PRUNTY v. VIVENDI et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION re: 10 Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint by Defendants Jenner & Block, LLP, Warner Music Group Corp., and Atlantic Recording Corp.; 19 Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint by Vivendi SA, UMG Recordings, Inc., and The Island Def Jam Music Group; and 9 Plaintiff's Formal Motion Made Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 60(b)(4)&(6). Signed by Judge Amit P. Mehta on 09/17/2015. (lcapm2)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Robert R. Prunty,
Vivendi, et al.,
Civil No. 1:14-cv-02073(APM)
Pro se Plaintiff Robert Prunty brought this action against Defendants Vivendi SA;
UMG Recordings, Inc.; Atlantic Recording Corp.; The Island Def Jam Music Group; Warner
Music Group Corp.; and the law firm of Jenner & Block, LLP.1 Am. Compl., ECF No. 6.
Plaintiff’s Complaint raises two sets of claims, which are the subject of Defendants’ Motions to
Dismiss.2 ECF Nos. 10, 19.
Plaintiff’s first set of claims arise from an adverse judgment entered against him in Prunté
v. Universal Music Grp., 699 F. Supp. 2d 15 (D.D.C. 2010), aff’d, 425 Fed. App. 1 (D.C. Cir.
2011). Prunté was a copyright infringement action before United States District Court Judge Paul
Friedman, in which Plaintiff claimed that Universal Music Group, Inc., and a host of others
It is not clear whether Plaintiff is actually asserting claims against Jenner & Block, LLP, lawyer, Michael DeSanctis.
Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint lists DeSanctis as a “party,” but states that DeSanctis “is not being sued in any capacity
except a vicarious one.” Am. Compl., ECF No. 6, at ¶ 9. The court reads that allegation to mean that Plaintiff seeks
to hold Jenner & Block, LLP, vicariously liable for DeSanctis’ alleged acts. Furthermore, Plaintiff’s Amended
Complaint also names as a “party” United States District Court Judge Paul Friedman, but states that he “is not being
sued in any capacity.” Id. ¶ 10. The court therefore does not consider Judge Friedman a named defendant in this
Defendants Jenner & Block, LLP, Warner Music Group Corp., and Atlantic Recording Corp., jointly filed their
Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 10, as did Defendants Vivendi SA, UMG Recordings, Inc., and The Island Def Jam
Music Group, Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 19.
infringed upon his copyrights in various songs he wrote and produced. Judge Friedman concluded
that Plaintiff had failed to establish copyright infringement as to any of his songs. Id. at 25-30.
In this case, Plaintiff brings four claims based on alleged acts that occurred in Prunté. In
Counts Four and Five, he alleges that Judge Friedman’s decision was the product of racial animus
and thus deprived him of property and equal protection of the law in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§
1982 (Count Four) and 1985 (Count Five).3 Additionally, in Counts Three and Six, he contends
that Judge Friedman and Defendants in this case conspired to hide from him Judge Friedman’s
alleged financial interest in Defendants Vivendi SA and UMG Recordings, Inc. As to those
allegations, Plaintiff advances common law “claims” of “Intentional Fraud Upon the Court”
(Count Three) and “Fraudulent Concealment and Omissions” (Count Six).
Distinct from the claims arising from Prunté, Plaintiff asserts a claim under the
Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq. (Count Two), alleging that Defendants (other than Jenner
& Block) infringed his copyright in the song “Keys to the Kingdom,” for which he is the “original
creator and performer.”
Plaintiff avers that Defendants, without authorization, reproduced
“Keys to the Kingdom” as the song “Kingdom,” performed by the hip-hop artist Common.
The court grants Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss.
Section 1982 and 1985 claims. Plaintiff’s Section 1982 and 1985 claims are premised on
the allegation that Judge Friedman called a “bogus ‘status conference’” to determine Plaintiff’s
race, and thereafter, denied Plaintiff’s copyright claims because of his race. Am. Compl. ¶ 16.
Jenner & Block lawyer, Michael DeSanctis, who represented the defendants in Prunté, allegedly
“pretended to be a legal combatant” for that hearing. Id.
Plaintiff concedes that his Count One—“13th Amendment Violations”—is not a free-standing claim. See Pl.’s
Opp’n, ECF No. 22, at 11 (stating that “every law school child knows that” there is no private right of action under
the Thirteenth Amendment).
As a threshold matter, the court finds that the allegations underlying Plaintiff’s Section
1982 and 1985 claims are not merely “unlikely,” but are so “fanciful” and “fantastic” as to warrant
dismissal. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32-33 (1992) (internal quotation marks omitted).
A court may dismiss a claim as “factually frivolous” when “the facts alleged rise to the level of
the irrational or the wholly incredible, whether or not there are judicially noticeable facts available
to contradict them.” Id. at 33. Plaintiff’s naked assertions of racially motivated judicial decisionmaking qualify as factually frivolous.
