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Brown-Thomas v. Hynie

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

March 5, 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

         This matter is before the court for review of Defendant Tommie Rae Hynie (“Defendant Hynie”)[1] and Defendant James J. Brown, II's (“Defendant Brown”) Motion to Stay filed on November 5, 2018. (ECF No. 114.) On November 6, 2018, Defendant Russell L. Bauknight (“Defendant Bauknight”) filed his Response Supporting the Motion to Stay. (ECF No. 115.) Shortly thereafter, on November 12, 2018, Defendant David C. Sojourner, Jr. (“Defendant Sojourner”) filed his Responses in Support of the Motion to Stay. (ECF Nos. 116, 117.) Plaintiffs Deanna Brown-Thomas, Yamma Brown, Michael D. Brown, Jeanette Mitchell Bellinger, Sarah LaTonya Fegan, Ciara Pettit, and Cherquarius Williams's (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) responded in opposition to Defendants Hynie and Brown's Motion to Stay on November 19, 2018. (ECF No. 120.) For the reasons set forth herein, the court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants Hynie and Brown's Motion to Stay (ECF No. 114). Specifically, the court DENIES a stay of discovery, but GRANTS a partial stay of the action as it relates to filing or resolving future dispositive motions.

         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).[2] 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 Defendants Hynie and Brown. (Id. at 11 ¶ 41.) In 2007, Defendants Hynie and 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 right to a 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.)

         In May 2013, following litigation in the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas, 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 Bauknight to serve as the personal representative of the estate and trustee of the trust. (ECF No. 85-1 at 27-29.) On October 10, 2013, 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, that 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.”).[3] Subsequently, in order to obtain review of the South Carolina Court of Appeals' ruling, Plaintiffs[4] filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the South Carolina Supreme Court.[5] On February 1, 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court granted Plaintiffs' Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. (ECF No. 151 at 4-5.)

         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.) Plaintiffs also contend that “any agreement” by Defendant Hynie that “directly or indirectly diverts and/or converts Plaintiffs' share of the financial proceeds” is void, unenforceable, and prohibited by the Copyright Act. (Id. at 22 ¶ 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.)

         Defendants Hynie and Brown filed their Motion to Stay on November 5, 2018. (ECF No. 114.) Defendants Bauknight and Sojourner consent to the Motion to Stay. (ECF Nos. 115, 116, 117.) The Motion to Stay seeks a stay of “discovery, the deadlines, and the entry of scheduling orders . . . .” (Id. at 1.) Suggesting that Plaintiffs will “suffer no prejudice from a stay, ” Defendants Hynie and Brown also seek “a stay of all proceedings” until the South Carolina Supreme Court formally rules upon Defendant Hynie's marital status to James Brown. (ECF No. 114 at 3, 5-8.) Claiming that the spousal status issue is not ripe, Defendants submit that the court should “avoid having any decision based on a non-final ruling” of Defendant Hynie's spousal status. (Id. at 7- 8.) In addition to the issues regarding Defendant Hynie's spousal status, Defendants Hynie and Brown also seek a stay until the court formally rules upon their pending Motions to Dismiss and substitutes a party for Plaintiff Venisha Brown, who is now deceased. (Id. at 9-10.)

