Sunday, September 8, 2013

Plaintiff, Remove Yourself

Benitez v. Williams, No. B424512 (D2d3 Aug. 30, 2013)

The court of appeal held that a superior court cannot dismiss state-law claims for lack of jurisdiction, even though they are joined with a cause of action subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction.

Benitez filed and amended his complaint to bring six claims, five under California law, and one (ostensibly) for federal copyright infringement. Because copyright infringement is subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. § 1338, the trial court ordered Benitez to remove his case to federal court. Of course, a plaintiff isn’t allowed to remove. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441(a), 1446. When Benitez tried to explain that to the trial court, it issued an OSC re dismissal. The case was dismissed without prejudice to refilling in federal court. Benitez then tried to set aside the dismissal and was rebuffed by the superior court. He appealed.

On appeal, the court held that the order dismissing the copyright infringement claim was not prejudicial because the state court had no jurisdiction. But as to the state law claims, the trial court had no power to sua sponte dismiss, given that, as a court of general jurisdiction, it clearly had subject matter jurisdiction over these claims. Although Benitez could have brought them in federal court
under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) based upon jurisdiction supplemental to the federal-question copyright claim, that jurisdiction was not exclusive. And although that issue might implicate dual track litigation if Benitez proceeded on the copyright claim in federal court and the California law claims in state court, that, at best, might merit a discretionary stay on comity and economy grounds, not a jurisdictional dismissal. But since there was no federal case pending, that wasn’t really an issue.


Interestingly, Benitez's “copyright infringement” claim was probably not really a federal claim at all. His theory seems to be that he was deprived of royalties earned from the exploitation of a copyright to which he was entitled to under some kind of a contract or partnership agreement between himself and the defendant. But as was cogently explained by Judge Morrow—in a case in which I have some passing familiarity—that is not actually a claim for copyright infringement subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of 28 U.S.C. § 1338; it arises instead from the plaintiff’s “state law rights as a co-owner.” Don Johnson Prods., Inc. v. Rysher Entm’t, Inc., 2009 WL 1615982 (C.D. Cal. June 9, 2009) (remanding claims alleging failure to share profits earned from exploiting a copyright whose joint ownership was created by a contract because there was no substantial federal question); see also Oddo v. Ries, 743 F.2d 630, 633 (9th Cir. 1984).

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