Even if the court were to credit Plaintiff’s allegations, he has failed to allege that
Defendants deprived him of property or equal protection under the law based on his race. Instead,
the sole alleged factual predicate for those claims is that Defendants—really, only Jenner &
Block—are alleged to have “acquiesce[ed]” in the court’s alleged violations. Am. Compl. ¶ 44.
That is not enough to allege a deprivation of civil rights under Sections 1982 or 1985.
Further, Plaintiff’s Section 1982 and 1985 claims are barred by the statute of limitations.
The District of Columbia’s catch-all three-year limitations period applies to these claims. See Hall
v. Clinton, 285 F.3d 74, 82 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (applying three-year period to Section 1985 claim);
Hargraves v. Capital City Mortg. Corp., 140 F. Supp. 2d 7, 17 (D.D.C. 2000) (applying three-year
period to Section 1982 claim). At the latest, Plaintiff’s claims began to accrue when Judge
Friedman entered judgment against him. See Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 388 (2007) (stating
that the accrual date of a Section 1983 claim is a matter of federal law; under federal law, a claim
begins to accrue when “the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action”) (citation omitted)
(internal quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff contends that the limitations period was equitably
tolled because of “Extrinsic Fraud [that] occurred in or about October of 2014”—the date on which
he learned about Judge Friedman’s alleged financial interests in Defendants Vivendi SA and UMG
Recordings, Inc. Pl.’s Opp’n, ECF No. 22, at 12. But the supposedly “extrinsic fraud” relates to
Judge Friedman’s alleged undisclosed financial interests, which has nothing to do with Plaintiff’s
civil rights claims and thus could not toll the limitations period on those claims. Am. Compl. ¶
16. Accordingly, the court dismisses Plaintiff’s Section 1982 and 1985 claims.
Intentional Fraud upon the Court and Fraudulent Concealment. As discussed, the basis
for Plaintiff’s “Intentional Fraud upon the Court” and “Fraudulent Concealment” claims is an
alleged conspiracy between Judge Friedman and Defendants to keep hidden from Plaintiff the
Judge’s purported financial interest in Defendants Vivendi SA and UMG Recordings, Inc.
Specifically, Plaintiff contends that Judge Friedman was a “high-powered . . . business partner”
and “deeply entrenched partner” of those companies. Id. at ¶¶ 52-53. The court finds these
allegations—particularly the allegation that Judge Friedman and Defendants conspired to disguise
his alleged financial interests—“fanciful” and “fantastic,” thus warranting dismissal of Counts
Three and Six. See Denton, 504 U.S. at 32-33.
But even if the court were to give credence to Plaintiff’s allegations, dismissal would be
proper because there is no cause of action for “fraud on the court.” See Interstate Fire & Cas. Co.,
Inc. v. 1218 Wisconsin, Inc., 136 F.3d 830, 836 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (rejecting tort claim for “fraud on
the court” because “[a]though the act complained of is styled a ‘fraud,’ the remedy lies within the
court’s equitable discretion”) (citation omitted). Nor is there a cause of action for “fraudulent
concealment.” See Cannon v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 988 F. Supp. 2d 29, 31 (D.D.C. 2013)
(striking claims in complaint “because they set forth independent causes of action for fraudulent
concealment that are not cognizable at law”).
And, even if the court were to read Plaintiff’s Complaint to allege common law fraud, his
allegations would fail to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b)’s requirement that “a party
must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake.” Fed. R. Civ P. 9(b).
Here, the crux of Plaintiff’s claim is that Judge Friedman conspired with Defendants to conceal
his financial interests from Plaintiff. But Plaintiff fails to make any plausible assertion that Judge
Friedman had any financial interests in the Defendant companies. Plaintiff lists what appear to be
11 mutual funds in which Judge Friedman allegedly had an interest, as of October 2014.
Am. Compl. ¶¶ 10, 37, 56. However, nowhere does Plaintiff aver that any of these funds held
individual stock of Defendants Vivendi SA, UMG Recordings, Inc., or any other of the defendant
companies. Even if the funds held such equities, Plaintiff does not allege that Judge Friedman
held them at the time that Prunté was being litigated.4 And, most importantly, Plaintiff does not
allege facts from which this court might infer that Defendants knew of Judge Friedman’s supposed
financial interests or that Defendants conspired to conceal those interests. Plaintiff’s allegations
are entirely conclusory. His fraud claims therefore must be dismissed.
