Jenner & Block

Firm Wins Another Victory for John Steinbeck Estate

Just two months after winning a $13.15 million verdict in a case regarding the rights to the works of acclaimed novelist John Steinbeck, Jenner & Block won another victory for the estate.  The firm’s clients were Waverly Scott Kaffaga, who is Steinbeck’s stepdaughter and executor to the Estate of Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s late third wife, as well as the estate’s beneficiaries.

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.

At issue in this latest matter are claims filed by Steinbeck’s biological son and granddaughter, Thomas, and Blake Smyle; both are descendants of the author’s second wife.  They had sued Ms. Kaffaga and the estate’s beneficiaries, among others, for declaratory relief, contributory copyright infringement, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of contract.

In 2015, US District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. dismissed the claims, writing that the “plaintiffs have litigated these claims ad nauseum.”

On November 16, 2017, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

“As the district court correctly noted, the parties have already litigated the precise issues raised in this suit ‘ad nauseum’ in the Second Circuit,” wrote the Ninth Circuit’s three-judge panel.  “The Second Circuit squarely held that a 1983 Settlement Agreement is ‘unambiguous and forecloses any argument that the parties intended the [Sons] to retain control over’ the ‘exploitation and/or termination of rights in the works of John Steinbeck.’”

Partner Susan J. Kohlmann led the team representing Ms. Kaffaga.  Other members of the team included Partners Steven R. Englund, Alison I. Stein and Andrew J. Thomas; Associates Jonathan Diaz, Jason P. Hipp, Brittany R. Lamb, Ava U. McAlpin, Jacob L. Tracer and Gretchen O. Stertz; and former associates Carrie DeCell and Lisa Kohn.  New York Office Managing Clerk Na’eem Conway, Legal Secretary Laura Saltzman in Los Angeles and Senior Paralegal Cheryl Olson in DC provided support.

To learn about the September, 2017, victory, please click here.