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Scroggins v. Scroggins

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 16, 2017


          OPINION & ORDER

          PAUL A. ENGELMAYER, District Judge

         This decision resolves a pro se plaintiffs challenge to the use of intellectual property associated with recordings and compositions by the funk band "ESG." Plaintiff Deborah Scroggins ("Scroggins") formed that band with her sisters in the early 1980s. She brings claims for copyright infringement, fraud, theft, defamation, and infliction of emotional distress against her sister Renee Scroggins, Conexion Media Group, Inc. ("Conexion"), Universal Music Group ("UMG"), Fire Records of London ("Fire Records"), and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ("ASCAP"). Scroggins claims that, in various ways, each defendant unlawfully exploited recordings and compositions of works she co-authored, did not compensate her for this use, and caused her emotional distress.

         Renee Scroggins, Conexion, Fire Records, and ASCAP each move to dismiss Scroggins's Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), and/or failure to state a claim, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). UMG moves for judgment on the pleadings, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). For the reasons that follow, the Court grants each motion and dismisses all of Scroggins's claims.

         I. Background[1]

         A. Factual Background

         Along with her sisters Renee Scroggins ("Renee") and Valerie Scroggins ("Valerie"), Scroggins, in the 1970s, formed the funk band ESG. See Complaint ¶ 3. In or around 1980, ESG recorded three albums: (1) an EP (extended-play) album that contained six songs, including the song "UFO" (the "EP Album"), (2) a disco album that contained three songs (the "Disco Album"), and (3) an LP (long-play) album that contained 11 songs (the "LP Album"). Id. ¶ 4. In 1987 or 1988, Scroggins left ESG. Id. ¶ 6. In 2006, she claims, she discovered she had been "left off' the original copyright registration-filed by Renee-of six songs from the EP Album that Scroggins allegedly "co-wrote and performed." Id. ¶ 8. Scroggins then filed a duplicate registration for those songs, naming herself, Renee and Valerie as joint authors of the works. Id.

         In 2009, Scroggins, proceeding pro se, filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York against Renee, Valerie, and their record label, Soul Jazz. See id., ¶ 9. Her complaint there, Dkt. 27, Ex. B ("EDNY Complaint") alleged almost verbatim the allegations here. On October 25, 2012, after court-ordered mediation, Scroggins and her sisters entered into a written settlement agreement, Dkt. 27, Ex. C (the "Agreement" or "Settlement Agreement"); see also Complaint ¶ 11. It provided that (1) Scroggins would dismiss the Eastern District lawsuit "with prejudice, " Agreement ¶ 1; (2) Scroggins, for the three-month period commencing on November 1, 2012, could pursue licensing royalties, "past, present and future" for the song "UFO, " and would split any recovery equally among herself, Renee, and Valerie's daughter, Chistelle Polite, id. ¶ 2; (3) after that period, these parties, if they chose, could negotiate a possible extension to the royalties arrangement, id. ¶ 3; and (4) these parties would exchange mutual general releases of all claims "from the beginning of time to the date of this agreement, " id. ¶ 4.

         Scroggins now alleges, however, that when she tried to enforce the Agreement, she learned that Fire Records had "fraudulently [and] illegally" obtained the rights to ESG's works from Renee and was consequently "the one doing ESG's licensing[.]" Complaint ¶¶ 15-16. Scroggins then sent a cease and desist letter to Fire Records, stating that Fire Records did not have her permission to use any songs on the EP Album, Disco Album or the LP Album. Id., Exs. 7-8. Despite lacking permission from Scroggins, Fire Records continued to use the ESG songs. Id., ¶ 16. As to other defendants here, Scroggins alleges that UMG infringed her copyright to "UFO, " see Id. ¶¶ 17-18, Ex. 9, and that ASCAP "illegally with[held] [her] royalty payments" for the songs from the albums that she claims to have registered with it, see Id. ¶¶ 19-20.

         After failing to obtain licenses or collect royalties under the Settlement Agreement, Scroggins moved to reopen the Eastern District action. Complaint ¶ 13. The district court there, however, denied that motion, because it had not retained jurisdiction to enforce the Agreement. Dkt. 27, Ex. D. The district court clarified for Scroggins that it had never issued any ruling "addressing whether [Scroggins] was a valid co-author of [ESG's] songs or whether she was entitled to a portion of the royalties"; any right to royalties on Scroggins's part was therefore "pursuant to the private settlement agreement that she reached with her sisters." Id. Scroggins appealed the denial of her motion to reopen, but the Second Circuit dismissed the appeal sua sponte as time-barred and as lacking "an arguable basis in law or fact." Dkt. 27, Ex. E.

         On May 11, 2015, Scroggins filed suit in New York State Supreme Court (Kings County) against Renee and Valerie. Dkt. 27, Ex. F (the "State Court Complaint"). She alleged, inter alia, that her sisters had breached the Settlement Agreement by failing to give her certain documents and information, by failing to inform third parties of her right to collect royalties for ESG's songs, and by preventing her from collecting royalties during the three-month period when, under the Agreement, she had the right to pursue such royalties. Id. ¶¶ 18-20.

         On December 4, 2015, Scroggins filed the Complaint in this case, a separate action. Dkt. 2. It explains that, while the State Court action sought relief from her sisters' alleged breach of the Agreement, this action brought claims of copyright infringement and of other violations of federal and state law. Complaint ¶ 14. Specifically, as developed below, the Court construes Scroggins here to assert claims for copyright infringement, fraud, theft, and defamation against Renee, Fire Records, and UMG, and to seek royalty payments from ASCAP. Id.

