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Kaffaga v. Estate of Steinbeck

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 9, 2019

Waverly Scott Kaffaga, as Executrix of the Estate of Elaine Anderson Steinbeck, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
The Estate of Thomas Steinbeck, Gail Knight Steinbeck, and The Palladin Group, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued and Submitted August 6, 2019 Anchorage, Alaska

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California D.C. No. 2:14-cv-08699-TJH-FFM Terry J. Hatter, Jr., District Judge, Presiding

          Matthew J. Dowd (argued), Dowd Scheffel PLLC, Washington, D.C.; Matthew I. Berger, Matthew I. Berger Law Group, Santa Barbara, California; for Defendants-Appellants.

          Susan J. Kohlmann (argued), Alison I. Stein, and Brittany R. Lamb, Jenner & Block LLP, New York, New York; Andrew J. Thomas, Jenner & Block LLP, Los Angeles, California; for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: Richard C. Tallman, Sandra S. Ikuta, and N. Randy Smith, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY[*]

         Damages

         The panel affirmed the district court's compensatory damages award, vacated the jury's punitive damage award against defendant Gail Knight Steinbeck, and remanded to the district court with instructions to dismiss the punitive damages claims against Gail, in an action alleging claims concerning disputed interests in John Steinbeck's literary works.

         In the wake of a long history of litigation, a federal jury awarded plaintiff Waverly Kaffaga, as executrix of the Estate of Elaine Steinbeck (John Steinbeck's wife), approximately $5.25 million in compensatory damages for slander of title, breach of contract, and tortious interference with economic advantage, and $7.9 million in punitive damages against defendants - Gail Knight Steinbeck (the author's daughter-in-law), the Estate of Thomas Steinbeck (the author's son) to which Gail is executrix, and the Palladin Group, Inc. (which Gail Steinbeck owns and controls).

         The panel affirmed the district court's orders granting summary judgment and striking defendants' defenses to tortious interference on grounds of collateral estoppel arising from this court's, and the Second Circuit's, prior decisions. The panel further held that the district court's decisions to exclude evidence related to defendants' different understanding of the parties' 1983 settlement agreement, or the validity of prior court decisions, were not abuses of the trial court's discretion.

         The panel affirmed the jury's compensatory damages award on all causes of action in the clearly written and fully answered special verdict form because they were supported by substantial evidence. The panel further held that suspicion of double recovery was not enough to reverse the jury's verdict. The panel also held that the compensatory damages here were not speculative because they were based on reasonable estimates by lay and expert testimony, as well as documentary evidence.

         The panel held that the record contained overwhelming evidence of Gail and Thom Steinbeck's malice to support the punitive damages award. The panel further held that any possible error in the district court's evidentiary decisions was harmless. The panel held that plaintiff failed to meet her burden of placing into the record "meaningful evidence" of Gail Steinbeck's financial condition and ability to pay any punitive damages sufficient to permit a comparative analysis on appeal, as required by California law. The panel therefore vacated the $5.9 million punitive damage award against Gail, and remanded to the district court with instructions to dismiss the punitive claims against Gail.

          OPINION

          TALLMAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         PROLOGUE

"This 'suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that . . . no two . . . lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause: innumerable young people have married into it;' and, sadly, the original parties 'have died out of it.' A 'long procession of [judges] has come in and gone out' during that time, and still the suit 'drags its weary length before the Court.'"

Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. 462, 468 (2011) (Roberts, C.J.) (quoting Charles Dickens, Bleak House, in 1 Works of Charles Dickens 4-5 (1891)). "Those words were not written about this case . . . but they could have been." Id.

         Appellants Gail Knight Steinbeck ("Gail"), the Estate of Thomas Steinbeck (to which she is executrix), and The Palladin Group, Inc. ("Palladin") (which she owns and controls) (collectively, "Defendants"), have vowed they will not stop litigating their interests in profiting from John Steinbeck's literary works until Gail draws her "last breath." The parties (and their predecessors in interest) have been litigating over the bequests in John Steinbeck's will and the changes in copyright laws as they impact on rights to his intellectual property for almost half of a century. Most notably, the parties have repeatedly disputed the meaning and validity of a 1983 settlement agreement (the "1983 Agreement") entered between Elaine Steinbeck ("Elaine"), the widow of John Steinbeck, and Thomas Steinbeck ("Thom") and John Steinbeck IV ("John IV," collectively with Thom, his "Sons"), and their rights to control and profit from the various John Steinbeck books.

         In this latest round, a federal jury in Los Angeles unanimously awarded Waverly Kaffaga ("Kaffaga" or "Plaintiff"), as executrix of Elaine's estate, approximately $5.25 million in compensatory damages for slander of title, breach of contract, and tortious interference with economic advantage, and $7.9 million in punitive damages against Defendants. On appeal, Defendants argue, among other things, that (1) prior litigation related to the 1983 Agreement did not decide whether Defendants had termination rights under 1998 amendments to U.S. copyright laws, (2) the district court improperly excluded evidence relating to Defendants' intent, which they raised as a defense to intentional interference with Kaffaga's efforts to negotiate movie rights to Steinbeck works and punitive damages, (3) the punitive damages award was not supported by meaningful evidence of Gail's financial condition and was excessive under California law, and (4) the compensatory damages awarded were duplicative and speculative.

         We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We affirm the compensatory damages award and vacate and remand with instructions to dismiss the punitive damages claims against Gail.

         CHAPTER I

"There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say." John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath 23 (2002).

         During his lifetime, John Steinbeck registered and renewed the copyrights to his works, including The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and The Pearl, so that they were protected by the version of the Copyright Act in effect at the time. When John Steinbeck died in 1968, he left his interests in his works to his third wife, Elaine. The Sons, John's by a previous marriage, each received a $50, 000 gift in a trust, which, according to Gail, was "pretty substantial money for two boys just coming back from Vietnam."

         The Sons later acquired an interest in some of Steinbeck's later works[1] when the interests had to be renewed. See 17 U.S.C. § 304(a)(1)(C). To try to resolve their competing interests Elaine and the Sons entered into an agreement in 1974 (the "1974 Agreement") that provided Elaine would receive 50 percent of the domestic royalties to the works, and the Sons would each receive 25 percent.

         In 1976, Congress amended the Copyright Act. One of the amendments created termination rights[2] for certain heirs with respect to certain categories of works. See Copyright Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541 (effective 1978). If the work is subject to termination under the Copyright Act, § 304(c)(5) indicates that termination "may be effected notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary." 17 U.S.C. § 304(c)(5); see also 17 U.S.C. § 304(d)(1) (providing for termination under the same circumstances).

         In 1981, following the amendments to the Copyright Act, the Sons sued Elaine in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York contesting the 1974 Agreement and accusing Elaine of fraud. John Steinbeck, IV and Thom Steinbeck v. Elaine Steinbeck, No. 81 Civ. 6105 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 8, 1982). The parties entered into the 1983 Agreement to settle the dispute.

         The 1983 Agreement provided that the Sons would receive an increased share of the royalties from the works- one third each, rather than a quarter. In exchange, Elaine received "complete power and authority to negotiate, authorize and take action with respect to the exploitation and/or termination of rights" in the works.

         In 1995, Thom married Gail. The couple thereafter formed Palladin, a management and production company in Los Angeles.[3] In 2003, Elaine passed away. Pursuant to the 1983 Agreement, her daughter, Waverly Kaffaga, as executrix of Elaine's estate, stepped into Elaine's shoes as successor under the 1983 Agreement.

         In 1998, Congress again amended the Copyright Act. These amendments added an additional termination right, exercisable during a five-year window opening 75 years after the first publication of a ...


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