Does an assignment by a co-songwriter of that co-songwriter’s rights in exchange for a performance and use royalty entitle the co-songwriter to a share of the sale proceeds when the rights are later sold by the other co-songwriter to a third party? No, according to Justice Barry Ostrager’s recent decision in Levy v. Zimmerman. In his decision, Justice Ostrager dismissed a suit filed by the estate of songwriter Jacques Levy in the New York County Commercial Division seeking a share of the more than $300 million in proceeds from the sale by Bob Dylan of his song catalog to Universal Music Group. In dismissing the case, Justice Ostrager ruled that a 1975 contract unambiguously limited Levy’s rights to a 35% royalty on the performance and use of the ten songs he co-wrote with Dylan in the early 1970s.
Commercial Division Issues Verdict for Plaintiffs Following Bench Trial in Family Feud Over the Palm Restaurant
On November 13, 2018, Justice Masley issued a decision following a bench trial in Ganzi v. Ganzi, which concerns a family feud over the Palm Restaurant empire. Ganzi provides a vivid illustration of the importance of observing corporate formalities, the need to be vigilant for self-dealing when shareholders hold ownership interests in multiple intertwined businesses, and, of course, the pitfalls of mixing family and business.
On July 2, 2018, Justice Barry R. Ostrager of the Commercial Division denied a motion to dismiss by UMG Recordings, Inc. (“Universal”), an alter ego theory of liability against it in Aspire Music Group, LLC v. Cash Money Records, Inc., concluding that Aspire sufficiently alleged that Universal was the equitable owner of Cash Money to survive the pre-answer motion to dismiss.
The Commercial Division Reaffirms that Permissive Forum Selection Clauses Do Not Preclude Litigating in a Different Court
Attorneys drafting forum selection clauses were reminded of the distinction between permissive and mandatory forum language in Justice Andrea Masley’s recent decision, Duncan-Watt et al. v. Rockefeller et al., No. 655538/2016, 2018 BL 138448 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty. Apr. 13, 2018). In Duncan-Watt, the Commercial Division ruled on Defendants’ motion to dismiss by holding that the dispute resolution clause in the parties’ licensing agreement failed to select Australian courts as the exclusive forum in which to litigate any disputes. As a result, the Court concluded that the contractual language at issue only reflected the parties’ consent to jurisdiction in Australia—not that the dispute had to be litigated there.
On August 25, 2017, Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich of the New York Commercial Division entered an order reprimanding a high-profile lawyer, Mark Geragos, for misconduct during a deposition, including refusing to answer questions in violation of the court’s explicit instructions. Gottwald v. Sebert, No. 653118/2014, 2017 BL 303419 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Aug. 25, 2017).
Commercial Division Rules that U.S. Treasury Secretary’s Access to a Company’s Detailed Financial Information in His Role as a Board Member Is Insufficient to Establish Liability for Fraud
Members of a company’s board who are also investors in the company often have access to detailed information about the company’s finances and its lending facilities. But what happens when an investor-board member could, through access to the company’s financial information, potentially determine that funds from a lending facility are not being used for the purpose that the company and its agents had previously represented that they would be used for? Is the investor-board member potentially liable for fraud merely on the basis of his access to or awareness of financial information about the company? Justice Charles E. Ramos’s recent decision in RKA Film Fin., LLC v. Kavanaugh, No. 652592/2015, 2017 BL 222658, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2459, 2017 NY Slip Op 50846(U) (Sup. Ct. June 27, 2017), suggests that the answer may be no. According to the Commercial Division, without personal involvement in the alleged fraud itself or a special duty to disclose to the plaintiff, an investor-board member is likely not liable for fraud to a plaintiff creditor.
In two recent decisions, Justices Charles E. Ramos and Saliann Scarpulla of the New York Commercial Division ruled that term sheets were not binding agreements. Keitel v. E*Trade Fin. Corp., No. 652220/2015, 2017 BL 131532 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Apr. 17, 2017); JTS Trading Ltd. v. Trinity White City Ventures Ltd., No. 651936/2015, 2017 BL 131820 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Apr. 17, 2017). These cases serve as reminders to contracting parties to use unequivocal terms to reflect the creation of binding obligations when memorializing their agreements.
Commercial Division Compels Arbitration of a Contract Claim Based on an Arbitration Clause in a Related Agreement
In Fidilio v. Hoosick Falls Productions, Inc., No. 654066/2016, 2017 BL 107640 (Sup. Ct. Mar. 22, 2017), Justice Eileen Bransten of the New York County Commercial Division granted a motion to compel arbitration of a dispute relating to a short-lived reality TV show, Scrappers. Justice Bransten ruled that the arbitration clause in one agreement between Frank Fidilio, the show's creator, and Hoosick Falls Production, Inc. ("Hoosick"), the production company, required arbitration of Fidilio's claims against Hoosick brought under another agreement which was executed at the same time, by the same parties, governing the same subject matter. Fidilio's remaining claims for breach of contract as a third-party beneficiary, unjust enrichment, and an accounting against Viacom International Inc. and the show's distributor, New 38th Floor Productions, Inc. ("New 38th"), were dismissed for failure to state a claim. Fidilio provides important lessons for parties considering mandatory arbitration clauses in connection with transactions involving multiple agreements, as well as for litigants considering whether claims may be subject to mandatory arbitration under provisions of related agreements.
Rival Talent Managers’ Dispute Over American Idol Winner Phillip Phillips Stays “Home” at the California Labor Commission, Holds Commercial Division in Stay Decision
When the winner of the 11th season of American Idol, Phillip Phillips, sang “I’m going to make this place your home” on his 2012 breakout single, “Home,” he may have been predicting the petition that he would later file with the California Labor Commission (“CLC”). In that petition, Phillips sought to void the talent management agreement that he was required to sign with 19 Entertainment, Inc. – one of the now-bankrupt companies behind production of American Idol – in order to participate as a semifinalist on the show. Following a September 23, 2016 decision by Commercial Division Justice Salinan Scarpulla staying 19 Entertainment’s suit against Phillips’ new talent manager pending resolution of the California proceeding, the CLC may be “home” for 19 Entertainment’s fight over Phillips for the foreseeable future.