 1973, the composers moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f) and 56 to strike these affirmative defenses. Judge Brieant found Rule 56 an inappropriate vehicle for dismissal of affirmative defenses, and ruled the motion under Rule 12(f) untimely. He dismissed the complaint on his own initiative under Rule 12(h)(3), however, concluding that the refusal to bargain with respect to copyright ownership was a labor dispute over which the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction. The composers appeal.


The composers contend that whether the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction depends on a disputed issue of fact -- the status of composers as employees or independent contractors -- which could not be resolved on the papers before the district court. Section 8(a)(3), they correctly point out, refers to "labor organizations;" labor organizations are collections of "employees," § 2(5), a term whose definition excludes independent contractors, § 2(3). Thus, the composers maintain, the Board had no jurisdiction if the composers were not employees, and the complaint was improperly dismissed in advance of a determination of that factual question.

There can be little doubt that a district court should be alert to terminate an action under Rule 12(h)(3) when lack of subject matter jurisdiction becomes apparent. Judicial resources are precious, particularly in view of the courts' steadily burgeoning caseload, and they should not be dissipated in futile proceedings. Indeed, the lack of jurisdiction is so fundamental a defect that the rule permits a judge to recognize it sua sponte at any time.

But like summary judgment, a "procedural weapon to pierce sham claims and resolve actions where the facts are undisputed," American Manufacturers Mutual Ins. Co. v. American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, Inc., 388 F.2d 272, 278 (2d Cir. 1967), sua sponte dismissals of the kind before us are justified only where the underlying facts are not subject to fair dispute. Even where both parties may urge the absence of any material factual issues, we have counselled district judges to be cautious, lest haste to avoid a trial lead to premature resolution of contested matters. Id. at 279-80. And particularly in complex antitrust litigation, although the benefits of avoiding a trial may be substantial, the courts have stressed the inappropriateness of deciding issues of fact before they have been fully developed. See, e.g., id., Poller v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 368 U.S. 464, 473, 7 L. Ed. 2d 458, 82 S. Ct. 486 (1962); Premier Electrical Construction Co. v. Miller-Davis Co., 422 F.2d 1132, 1138 (7th Cir. 1970).

In holding that the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction, the district judge noted that CLGA had conducted itself as a labor union for two decades, that it had been certified by the Board on August 19, 1955 after a consent election as the exclusive bargaining representative for composer employees of a number of motion picture producers, and indeed that the instant ...

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