Jenner & Block

Kohlmann Secures Federal Court Victory for Steinbeck's Heirs

Jenner & Block Partner Susan J. Kohlmann and Associate Joshua A. Block recently secured an important victory for the Estate of novelist John Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine Steinbeck, when the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed all remaining claims in a longstanding dispute between Ms. Steinbeck and the author’s biological heirs.  The ruling potentially puts to rest the decades-long legal battle over the rights to many of John Steinbeck’s best-known early works, including Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Tortilla Flat.

When John Steinbeck died in 1968, he bequeathed no copyright or trademark rights to his biological sons, John IV and Thomas, and instead passed all of his intellectual property rights to his widow through the residual clause of his will.  The author’s surviving son, Thomas, and his granddaughter, Blake Smyle, initiated this litigation after Ms. Steinbeck’s death in 2003, claiming that the Estate of Ms. Steinbeck and several other beneficiaries had breached their fiduciary duties purportedly owed to plaintiffs, engaged in tortious conduct and committed fraud.

On March 31, 2009, the court dismissed the case in its entirety.  “There are no material issues of fact in dispute, and in opposition to defendants’ motion, plaintiffs’ have failed to raise any triable issues for trial,” said the ruling. “Defendants have also shown that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” 

The ruling comes on the heels of an August 2008 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that unanimously held that a 1994 copyright agreement between Ms. Steinbeck and the author’s longtime publisher, Penguin Group, could not be terminated.  Thomas Steinbeck and Ms. Smyle are currently seeking an appeal of that decision before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Estate of Elaine Steinbeck and its heirs are delighted with the court's ruling,” said Ms. Kohlmann. “The court's ruling is another significant validation of the wishes of John Steinbeck related to ownership of his literary works.”