Seventh Circuit affirms attorney’s fees and sanctions in copyright infringement action alleging New Line Cinema’s film John Q. copied plaintiff’s screenplay.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s award of attorney’s fees and sanctions in connection with Tillman’s copyright suit against New Line Cinema, Time Warner, and several other defendants in which he alleged that the film John Q. was stolen from his screenplay, Kharisma Heart of Gold, despite evidence that John Q. was written five years before Kharisma Heart of Gold. Tillman filed a pro-se complaint and two months later his newly retained attorney, Brian Nix, filed a 63-page amended complaint asserting nine claims, several of which the court noted were “obviously doomed to fail,” against more than 20 defendants, seeking $420 million in damages.
The district court held that the defendants were entitled to fees under the copyright statute, which were especially appropriate because Tillman showed an “unwillingness to come to grips with the evidence that undermined his claims.” The court also awarded attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 because the civil rights claims were legally frivolous. Additionally, the district court determined that Nix had unreasonably and vexatiously multiplied the proceedings by filing a lengthy complaint with multiple claims that “did not have a prayer of success,” filing a frivolous interlocutory appeal, and conducting a “patently inadequate investigation” to support the conspiracy theory underlying the copyright claims.
Applying the abuse of discretion standard, the court of appeals upheld the district court’s award of sanctions. The court noted that “the district court did not award sanctions on the ground that Nix submitted too many filings, proceeded too slowly, or did not honestly believe the conspiracy theory,” but instead, “that Nix pursued an ‘objectively unreasonable course’ by proceeding with this litigation in the face of evidence showing he had no chance to prevail.” Specifically, Nix took inadequate steps to investigate the inconsistencies underlying his conspiracy theory and failed to make an effort to identify any particular expression in John Q. that is substantially similar to copyright-protected expression in Kharisma Heart of Gold.
The court also held that the sanctions award was not too high, since the award was 80% lower than the amount spent defending the lawsuit because the district court found that Nix’s withdrawal from the case when the defendants presented new evidence of independent creation partly mitigated his prior bad faith.