         B. Procedural History

         On July 26, 2016, Renee filed a motion to dismiss. Dkt. 26. On August 15, 2016, Conexion filed a motion to dismiss, Dkt. 20, along with a memorandum of law in support, Dkt. 21 ("Conexion Br."). On September 2, 2016, Fire Records filed a motion to intervene and to dismiss, Dkt. 25, along with a declaration, Dkt. 26, and a memorandum of law in support, Dkt. 27. On September 9, 2016, ASCAP filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, under Federal Rule 12(b)(1), Dkt. 30, and a memorandum of law, Dkt. 31 ("ASCAP Br."), and affidavit, Dkt. 32, in support. On October 11, 2016, UMG answered the complaint. Dkt. 42 ("UMG Answer").

         On October 11, 2016, the Court granted Fire Records's motion to intervene, and set a schedule for Scroggins either to amend her Complaint or oppose the motion to dismiss; the Court gave Scroggins, as apro se litigant, extended time to do so. Dkt. 43. On November 11, 2016, Scroggins filed an opposition to the various motions to dismiss. Dkt. 46 ("Scroggins Br."). On November 18, 2016, ASCAP, Dkt. 49 ("ASCAP Rep. Br."), and Conexion, Dkt. 52 ("Conexion Rep. Br."), filed reply memoranda of law in support of their respective motions to dismiss.

         On December 20, 2016, UMG filed a motion for judgment on the pleading, Dkt. 54, and a memorandum of law in support, Dkt. 55 ("UMG Br."). On December 28, 2016, the Court set a briefing schedule for that motion. Dkt. 56. The Court directed Scroggins to file any response by January 17, 2017. Id. Scroggins did not do so. See Dkt. 57.

         II. Applicable Legal Standards

         The motions to dismiss implicate three distinct federal rules.

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         In considering a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), a court must accept as true all material factual allegations in the complaint, but is "not to draw inferences from the complaint favorable to plaintiffs." See J.S. ex rel. N.S. v. Attica Cent. Sch., 386 F.3d 107, 110 (2d Cir. 2004). A court "may consider affidavits and other materials beyond the pleadings to resolve the jurisdictional issue, but [a court] may not rely on conclusory or hearsay statements contained in the affidavits." Id. "The plaintiff bears the burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence." McGowan v. United States, 825 F.3d 118, 125-26 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting Aurecchione v. Schoolman Transp. Sys., Inc., 426 F.3d 635, 638 (2d Cir. 2005)). A court properly dismisses an action under Rule 12(b)(1) if the court "lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it." Cortlandt Street Recovery Corp. v. Hollas Telecommns. S.A.R.L., 790 F.3d 411, 416-17 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal quotation omitted).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." BellAtl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         In considering a motion to dismiss, a district court must "accept[] all factual claims in the complaint as true, and draw[] all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs favor." Lotes Co. v. Hon Hai Precision Indus. Co., 753 F.3d 395, 403 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Famous Horse Inc. v. 5th Ave. Photo Inc., 624 F.3d 106, 108 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted)). However, this tenet is "inapplicable to legal conclusions." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. "[R]ather, the complaint's [f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, i.e., enough to make the claim plausible." Arista Records, LLC v. Doe 3, 604 F.3d 110, 120 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570) (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in Arista Records). A complaint is properly dismissed where, as a matter of law, "the allegations in [the] complaint, however true, could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558.

         C. Rule 12(c)

         A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is governed by the same standard as a motion under Rule 12(b)(6). Ades & Berg Group Investors v. Breeden (In re Ades & Berg Group Investors), 550 F.3d 240, 243 n.4 (2d Cir. 2008) (citing Burnette v. Carothers, 192 F.3d 52, 56 (2d Cir. 1999)); see also United States Life Ins. Co. v. Blum, No. 09 Civ. 9416, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1531, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2011). The court must accept a plaintiff s factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs favor. Gonzalez v. Caballero, 572 F.Supp.2d 463, 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2008); see also Famous Horse Inc., 624 F.3d at 108. To survive a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the complaint must contain factual allegations amounting to "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed me accusation, " Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, such that those allegations, when accepted as true, "state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." South Cherry Street LLC v. Hennessee Group LLC, 573 F.3d 98, 110 (2d Cir. 2009) (emphasis in original).[2]

         However, the rule that "a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint" is "inapplicable to legal conclusions, " even where, as here, the plaintiff proceeds pro se. See Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). And, in deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court may consider "the complaint, the answer, [and] any written document attached to them[.]" Roberts v. Babkiewicz, 582 F.3d 418, 419 (2d Cir. 2009); see also L-7 Designs, Inc. v. Old Navy, LLC, 647 F.3d 419, 422 (2d Cir. 2011).

         III. Discussion

         Although far from a model of clarity, Scroggins's Complaint appears to allege claims against Fire Records and Conexion for fraud, defamation, and copyright infringement; against Renee for copyright infringement, fraud, and negligent and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress; against ASCAP for withholding of royalty payments (breach of contract); and against UMG for copyright infringement, theft (conversion), and negligent and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Each defendant has moved for dismissal, on various distinct grounds. The Court will address the motions by defendant.

         A. Scroggins's Claims ...

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