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Mahan v. Roc Nation, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 17, 2015

CHAUNCEY MAHAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ROC NATION, LLC, et al., Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

LORNA G. SCHOFIELD, District Judge.

This application for attorneys' fees arises out of the dismissal of Plaintiff Chauncey Mahan's four claims under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, 201 et seq., and one claim alleging trespass to chattel in Mahan v. Roc Nation, LLC, No. 14 Civ. 5075, 2015 WL 1782095, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 15, 2015) (the "April 15 Opinion"). Defendants Roc-A-Fella Records, Shawn Carter (together, "Roc-A-Fella") and Roc Nation, LLC ("Roc Nation") seek attorneys' fees, under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 505, for a combined amount of $281, 566.65. For the following reasons, their motions are granted in part.

BACKGROUND

Counsel for both Defendants submitted declarations with invoices listing the requested fees. Roc-A-Fella is represented by (1) Andrew Bart, charging an hourly rate of $720, and (2) Lindsay Bowen, charging an hourly rate of $529. Roc Nation is represented by (1) Cynthia Arato, charging an hourly rate of $565, and (2) Daniel O'Neil, charging hourly rates between $460 and $500 per hour. On May 15, 2015, Plaintiff submitted his opposition to the instant motion. Defendants submitted their reply memoranda on May 28, 2015, and further moved for the award of attorneys' fees associated with litigating the instant motion.

DISCUSSION

I. WHETHER FEES SHOULD BE AWARDED

The Copyright Act authorizes "the court in its discretion [to].... award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party." 17 U.S.C. § 505; accord Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 534 (1994) (remarking that, under section 505, "[p]revailing plaintiffs and prevailing defendants are to be treated alike, but attorney's fees are to be awarded to prevailing parties only as a matter of the court's discretion"). In determining whether the fee should be awarded, there is no precise rule or standard, but courts look to a non-exhaustive list of factors including "frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness (both in the factual and in the legal components of the case) and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence." Fogerty, 510 U.S. at 534 n.19. ("[T]here is no precise rule or formula for making [attorneys' fees] determinations, but instead equitable discretion should be exercised."); see also Matthew Bender & Co. v. W. Pub. Co., 240 F.3d 116, 121 (2d Cir. 2001) (same).

Of these factors, objective unreasonableness is the most important. See Bryant v. Media Right Prods., Inc., 603 F.3d 135, 144 (2d Cir. 2010) ("The third factor - objective unreasonableness - should be given substantial weight."). Objective unreasonableness alone is sufficient to grant an award of fees. See Screenlife Establishment v. Tower Video, Inc., 868 F.Supp. 47, 52 (S.D.N.Y. 1994) (Sotomayor, J.) (holding that prevailing party may obtain attorneys' fees "pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 505, once the court finds that the plaintiff's claim was objectively unreasonable; bad faith or frivolousness is not a prerequisite to an award of fees."); see also Crown Awards, Inc. v. Disc. Trophy & Co., 564 F.Supp.2d 290, 294 (S.D.N.Y. 2008), aff'd, 326 F.Appx. 575 (2d Cir. 2009). A party acts in an "objectively unreasonable manner by asserting an utterly meritless claim and a patently frivolous position." Screenlife Establishment, 868 F.Supp. at 51-52 (internal quotation marks omitted). To be objectively unreasonable, a claim must be "lacking in basis" or have an "objective lack of merit." Polsby v. St. Martin's Press, Inc., No. 97 Civ. 690, 2000 WL 98057, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 18, 2000), aff'd, 8 F.Appx. 90 (2d Cir. 2001).

The Fogerty factors are relevant, however, only to the extent they align with the purposes of the Copyright Act. See Fogerty, 510 U.S. at 534 n.19 ("[S]uch factors may be used to guide courts' discretion, so long as such factors are faithful to the purposes of the Copyright Act and are applied to prevailing plaintiffs and defendants in an evenhanded manner."). "The touchstone of... § 505 is whether imposition of attorney's fees will further the interests of the Copyright Act" - specifically, "encouraging the raising of objectively reasonable claims and defenses, ... not only to deter infringement but also to... to maximize the public exposure to valuable works." Mitek Holdings, Inc. v. Arce Eng'g Co., 198 F.3d 840, 842-43 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoted with approval in Matthew Bender, 240 F.3d at 122).

Defendants here are entitled to attorneys' fees because, for the reasons set forth in the April 15 Opinion, Plaintiff's claims under the Copyright Act were plainly time barred and therefore objectively unreasonable. Claims brought after the statute of limitations has run may be considered objectively unreasonable. See, e.g., Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Diamond Time, Ltd., 371 F.3d 883, 895 (6th Cir. 2004) (affirming award of attorneys' fees to prevailing defendant under section 505 where "the district court found it was objectively unreasonable for plaintiffs to have argued that the claims against [defendant] were not time barred"); see also Zamoyski v. Fifty-Six Hope Rd. Music Ltd., Inc., 767 F.Supp.2d 218, 223 (D. Mass. 2011).

Here, the claims were objectively without merit. As discussed in the April 15 Opinion, the statute of limitations on Plaintiff's co-ownership claims began to run when he knew or had reason to know of the injury on which the claims are premised. See Mahan, 2015 WL 1782095, at *3. Plaintiff's alleged ignorance of Defendants' representations of sole authorship "strains credulity[, ]" given Plaintiff's longstanding career in the recording industry as well as the widely publicized success of the disputed works. Plaintiff's pursuit of his Copyright Act claims, filed more than ten years after the claims had accrued, was objectively unreasonable. An award of attorneys' fees here would promote the interests of the Copyright Act because it would deter frivolous law suits. Cf. Ackoff-Ortega v. Windswept P. Entm't Co. (Inc.), No. 99 Civ. 11710, 2001 WL 225246, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 2, 2001) ("This case involved complicated issues of fact and law and an award of attorneys' fees and costs in such a complex case would chill future lawsuits, rather than beneficially deter frivolous or objectively unreasonable lawsuits.").

In opposition, Plaintiff argues that fee shifting is not justified, as the dismissal of this action as time barred was "a purely technical win" that did not "impact the merits of [Plaintiff]'s substantive rights." This argument is incorrect, as it is well established that a dismissal on statute of limitations grounds "operates as an adjudication on the merits." PRC Harris, Inc. v. Boeing Co., 700 F.2d 894, 896 (2d Cir. 1983) (collecting cases); accord Michaelesco v. Estate of Richard, 355 F.Appx. 572, 573 (2d Cir. 2009) (summary order); Dibbs v. Roldan, 356 F.Supp.2d 340, 349 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

Plaintiff's reliance on Brownstein v. Lindsay, 742 F.3d 55 (3d Cir. 2014), is also misplaced. Plaintiff cites Brownstein - where plaintiff sued for co-authorship rights 14 years after the relevant copyright registrations - to argue that (1) "the duration of time... [between] initial publication and registration of the work is not controlling" and (2) a co-authorship claim does not begin to run until a "plain and express repudiation' of plaintiff's authorship rights." In Plaintiff's case, however, and as discussed at length in the April 15 Opinion, Plaintiff's claim was expressly repudiated in myriad ways. See Mahan, 2015 WL 1782095, at *3-4. Plaintiff also contends that this action was not objectively unreasonable because it presented "unsettled, complex [and] novel issues of law." This ...


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