Copyright Infringement. Plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim must also be dismissed
as it fails to state a cognizable claim. Plaintiff has attached to his Amended Complaint the lyrics
of both the alleged infringed song, “The Keys to the Kingdom,” and the alleged infringing song,
“Kingdom.” Compl., ECF No. 1, Exs. A and B; see also Busby v. Capital One, N.A., 932 F. Supp.
2d 114, 133-34 (D.D.C. 2013) (stating that the court may consider exhibits attached to the
complaint in evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion). The court has reviewed the lyrics of both songs
and concludes that, other than the word “Kingdom” appearing in both songs’ titles and the phrase
“keys to the kingdom” appearing in both songs’ lyrics, they bear little resemblance to one another
Plaintiff also ignores the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which provides that a federal judge’s ownership
of a mutual fund that happens to own stock in a party appearing before the court does not constitute a “financial
interest” in a party that otherwise would require the court’s disqualification. See Code of Conduct for United States
Judges, Canon 3(C)(1)(c) (requiring disqualification if the court has a “financial interest in the subject matter in
controversy or in a party to the proceeding”); Canon 3(C)(3)(c)(i) (defining “financial interest” to exclude “ownership
in a mutual or common investment fund . . . unless the judge participates in the management of the fund”).
and thus are not “substantially similar.” See Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 281 F.3d 1287,
1295-96 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (stating that a successful copyright infringement claim requires
“substantial similarity” such that “the accused work is so similar to the plaintiff’s work that an
ordinary reasonable person would conclude that the defendant unlawfully appropriated the
plaintiff’s protectible expression by taking material of substance and value”) (citation omitted)
(internal quotation marks omitted). Of course, neither the song title “The Keys to the Kingdom”
nor the phrase “keys to the kingdom” is copyrightable material. See 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(a) (“Words
and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans” are not subject to copyright.”); Prunté, 699
F. Supp. 2d at 25 (“Of course, titles are not protectible, and neither are short, common phrases[.]”).
Relying on Dawson v. Hinshaw, 905 F.2d 731 (4th Cir. 1990), Plaintiff argues that, because
the songs at issue “are directed towards the imaginations and sentiments of ‘young people,’” the
“ordinary person” test for evaluating “substantial similarity” is inappropriate. Pl.’s Opp’n,
ECF No. 26, at 10. In so arguing, Plaintiff seems to suggest that expert testimony is required to
evaluate whether the infringing song is substantially similar to his own, and therefore, dismissal at
this stage would be inappropriate. In Dawson, the Fourth Circuit held that “obedience to the
undisputed principles of copyright law and the policy underlying the ordinary observer test . . .
require[s] orientation of the ordinary observer test to the works’ intended audience.” 905 F.2d at
733. However, the “flexible approach” adopted in Dawson has not been adopted in this Circuit,
especially as to readily accessible song lyrics, such as those at issue in this case. Sturdza, 281 F.3d
at 1300-01. Thus, the court declines to follow Dawson and concludes that this court is capable of
concluding as a matter of law, without the assistance of expert testimony, that the songs “Keys to
the Kingdom” and “Kingdom” are not substantially similar.5 Plaintiff’s copyright infringement
claim therefore is dismissed.
Plaintiff’s Rule 60(b) Motion. Plaintiff filed a motion in this case styled “Plaintiff’s Formal
Motion Made Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 60(b)(4)&(6), Based Upon After-Discovered
Extrinsic Fraud—Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction in Case 1:06-CV-0480; Plaintiff’s
Interpolated Affidavit Included Alongside Documentary Evidence and Memorandum of Law”
[hereafter “Formal Motion”]. ECF No. 9. As relief, Plaintiff asks that “the Judgment of Case
1:06-cv-0480 . . . be recalled or rescinded to reflect [its] abject nullity status, and the case . . . be
reset to [its] previous status regarding the (20) twenty songs of Plaintiff’s being unlawfully
regarded as belonging to the defendants in this case.” Id. at 15-16. The court reads Plaintiff’s
Formal Motion as a motion to set aside the judgment in Prunté under Rule 60(b).
The Formal Motion, however, is not properly before this court. Plaintiff should have filed
it before the judge who entered the judgment against him in Prunté, Judge Friedman. See Owens
v. District of Columbia, 631 F. Supp. 2d 48, 57 n.5 (D.D.C. 2009) (stating that “any Rule 60(b)
request for relief from judgment in [the prior action] must be addressed to [the judge assigned to
the prior action]”). The Formal Motion is therefore denied.
Conclusion. For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss are granted and
Plaintiff’s Formal Motion is denied. A separate Order accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.
Dated: September 17, 2015
Amit P. Mehta
United States District Judge
This court also does not consider itself an ordinary “lay person” when it comes to hip-hop music and lyrics. The
court has listened to hip hop for decades and considers among his favorite musical artists, perhaps as a sign of his age,
Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake, and Eminem.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?