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Brown-Thomas v. Hynie

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

February 6, 2019

Deanna Brown-Thomas, an individual and in her capacity as intestate heir and pending Personal Representative of the estate of her sister, the deceased Venisha Brown; Yamma Brown, an individual; Michael D. Brown, an individual; Nicole C. Brown, an individual; Jeanette Mitchell Bellinger, an individual; Sarah LaTonya Fegan, an individual; Ciara Pettit, an individual; and Cherquarius Williams, an individual, Plaintiffs,
v.
Tommie Rae Hynie, an individual also known as Tommie Rae Brown; James J. Brown, II, an individual; Russell L. Bauknight, as the Personal Representative of the Estate of James Brown and Trustee of the James Brown I Feel Good Trust; David C. Sojourner, Jr., as the Limited Special Administrator of the Estate of James Brown and Limited Special Trustee of the James Brown I Feel Good Trust; and Does, 1 through 10, inclusive, Defendants.

          ORDER

         “[F]or it is procedure that marks much of the difference between rule by law and rule by fiat.”[1]

         This matter is before the court for review of Defendant Tommie Rae Hynie (“Defendant Hynie”)[2] and Defendant James J. Brown, II's (“Defendant Brown”) Motions to Dismiss. (ECF Nos. 81, 101.) Defendant Hynie's Motion was filed on September 11, 2018, while Defendant Brown's Motion was filed on August 10, 2018. (ECF Nos. 81, 101.) Within their Motions to Dismiss, Defendants assert that Plaintiffs Deanna Brown-Thomas, Yamma Brown, Michael D. Brown, Jeanette Mitchell Bellinger, Sarah LaTonya Fegan, Ciara Pettit, and Cherquarius Williams's (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) Complaint (ECF No. 1) must be dismissed for insufficient service of process under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(5). (ECF No. 81 at 20; ECF No. 101 at 13.) The court held arguments on this matter on January 22, 2019. (ECF No. 144.) For the reasons stated herein, the court DENIES Defendant Hynie's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 81) and Defendant Brown's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 101), both under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(5). However, the court ORDERS Plaintiffs to properly serve Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown pursuant to the provisions of the Hague Convention and laws of the United Kingdom within one hundred twenty (120) days.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         James J. Brown (“James Brown”) was an American singer that was born in Barnwell, South Carolina. See Harry Weinger & Cliff White, Biography About James, James Brown, http://www.jamesbrown.com/bio (last visited Jan. 20, 2019).[3] He married Defendant Hynie in December 2001. (ECF No. 1 at 10 ¶ 38.) Through the union of Defendant Hynie and James Brown, Defendant Brown was born in 2001. (ECF No. 81 at 10.) On the morning of December 25, 2006, James Brown died. (ECF No. 1 at 3 ¶ 7.) James Brown's will omitted Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown. (Id. at 11 ¶ 41.) In 2007, Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown brought challenges to James Brown's will and trust. (Id. at 11 ¶ 42.) Defendant Hynie filed for her spousal rights in South Carolina, which would have entitled her to a statutory elective share and a one-half omitted spouse's share, while Defendant Brown asserted his state statutory child share as a lawful heir. (ECF No. 80-1 at 3.) James Brown's adult children also brought challenges to set aside his will. See Wilson v. Dallas, 743 S.E.2d 746, 750-51 (S.C. 2013). (See also ECF No. 80-1 at 3; ECF No. 80-2 at 29.) As a result of these collective challenges, James Brown's will was submitted to the Probate Court of Aiken County, South Carolina. (ECF No. 1 at 11 ¶ 42.) Eventually, the Probate Court of Aiken County, South Carolina, transferred the administration of James Brown's estate to the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas. (ECF No. 1 at 11 ¶ 43; ECF No. 80-1 at 4.)

         Following litigation in the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas, in 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the trial court's approval of a family settlement regarding James Brown's estate, upheld the removal of several fiduciaries, and remanded the case for the appointment of new fiduciaries. (ECF No. 85 at 4 (citing Wilson, 743 S.E.2d at 768).) On October 1, 2013, the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas appointed Defendant Russell L. Bauknight (“Defendant Bauknight”) to serve as the personal representative of the estate and trustee of the F.Supp.2d 173, 179 n.8 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (taking judicial notice of information “publicly announced on a party's website” because the authenticity was not in dispute, and the information was “capable of accurate and ready determination.” (quoting Fed.R.Evid. 201(b))). The court takes judicial notice of the website only for purposes of indicating the birthplace of James Brown. See Coal. for a Sustainable Delta v. Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, 812 F.Supp.2d 1089, 1093 (E.D. Cal. 2011) (“[J]udically noticed documents may be considered only for limited purposes.”). trust. (ECF No. 85-1 at 27-29.) On October 10, 2013, Defendant David C. Sojourner, Jr. (“Defendant Sojourner”) was appointed as a limited special administrator of James Brown's estate and tasked with defending the estate against challenges. (ECF No. 85-1 at 35-36 ¶¶ 3-4.)

