Jenner & Block

Ninth Circuit Upholds Firm’s Trial Victory in Dispute over John Steinbeck Copyrights

A Jenner & Block team obtained a victory in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a lawsuit over the rights to writer John Steinbeck’s iconic works.

The ruling comes two years after the team won a complete victory at trial for 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 an attempt by Thom Steinbeck, the writer’s son, to exercise termination rights under the Copyright Act.

In 2014, Ms. Kaffaga sued Thom and his wife, Gail Steinbeck, as well as their company Palladin, for wrongly claiming control over the copyrights harming the author’s 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, the 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 August and September 2017, a federal jury heard arguments over potential damages for breach of contract and slander of title claims, as well as whether Thom (now deceased), Gail and their company wrongfully interfered with the East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath projects.

Following the trial, the seven-member jury took about two hours to reach its decision in siding with Ms. Kaffaga on all claims, awarding her $5.25 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages against Palladin.

The appellate court upheld the jury’s compensatory damages award and punitive damages against the company. The opinion also stated emphatically that “defendants must now stop attempting to relitigate the validity and enforceability of the 1983 Agreement” and that the defendants “must also stop representing to the marketplace that they have any intellectual property rights or control over John Steinbeck’s works.” The Ninth Circuit also noted that “the district court may wish to reconsider Kaffaga’s request for an injunction.”

“This has to end,” the judges added in the opinion. “We cannot say it any clearer.”

Partner Susan J. Kohlmann argued in front of the Ninth Circuit and led the team representing Ms. Kaffaga, along with Partners Andrew J. Thomas and Alison I. Stein.  The team also included Associates Brittany R. Lamb and Ethan C. Wong.