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Jordan-Benel v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

June 20, 2017

Douglas Jordan-Benel, an individual, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Universal City Studios, Inc., a Delaware corporation; Blumhouse Productions, LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company; Overlord Productions, LLC, a California Limited Liability Company; Platinum Dunes Productions, a California Corporation; Why Not Productions, Inc., DBA Why Not Films, a Nevada Corporation; James DeMonaco, an individual, Defendants-Appellants, and United Talent Agency, Inc., a California corporation, Defendant.

          Argued and Submitted December 5, 2016 Pasadena, California

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California, D.C. No. 2:14-cv-05577-MWF-MRW Michael W. Fitzgerald, District Judge, Presiding

          Kelli L. Sager (argued), Jason Harrow, and Karen A. Henry, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Los Angeles, California, for Defendants-Appellants.

          Glen Lance Kulik (argued) and Patricia Brum, Kulik Gottesman Siegel & Ware LLP, Sherman Oaks, California, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: Harry Pregerson, Dorothy W. Nelson, and John B. Owens, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY[*]

         Anti-SLAPP Motion

         The panel affirmed the district court's order denying defendants' anti-SLAPP motion to strike a state law claim for breach of implied-in-fact contract in a copyright case.

         The plaintiff alleged that the defendants infringed his copyright in a screenplay and used his screenplay idea to create films without providing him compensation as a writer. The panel held that the breach of contract claim did not arise from an act in furtherance of the right of free speech because the claim was based on defendants' failure to pay for the use of plaintiff's idea, not the creation, production, distribution, or content of the films. Accordingly, the district court did not err in denying defendants' motion to strike the state law claim under California's anti-SLAPP statute.

          OPINION

          PREGERSON, Circuit Judge:

         This case is about the alleged theft of a screenplay idea that was later turned into a popular film series called The Purge. Plaintiff-Appellee Douglas Jordan-Benel brings copyright and state law claims, including breach of implied-in-fact contract and declaratory relief, against several defendants in the film industry. He alleges that the defendants used his screenplay idea to create The Purge films without providing him compensation or credit as a writer.

         Several defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike Jordan-Benel's state law claims. After dismissing the cause of action for declaratory relief on other grounds, the district court denied the anti-SLAPP motion. It ruled that Jordan-Benel's breach of contract claim does not arise from an act in furtherance of the right of free speech because the claim is based on Defendants' failure to pay for the use of Jordan-Benel's idea, not the creation, production, distribution, or content of the films. We affirm.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff-Appellee Douglas Jordan-Benel writes screenplays, teleplays, and comic books. Around January 2011, Jordan-Benel wrote a screenplay entitled Settler's Day about a family's attempt to survive an annual, state-sanctioned, 24-hour period in which citizens are allowed to commit any crime without legal consequences. He registered the screenplay with the Writers Guild of America and the U.S. Copyright Office.

         Around June 2011, Jordan-Benel's manager, Adam Peck, emailed David Kramer, Managing Director of Feature Productions at United Talent Agency ("UTA"), about Settler's Day. Kramer responded that Peck should contact Emerson Davis at UTA to discuss the screenplay. Peck then spoke with Davis and asked permission to submit the screenplay. Davis agreed and asked that Peck email the screenplay to both Davis and Kramer. On July 8, 2011, Peck submitted the screenplay.

         Based on custom and practice in the industry and prior dealings between UTA and Peck, UTA understood that the submission was not gratuitous and was made for the purpose of selling the screenplay to a UTA client. Around July 13, 2011, Davis emailed Peck to confirm that he had read the screenplay but that he was going to "pass." Nonetheless, someone at UTA sent the screenplay to UTA client James DeMonaco. DeMonaco and his partner, Sebastian Lemercier (also a UTA client), wrote a script entitled The Purge, which allegedly copies Jordan-Benel's ideas from Settler's Day.

         Around June 7, 2013, a film entitled The Purge was released. The film was produced by Universal City Studios, LLC, Blumhouse Productions LLC, Overlord Productions LLC, Platinum Dunes Productions, and Lemercier's company, Why Not Productions, Inc. (collectively, "Production Defendants"). A sequel was released on July 18, 2014 and a third film was planned for release. UTA packaged the film and its sequels.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On February 27, 2015, Jordan-Benel filed the operative complaint in this action. He alleged copyright infringement against UTA and the Production Defendants. He asserted a state law cause of action for breach of implied-in-fact contract against UTA, DeMonaco, and Why Not Productions based on his submission of his script, which led to The Purge. He also asserted a cause of action for declaratory relief against DeMonaco and the Production ...


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