Friday Links

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We here at Abnormal Use never meant to cause you any sorry and we never meant to cause you any pain. (Those are lyrics we’re paraphrasing, as if you didn’t recognize them!). This past Wednesday, June 25, 2014, was the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain album. So, of course, we had to mention that on the blog this week. Above, you’ll find the cover of Rock N’ Roll Comics #21, published not so long ago in 1991. We encourage you, our dear readers, to revisit this album over the weekend and report back to us on Monday with your thoughts. Being law nerds, we decided to turn to the case law and see how often, if at all, the courts have referenced “Purple Rain.”

Although we harbored some initial doubts about dedicating a post to an album by Prince, in the end, we figured we would throw caution to the wind. So here we go.

If you plug the phrase “Purple Rain” into Westlaw, 17 cases appear in the results. Most of those cases reference night clubs, recreational drugs, or commercial tanning products named “Purple Rain.”

But we thought we’d share the three we found most interesting.

A relatively recent North Carolina federal court case, Controversy Music v. Mason, No. 5:09–CV–488–BR (E.D.N.C. June 24, 2010) involved a copyright action in the default judgement setting). The relevant paragraph:

Plaintiffs are the exclusive copyright owners of the three musical recordings—“Purple Rain”, “Yo, Excuse Me Miss”, and “Please Don’t Go”—specified in this case. Plaintiffs filed their complaint on 10 November 2009, alleging that Defendant infringed upon the specified copyrights by giving unauthorized public performances of their works on both specific occasions and in an ongoing manner at Club International, owned by Defendant. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant’s actions constituted willful violation of their rights, because the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), of which Plaintiffs are members, advised Defendant several times of his potential liability for copyright infringement. By way of the instant motion, Plaintiffs seek statutory damages of $5,000 for each of the three copyright infringements, reasonable costs and attorney’s fees in the amount of $2,650.71, and a permanent injunction against Defendant prohibiting him from publicly performing any of the copyrighted materials in ASCAP’s repertory without authorization.

In CBS Inc. v. Pennsylvania Record Outlet, Inc.,  598 F.Supp. 1549 (W.D. Pa. 1984). The record store defendant was sanctioned for continuing to sell imported Canadian copies of Purple Rain – and other albums – after representing in a consent decree that it would not do so. The opinion has several references to agents of the Plaintiff buying copies of Purple Rain – and albums by Dio and Twister Sister – on various dates in 1984.

Back in 1989, the Amarillo Court of Appeals in Texas issued its opinion in Guss v. State, 763 S.W.2d 609 (Tex. App. – Amarillo, 1989, no writ). In that case, the defendant-appellant, charged with murder, appealed an issue relating to jury destruction. The defendant’s alias was “Purple Rain.” In fact, the full style of the case is Lisa Guss, A/K/A “Purple Rain,” Appellant, v. The State of Texas, Appellee.

So, dear readers, we recommend that you read the aforementioned three cases and find your cassette tape of Purple Rain and enjoy the weekend.

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Kansas Federal Court Rebuffs Overly Broad Social Media Discovery Requests

Here we go again. Just as we’ve discussed before, the courts are limiting overly broad social media discovery requests served by defense counsel. The latest example:  Smith v. Hillshire Brands, No. 13–2605–CM (D. Kan. June 20, 2014). At its essence, Smith is an employment discrimination case in which the pro se Plaintiff alleged violations of both Title VII and FMLA. The specifics of the dispute need not be spelled out in detail as you’ve heard it all before.

Now, there were a number of components to the discovery dispute in this matter, but the social media discovery requests at issue were these:

Request No. 15: All documents constituting or relating in any way to any posting, blog, or other statement you made on or through any social networking website, including but not limited to Facebook .com, MySpace.com, Twitter.com, Orkut.com, that references or mentions in any way Hillshire and/or the matters referenced in your Complaint.

