Thursday, May 26, 2016

Easy Cases ...

Ryder v. Lightstorm Entm’t, No. B254922 (D2d8 Apr. 22, 2016)

This is mostly a case about the merits (or the lack thereof) of a Desny claim alleging that James Cameron stole the idea for Avatar from Plaintiff's idea for a film called KRZ. According to the court, he didn’t. But I don't blog on idea submissions cases, although I've done some in my time. There is, however, a single paragraph that deals with an interesting evidentiary issue.

Apparently, Cameron’s key evidence was a “scriptment”—a kind of pre-script treatment—containing the essential ideas for Avatar, which predated Plaintiff’s coming up with most of the KRZ ideas he says were stolen. (N.B., for the non-Desny audience, that basically kills the claim.) But when Plaintiff pitched Cameron’s people with his idea and explained it was “unique,” the Cameron people never told him that the scriptment existed. Citing Evidence Code § 623,* plaintiff contends that should estopped Cameron from relying on the scriptment to show he didn’t use the idea.

That’s not really a serious argument, and the Court of Appeal quite correctly holds that equitable estoppel can’t apply. Citing cases that say estoppel “acts defensively only” and can be used only to preclude a party from “recovering something,” the court holds that plaintiff can’t use estoppel offensively as a sword to bar Cameron from using the scriptment as part of his nonuse defense. See Green v. Travelers Indem. Co., 185 Cal. App. 3d 544, 555 (1986); Peskin v. Phinney, 182 Cal. App. 2d 632, 636 (1960). That statement seems a little overbroad to me. There are cases that, for instance, have estopped defendants from denying the existence or enforceability of a contract when a defendant has obtained benefits under it. See, e.g., Lemat Corp. v. Am. Basketball Assn., 51 Cal. App. 3d 267, 276 (1975). That would seem to be an “offensive” use purportedly barred under the framework asserted here.

But the result is obviously right. Indeed, along the same lines, given that Cameron had no apparent duty to tell plaintiff about the scriptment, the court could have relied on the rule that “[m]ere silence will not create an estoppel unless a party was under a duty to speak and circumstances required him to speak”. Sanchez v. Superior Court, 203 Cal. App. 3d 1391, 1400 (1988).

Affirmed.

The part of this rather brief discussion I find really interesting is the citation to Evidence Code § 623. As other cases have purported to explain, “[t]he doctrine of estoppel has been codified in Evidence Code section 623.” Leasequip, Inc. v. Dapeer, 103 Cal. App. 4th 394, 404 (2002) (quotes omitted). Although I have written a bunch on estoppel issuesincluding in the most-read post in the history of this blogI must admit that I wasn’t familiar with § 623.

It says:

Whenever a party has, by his own statement or conduct, intentionally and deliberately led another to believe a particular thing true and to act upon such belief, he is not, in any litigation arising out of such statement or conduct, permitted to contradict it.
Interestingly, § 623 is codified in part of the Code setting forth “conclusive presumptions.” Evid. Code § 620. For conclusive presumptions, “[t]he court or jury is required to find the existence of the presumed fact regardless of the strength of the opposing evidence.” See Evid. Code § 601, Law Rev. Cmte. Notes. These conclusive presumptions effectively modify substantive law—they substitute proof of the foundational fact for the “concluded” one, rendering any effort to prove or disprove the conclusion itself irrelevant. See People v. McCall, 32 Cal. 4th 175, 185 (2004). 

So, if the Code were taken at its word, satisfying the factual predicates of § 623 should automatically preclude the estopped party from proving facts otherwise. Of course, there are a whole lot of published equitable estoppel cases that graft additional elements or equitable considerations onto the textual requirements of § 623. I can’t find a single one of them that explains why that’s ok.

Such is life.

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