Jenner & Block

Partner Susan Kohlmann Named American Lawyer “Litigator of the Week”

Partner Susan J. Kohlmann, managing partner of the firm’s New York office and co-chair of the Trademark, Advertising, and Unfair Competition Practice, was recognized by The American Lawyer's “Litigator of the Week.”  The honor recognizes her role in leading the team that secured a $13.15 million jury verdict after a week-long trial over the rights to writer John Steinbeck’s works.

In its profile of Ms. Kohlmann, The American Lawyer notes that the victory “closes a critical chapter and brings moviegoers closer to seeing Steinbeck’s literature come to life on screen.”

The win was a complete victory for Ms. Kohlmann’s client, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, who is Steinbeck’s stepdaughter and executor to the Estate of Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s late third wife.  The estate has been embroiled in a series of bitter legal battles with other Steinbeck heirs over control of the rights to the author’s works dating back to a 1983 settlement agreement in which the heirs agreed to grant Elaine Steinbeck control over the works in exchange for increased royalties.  In 2008 and 2009, Jenner & Block successfully represented the Estate in a landmark case involving Thom’s attempt to exercise termination rights under the Copyright Act.

In 2014, Ms. Kaffaga sued Thom and Gail Steinbeck, John’s son and daughter-in-law, as well as their company Palladin, for wrongly claiming control over the copyrights harming the catalogue as a whole,  and, in particular, interfering with movie deals for East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.  By claiming to control the rights, defendants caused Universal and Imagine Entertainment to walk away from a movie deal for East of Eden involving Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence and interfered with negotiations with DreamWorks for a movie deal involving The Grapes of Wrath, depriving the estate of millions of dollars in potential revenue.

In November 2016, US District Court Judge Terry Hatter granted Ms. Kaffaga’s motion for summary judgment on claims for breach of contract and slander of title, leaving the jury to decide potential damages for those claims and whether Thom (now deceased), Gail and their company wrongfully interfered with the film projects.  Ms. Kohlmann and the Jenner & Block team argued that motion.

Ms. Kaffaga, who is now 82, “has tried really hard to live up to the responsibility to bring the works of John Steinbeck to life in movies and TV and has been stymied all along the way,” Ms. Kohlmann said in The American Lawyer profile. She added: “I think with all the wins we’ve had in the Second Circuit, and with this case, and with a resounding jury verdict, you would hope it would be time to stop.”

The team included Partners Andrew J. Thomas and Alison I. Stein and Associates Brittany R. Lamb, Gretchen O. Stertz and Andrew G. Sullivan.  Law clerk Jonathan Diaz, paralegals Jeffrey Phillips and Alonso Ponce, legal secretary Laura Saltzman and legal assistant Kathryn Schaub also contributed to the matter.

In addition to earning The American Lawyer accolade, the firm earned a spot as a “lion” on Law360’s “weekly “Legal Lions & Lambs” report.

To learn more about the case, please click here.