Request No. 18: Electronic copies of your complete profile on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (including all updates, changes, or modifications to your profile) and all status updates, messages, wall comments, causes joined, groups joined, activity streams, blog entries, details, blurbs, and comments for the period from January 1, 2013, to present. To the extent electronic copies are not available, please provide these documents in hard copy form.

How curious to see a reference to Orkut in a social media discovery case! We wonder if the defendants had specific knowledge that the Plaintiff used Orkut or if that social media platform simply appears in all of their discovery requests.

Now, as you might imagine, Request No. 15 is legitimate and narrowly tailored, as it limits itself to social media postings relating to the employer or the events being litigated.

In fact, Plaintiff didn’t object to either of the requests, opting instead to produce – or claim to produce – all relevant documents. The dispute arose, however, when the employer defendant doubted that all documents had been produced.

Yes, the employer took the position that it could discover all of the Plaintiff’s social media activity as a result of his claims in the lawsuit. Skeptical of this argument, the Court noted:

Request No. 18 raises a more complex issue, as it seeks documentation of all of plaintiff’s activity on the named social networks since January 1, 2013, regardless of whether the activity has anything at all to do with this case or the allegations made in plaintiff’s complaint. Defendant asserts that this broad swath of information is relevant for at least two reasons. First, it “provide[s] a contemporary diary of Plaintiff’s activities, thoughts, mental/emotional condition, and actions,” which relate to plaintiff’s claim for damages arising from emotional distress. Second, it may support defendant’s “defense that Plaintiff abused his FMLA leave, which is the true reason for Plaintiff’s termination .” Defendant contends that the protective order governing this case adequately addresses plaintiff’s privacy concerns.

As it currently stands, the record does not support defendant’s extremely broad discovery request for all-inclusive access to plaintiff’s social media accounts. As plaintiff notes, such access could reveal highly personal information—such as plaintiff’s private sexual conduct—that is unlikely to lead to admissible evidence in this case. Information on social networking sites is not entitled to special protection, but a discovery request seeking it nevertheless must meet Fed.R.Civ.P. 26′s requirement that it be tailored “so that it ‘appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.’ “ “Otherwise, the Defendant would be allowed to engage in the proverbial fishing expedition, in the hope that there might be something of relevance in Plaintiff’s [social networking] account[s].” The court agrees with courts that have recognized that a discovery request for unfettered access to social networking accounts—even when temporally limited—would permit the defendant “to cast too wide a net” for relevant information.

As some defendants do, the employer in this case attempted to justify the breadth of the requests by pointing to the emotional distress damages alleged by the Plaintiff. This works, sometimes, and it’s not a bad argument. As social media profiles often showcase our daily lives and the emotions we experience in our lives, what better evidence can there be to support or rebut claims of emotional distress than such things? On this point, the court was cautious:

Based on the limited record before it, the court finds it prudent to follow what appears to be the intermediate approach taken by courts addressing this issue—to allow defendant to discover not the contents of plaintiff’s entire social networking activity, but any content that reveals plaintiff’s emotions or mental state, or content that refers to events that could reasonably be expected to produce in plaintiff a significant emotion or mental state. The court concludes that this approach will permit defendant to discover information relevant to plaintiff’s emotional state, which he has put at issue, while protecting plaintiff from a fishing expedition into every thought he reduced to writing on the internet since January 1, 2013.

But it was one remark by the court that caught our eye and forced us to recognize once again the potential perils of overly broad discovery requests. Behold, the court’s suggestion that such things could be turned around on defendants:

Indeed, if the court were to accept defendant’s position on the scope of relevant discovery, defendant would likely be unhappy with the ramifications. For example, every Facebook post of every Hillshire manager and supervisor involved in the decision to terminate plaintiff could be deemed relevant because it might show discriminatory pretext.

No one wants that. Let’s be careful out there, okay?