         In 2015, the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas determined that Defendant Hynie was the surviving spouse of James Brown. (ECF No. 80-1 at 6.) During that same year, the lower court held that Defendant Brown was the biological son and a lawful heir to James Brown. (ECF No. 101-4.) In 2018, the South Carolina Court of Appeals also held that Defendant Hynie was the surviving spouse of James Brown. See In re Estate of Brown, 818 S.E.2d 770, 776 (S.C. Ct. App. 2018) (“Therefore, we find the trial court did not err in finding [Defendant Hynie] was married to Brown.”).[4] Currently, Plaintiffs are appealing the spousal status of Defendant Hynie to the South Carolina Supreme Court.[5]

         Plaintiffs originally filed their Complaint on January 12, 2018, in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. (ECF No. 1.) First, Plaintiffs seek relief from the court under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 203, 304, and the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201. (Id. at 20-22 ¶¶ 74-77.) Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have “conspired . . . to usurp [their] rights and interests in [James] Brown's [c]ompositions.” (Id. at 4 ¶ 13.) Plaintiffs seek a declaration establishing that a “Settlement Agreement” or any “Concealed Terms, ” specifically among Defendants, is unenforceable and void as a matter of law. (Id. at 21 ¶ 76.) Plaintiffs believe that Defendants have wrongfully deprived them of their termination interests pursuant to a Settlement Agreement and Concealed Terms and failed to comply with the appropriate procedures of the Copyright Act. (Id. at 17, 20-21 ¶¶ 60-62, 75-76.) Further, Plaintiffs maintain that they are “entitled to a preliminary injunction during the pendency of this action, and thereafter to a permanent injunction . . . .” (Id. at 22 ¶ 77.) Secondly, Plaintiffs bring a range of claims arising under South Carolina law. (Id. at 22-31 ¶¶ 78-114.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege the following state law claims: (1) accounting; (2) conversion; (3) unjust enrichment; (4) intentional interference with prospective economic advantage; (5) negligent interference with prospective economic advantage; and (6) common law unfair competition. (Id. at 22-23, 27-28, 30 ¶¶ 79, 84, 97, 102, 109.) The United States District Court for the Central District of California transferred this matter to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina on August 7, 2018. (ECF No. 70.)

         Defendant Hynie filed her Motion to Dismiss on September 11, 2018. (ECF No 81.) Defendant Brown filed his Motion to Dismiss on October 10, 2018. (ECF No. 101.) Within their Motions to Dismiss, Defendants bring legal challenges to the court's subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1338(a). (ECF No. 81 at 12-18; ECF No. 101 at 4-10.) In addition, Defendants allege that they were improperly served under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(f), requiring dismissal of Plaintiffs' Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(5). (ECF No. 81 at 20; ECF No. 101 at 13.) As it relates to insufficient service of process, Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown, both of whom reside in the United Kingdom, [6] maintain that Plaintiffs failed to comply with the prescribed methods of service authorized by the Hague Convention. (ECF No. 81 at 20; ECF No. 101 at 13.) Plaintiffs responded to Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown's Motions to Dismiss on October 4, 2018, and October 24, 2018, respectively. (ECF Nos. 96, 111.) Plaintiffs submit that Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown's claims concerning insufficient service of process are meritless because they were properly served pursuant to the laws of the United Kingdom. (ECF No. 96 at 23; ECF No. 111 at 28.) Critical to their argument, Plaintiffs contend that they could serve Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown under any method permitted by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(f). (ECF No. 96 at 24; ECF No. 111 at 29.)

         On January 22, 2019, the court heard arguments from Plaintiffs and Defendants regarding the sufficiency of process under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 144.) Although Defendants were conspicuously silent as to whether service of process was proper as to Defendant Brown, they forcefully maintained that service of process was improper as to Defendant Hynie. Nevertheless, Defendants requested that the court dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint for insufficient service of process as to both Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown. By contrast, Plaintiffs continued to argue that service of process was proper as to both Defendant Hynie and Defendant Brown and suggested that Plaintiffs were at liberty to choose any delineated method of service under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(f). Plaintiffs also maintained that they were not required to comply with the Hague Convention's mandates. This issue has been extensively briefed by the parties and is now ready for the court's review. See generally Sauls v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc., 846 F.Supp.2d 499, 501 (D.S.C. 2012) (“The parties have fully briefed the issues, and this matter is ripe for consideration.”).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a moving party may attempt to dismiss a complaint for “insufficient service of process.” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(5). See generally Redding v. Sun Printing Inc., C/A No. 5:12-cv-02113-JMC, 2013 WL 2149685, at *2 (D.S.C. May 6, 2013) (“Rule 12(b)(5) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court may dismiss a claim that fails to comply with the requirements of service of process under Rule 4.” (citing Fed.R. Civ. P. 12(b)(5))). Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides several ways for a plaintiff to serve a defendant. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e)-(j). As it relates to serving individuals within foreign countries, Rule 4(f) provides the following:

         Unless federal law provides otherwise, an individual-other than a minor, an incompetent person, or a person whose waiver has been filed-may be served at a place not within any judicial district of the United States:

(1) by any internationally agreed means that is reasonably calculated to give notice, such as those authorized by the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents;
(2) if there is no internationally agreed means, or if an international agreement allows but does not specify other means, by a method that is reasonably calculated to give notice:
(A) as prescribed by the foreign country's law for service in that country in an action in its courts of ...

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