Dear Doc:

I’ve heard you say many times that Americans have a right to sue each other for any reason, so lawyers can’t tell their clients that they won’t get sued, only that in a properly adjudicated case, they have a high probability of prevailing. Aren’t there ANY limits on lawsuits?

Fed Up

Dear FU:

The Doc feels your pain. Sometimes it seems like Americans go to court for (or about) the entertainment value, rather than for a fair and efficient way to resolve genuine disputes of real value. The courts, in turn, are set up to dispense “due process” rather than “justice” (whatever you think that means.) Sometimes it seems like a real-life version of a Monty Python sketch. (But…to answer your question, there are some limits on when and where a case may be heard. It’s just that, in a “Catch-22” kind of way, you have to go to court to argue that you shouldn’t have to go to court!)

One recent case is that of Christian Charles, who sued comedian Jerry Seinfeld over the rights to “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” (or, as the Doc likes to think of it, a lawsuit about nothing about another Seinfeld television show about nothing.)

Mr. Charles directed the pilot episode of the program, for which he was apparently paid, but later sued Seinfeld for copying his work without paying for it. Charles claimed that he pitched the idea for the show in 2002, and began working with Seinfeld before the premiere on Crackle in 2012. The pilot was popular, and Charles and Seinfeld then had a dispute about compensation. Seinfeld would not agree to pay Charles on the “backend”, nor more than a directing fee on a “work-for-hire” basis. (Owners of content typically get backend royalties, while hired hands do not, or so the Doc is told.)

In 2018, Charles filed a complaint in federal court claiming that he owned the program. Seinfeld argued that Charles had waited too long to bring suit, and that the case should be dismissed. After pleadings and counter-pleadings were filed, the District Court agreed with Seinfeld and dismissed the case. (There are two time-based legal principles: statutes of limitation and laches, but they amount to much the same idea: someone waited too long to bring the case.)

Charles, of course, appealed to the Circuit Court (keep in mind, this case is still just an argument about whether it should have been filed sooner. No court has considered the actual ownership claim.) In its decision, the appeals panel said, “The district court identified two events described in the Second Amended Complaint that would have put a reasonably diligent plaintiff on notice that his ownership claims were disputed. First, in February 2012, Seinfeld rejected Charles’s request for backend compensation and made it clear that Charles’s involvement would be limited to a work-for-hire basis. Second, the show premiered in July 2012 without crediting Charles, at which point his ownership claim was publicly repudiated. Either one of these developments was enough to place Charles on notice that his ownership claim was disputed and therefore this action, filed six years later, was brought too late.”

Similar cases are heard all the time arguing that a plaintiff picked the wrong location in which to file (these are arguments over personal jurisdiction and venue), or that she addressed the suit to the wrong court entirely (subject matter jurisdiction), or that the suit can’t be heard because an agency has not finally determined the issues (exhaustion of remedies.) The Doc is now thoroughly exhausted, himself! All of these cases come down to arguments about where and when one may have an argument, and have to be decided before the actual argument may take place. 

So, FU, if you want to file a lawsuit, or one is filed against you, there are many complex issues to consider. Give the attorneys at LW&H a call…they are well-versed in such arguments about arguments.

Until next month,

The “Doc”

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.