Synthetic Marijuana Gets Tangible Victory in California

Last week, an Oakland County, California jury ruled in favor of the defendants in a wrongful death case involving synthetic marijuana. The Estate of John Anthony Sdao filed suit against Yassmine Wholesalers, the distributor of the substance, and a local gas station after Sdao, 20, committed suicide after smoking K2, a brand of synthetic marijuana. The sale of synthetic marijuana was legal at the time of the event, but it has now been banned by California law. The plaintiff presented evidence at trial of numerous other suicides which allegedly occurred as a result of using the substance. Apparently, the jury didn’t buy it under the facts of this case.

We here at Abnormal Use have not seen the verdict form nor are we aware of the full scope of evidence presented at trial. Lee Ann Rutila, who represented Yassmine, had this to say about the result:

We were pleased with the result, and I guess we’re not surprised. . . . They were basically unable to say that the suicide really wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It could have happened with or without the K2. They couldn’t put that as being the contributing factor.

Dean Kallas, who represented the gas station that was accused of selling the product to Sdao, added:

It always appeared that the suicide was unrelated to the product, and that’s been our defense all along, and that’s why I believe the jury came to the conclusions they came to.

The plaintiff apparently plans to appeal the verdict. However, the reports are not clear as to the grounds of any such appeal.

The case of synthetic marijuana is an interesting one. In the shadow of Four Loko, it is difficult to gauge how a jury may handle a product which, while legal at the time of the injury, has been banned by the time of trial. In this case, the personal accountability of the decedent apparently also played a role in the jury’s decision. Proving that it was the product, and not the decedent’s own tendencies, that caused the suicide is a difficult burden to bear.

Despite the result in this trial, we expect to see more of these synthetic marijuana cases in the future. We will be sure to keep you posted.

The Wood-Shelving, Aged Cheese Incident

Beaufort. Comté. Reblochon. Abondance. Vacherin Mont d’Or. Salers. Dry Monterrey Jack. Parmigiano Reggiano. Do you know what these names have in common? For those who are not hip to the niche, artisan cheese market, each of them is a type of cheese which is made by, among other things, being aged on a wood-board.  Now, can you imagine salads, sandwiches, grits, crackers, pasta, or wine without these tasty concoctions? While those names are a mouthful in more ways than pronunciation alone, personally, the thought of a world without easy access to Parmigiano Reggiano would not be a place of which I would want to be a part.  However, per a January communication from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that contemplation could become a reality. Based on a response to a question from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the FDA appeared to sound the death knell for wood-board aged cheese crafted in or imported into the United States.  Specifically, the FDA stated that “[t]he porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.”  This position was based upon an interpretation of 21 C.F.R. 110.40(a), a regulation about food equipment and utensils which states:

(a) All plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and . . . shall preclude the adulteration of food with . . . any other contaminants. . . . Food-contact surfaces shall be maintained to protect food from being contaminated by any source. . . .

Like wheels of cheese aging for months on wood racks, the news of the FDA’s take on wood-board aging spread slowly to the cheese community, but like the pungent aroma of Beaufort, once it did, artisan cheese craftsmen found themselves with worse heartburn than at a habanero cheddar tasting.  However, in an effort to stave off the effects of enforcement by the FDA, the craftsmen’s advocate, the American Cheese Society, released a position statement wherein it stated that wood-board aged cheese meets food safety standards and that the FDA should give proper notification, hold a proper comment period, review scientific data, and include consideration of industry stakeholders before modifying its interpretation or implementation of its regulations. In a quick response, the FDA clarified its interpretation of its official policy to New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. This “clarification” declared the FDA did not intend the communication to be “an official policy statement,” but instead as “background information on the use of wooden shelving for aging cheeses and as an analysis of related scientific publications.”  However, the FDA did not back away completely from the idea of ending the use of wood shelving.  Instead, it noted it has pursued enforcement actions when it found the presence of Listeria monocytogenes at facilities that used wood shelving.  The FDA claims that since 2010, more than 20 percent of inspections of artisanal cheesemakers have revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes. Currently, no FDA enforcement actions directly allege that wood shelving caused contamination, yet it appears the FDA has left that option open. Should the FDA be able to make a case that wood shelving is the direct cause of a harmful contamination, it can still take administrative or judicial action to enforce its regulations.  Administrative actions include product recalls, withdrawals of product approvals, or license revocations. Judicial actions include seizures of violative products, injunctions, criminal prosecutions, and certain civil money penalties.  It is unclear how the FDA would go about enforcement against the artisanal cheese community; however, generally, the FDA looks to administrative remedies first. Therefore, although the FDA has ended the initial uprising over this issue, artisan cheesemakers will need to remain aware of the FDA’s next moves.  Hopefully, the FDA will give the cheesemakers an opportunity to present their generations-old argument that wood shelving, as a porous surface, absorbs excess humidity and prevents unwanted mold as well as adds to the flavor while still remaining healthy. The future of parmesan depends on it.

GM Recall Devalues All GM Vehicles, California Class Action Alleges

When it rains, it pours for GM.  Of course, if you’re a reader of a products liability blog, then you’re certainly already familiar with the myriad difficulties facing GM in various courts across the country these days. A recent class action suit filed in California alleges that GM’s actions in handling the alleged ignition switch defect have resulted in a devaluation of all GM cars, which will cost GM customers when it comes time to resell their vehicles.  Surely you saw this one coming, right? The named plaintiff in the suit is Anna Andrews, and the firm that filed the suit on her behalf is Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, LLP.

The lawsuit purports to seek at least $10 billion, which is apparently over twice GM’s net earnings for 2013.  It will be interesting to see how this suit plays out.  We at Abnormal Use see this as a slippery slope in that it could lead to a class action suit by owners of a product any time a brand receives negative publicity, finds itself subject to a recall, or otherwise makes headlines relating to a defect. Only time will tell.

(Hat Tip: Law360).

Friday Links

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“Chaos in the Court!” proclaims the cover of Marvel Team-Up #51, published way, way back in 1976. In that issue, Spider-Man and Iron Man join forces to defeat a villain in a courtroom. Look closely in the top right hand corner and you’ll see the judge at his bench desperately attempting to dodge the bad guy. We can only assume that the people depicted fleeing at the bottom of the cover are lawyers or other courtroom personnel. We may need to investigate how this one turned out, but we suspect superhero battles violate the court’s local rules. If you’re curious, you can find a summary of this issue here.

You need to read about this odd lawsuit involving Eddie Murphy.

An interesting – but likely doomed – argument: “Attorneys for two people convicted in a federal mortgage fraud case are asking for a new trial, in part because they say their clients’ rights were violated when prospective jurors who did not meet the dress code at the federal courthouse in Orlando were turned away by security.” For more, please see this news article by Lyda Longa of The Daytona Beach News-Journal.

If you’re feeling some nostalgia for New Coke, you might be in luck. Click here for a trip down memory lane. (Or, if you’re a young associate, and you’ve never heard of New Coke, click that link, as well.).

Don’t forget! We here at Abnormal Use are at the North Carolina Bar Association Annual Meeting in Wilmington, North Carolina today! If you see us, say hi!

Mississippi Takes On Experian

As victims of identity theft can tell you, credit agencies can be difficult.  The State of Mississippi feels your pain and believes that it is time to put the system on trial – starting with Experian.  Last month, Mississippi filed a lawsuit against Experian alleging that it is violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by failing to maintain proper procedures to verify the accuracy of credit information and correct mistakes.

The suit was initially filed by the Mississippi Attorney General in state court, but it has since been removed to federal court.  The lawsuit accuses Experian of knowingly including flawed and inaccurate data in the credit reports of millions of consumers.  However, as we all know, just running a shoddy business is not illegal.  The legal problems come into play because Experian is allegedly offering no straightforward way for users to correct the flawed or inaccurate data in its reports.  If these allegations are true, that would be a violation of the FCRA.

Experian is the largest credit reporting agency and has annual revenues of nearly $5 billion.  According to the Associated Press, Experian has informed investors that although it tries to comply with the law, ”[w]e might fail to comply with international, federal, regional, provincial, state or other jurisdictional regulations, due to their complexity, frequent changes or inconsistent application and interpretation.”

Abnormal Use At The North Carolina Bar Association Annual Meeting

Well, the North Carolina Bar Association Annual Meeting begins this week in Wilmington, North Carolina. Big news: We here at Abnormal Use and Gallivan, White, & Boyd, P.A. will be there in person, and we look forward to seeing you there. You can see the full agenda for the meeting here. What better place for a North Carolina law blog to be? Our editor, Jim Dedman, will be attending, so if you see him, be certain to say hello! He’ll be tweeting from both his personal Twitter account (@JimDedman) and our firm’s Twitter account (@GWBLawFirm) using the meeting’s official hashtag, #NCBAAM14.

Park City Ski Resort Battle Rages On

Last year, we here at Abnormal Use reported on the legal battle between ski resort operators in Park City, Utah.  It all started when Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) inadvertently failed to renew a 50 year lease for the land upon which its resort is located.  Unfortunately for PMCR, that land is owned by Talisker, a competitor who has since leased the land to Vail Resorts.  Tailsker and Vail recently scored what could prove to be a knockout blow against PMCR.

In May, a Utah court ruled that PMCR officials had indeed failed to renew their sweetheart lease for a majority of their ski terrain.  Apparently, the court was not too impressed with PMCR’s “honest mistake” defense as a justification for being a few days late in renewing the fateful lease agreement.  As result of PMCR’s failure to properly renew, the court held that Talisker had the right to lease the upper mountain to a new operator – which is exactly what it did in refusing to lease the land to PMCR and instead leasing it to Vail.  Of course, PMCR has publicly stated that it will appeal the ruling. We’ll see what happens there.

Regardless of the ultimate results of the proceeding, the real losers may be the residents of Park City and the multitudes of skiers who enjoy the mountain each year.  Even if Talisker and Vail prevail, it won’t be enough to ensure the mountain stays open.  Although Talisker owns the majority of the land at issue, PMCR actually owns the property at the base of the mountain, and without that land, it will be virtually impossible for Vail to run a resort there.  The CEO of PMCR’s parent company has repeatedly stated that the land at the base of the mountain is not for sale.

TinctureBelle Responds To Pot-Candy Trademark Suit

Last week, we wrote about a new trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Hershey against marijuana-candy manufacturer TinctureBelle. The gist of the Hershey’s lawsuit is that TinctureBelle allegedly ripped-off the branding of Hershey candy in marketing the pot candy. Now, TinctureBelle President Char Mayes has responded to the lawsuit with the following statement:

The lawsuit from Hershey came as a huge surprise to us because we changed our entire label line approximately 6 months ago, long before these allegations surfaced last week. Our new packaging looks nothing like Hershey’s or anyone else’s. . . . The suggestion made by some media reports that our products are available to children, and even sold side-by-side with Hershey products, is dumbfounding, and shows a profound lack of awareness of how infused cannabis products are regulated, manufactured, and sold under Colorado’s strict regulatory regime.

Mayes provided the Washington Post with the following photos as evidence of the change:

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We here at Abnormal Use must admit that we much prefer the original Hersheyesque packaging to the TinctureBelle revisions. Of course, opinions similar to these are probably what inspired the suit in the first place. If the packaging was, in fact, changed six months ago, however, what is Hershey really seeking to accomplish? A share of TinctureBelle’s pre-alteration proceeds? Seeing as all marijuana has only been legal in Colorado for six months and, thus, the only pre-alteration proceeds would have been from the medicinal sale of the candy, we doubt Hershey will have a lucrative end game.

This lawsuit has all the makings of a Bucky Balls-type fight. We will be sure to keep you posted as events transpire.