         Plaintiffs responded in opposition to Defendants' Motion to Stay on November 19, 2018. (ECF No. 120.) Plaintiffs, describing the Motion to Stay as “baseless, ” contend that their harm will not cease if Defendant Hynie's marital status to James Brown is reversed by the South Carolina Supreme Court. (Id. at 14-17.) Plaintiffs further submit that the Motion to Stay fails to address “current and ongoing harms” they are currently suffering. (Id. at 17.) As it relates to Defendant Hynie's spousal status and arguments of ripeness, Plaintiffs maintain that their claims and injuries exist irrespective of whether Defendant Hynie is the lawful spouse to James Brown. (Id. at 15-16.) Lastly, Plaintiffs argue that, as permitted by the court, Plaintiff Deanna Brown-Thomas has already been substituted as a party in place of Plaintiff Venisha Brown, and therefore Defendants Hynie and Brown's argument is no longer meritorious. (Id. at 24-25.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “[T]he power to stay proceedings is incidental to the power inherent in every court to control the disposition of the causes on its docket with economy of time and effort for itself, for counsel, and for litigants.” Landis v. N. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254 (1936). Whether a federal district court should grant or deny a motion to stay “calls for an exercise of judgment to balance the various factors relevant to the expeditious and comprehensive disposition of the causes of action on the court's docket.” United States v. Ga. Pac. Corp., 562 F.2d 294, 296 (4th Cir. 1977) (citing Landis, 299 U.S. at 254). The court “must weigh competing interests and maintain an even balance.” Landis, 299 U.S. at 254-55 (citing Kan. City S. Ry. Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 760, 763 (1931); Enelow v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., 293 U.S. 379, 382 (1935)). Traditionally, a court may consider the following factors when deciding whether to stay legal proceedings: “(1) the potential prejudice to the non-moving party; (2) the hardship and inequity to the moving party if the action is not stayed; and (3) the judicial resources that would be saved by avoiding duplicative litigation if the case is in fact stayed.” Mitchell v. Lonza Walkersville, Inc., C/A No. RDB-12-3787, 2013 WL 3776951, at *2 (D. Md. July 17, 2013) (citing Yearwood v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., C/A No. RDB-12-1374, 2012 WL 2520865, at *3 (D. Md. June 27, 2012)). See also Int'l Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, 323 F.Supp.3d 726, 731 (D. Md. 2018); Brandt v. BP, P.L.C., C/A No. 2:10-cv-01460, 2010 WL 2802495, at *2 (D.S.C. July 14, 2010). “A trial court may, with propriety, find it is efficient for its own docket and the fairest course for the parties to enter a stay of an action before it, pending resolution of independent proceedings which bear upon the case.” Leyva v. Certified Grocers of Cal., Ltd., 593 F.2d 857, 862 (9th Cir. 1979). The decision to grant a stay is within the “sound discretion” of a federal district court. Ryan v. Gonzales, 568 U.S. 57, 74 (2013) (quoting Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007)). Generally, the party seeking a stay “must justify it by clear and convincing circumstances outweighing potential harm to the party against whom it is operative.” Williford v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 715 F.2d 124, 127 (4th Cir. 1983). In other words, the proponent of a stay “bears the burden of establishing its need.” Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 708 (1997) (citing Landis, 299 U.S. at 255).

         As it specifically relates to staying discovery, a federal district court has a “broad inherent power to stay discovery until preliminary issues can be settled which may be dispositive of some important aspect of the case.” Simpson v. Specialty Retail Concepts, Inc., 121 F.R.D. 261, 263 (M.D. N.C. 1988) (citing Petrus v. Bowen, 833 F.2d 581 (5th Cir. 1987)). In many instances, “[a] motion to stay discovery is tantamount to a request for a protective order prohibiting or limiting discovery pursuant to Rule 26(c) [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure].” Kron Med. Corp. v. Groth, 119 F.R.D. 636, 637 (M.D. N.C. 1988). Motions to stay discovery are “generally disfavored because delaying discovery may cause case management problems as the case progresses or impede the court's responsibility to expedite discovery.” Kennedy v. Fed. Nat'l Mortg. Ass'n, No. 4:13-CV-203-F, 2013 WL 5885154, at *1 (E.D. N.C. Oct. 31, 2013). The filing of a dispositive motion does not, by itself, warrant the issuance of a stay. See Herring v. Lapolla Indus., Inc., No. 2:12-cv-02705-RMG, 2013 WL 12148769, at *1 (D.S.C. Aug. 30, 2013) (citing Hollings v. U.S. Tennis Ass'n, 469 F.Supp.2d 67, 78 (E.D.N.Y. 2006)). The moving party bears the burden of showing good cause and that a stay of discovery in reasonable. See Kron Med. Corp., 119 F.R.D. at 637.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Upon review of Defendants Hynie and Brown's Motion to Stay, the court discerns two different stay requests.[6] (ECF No. 14.) Defendants first request the court to stay “discovery, the deadlines, and the entry of scheduling orders . . . .” (Id. at 1.) In addition, Defendants seek “a stay of all proceedings” until the South Carolina Supreme Court issues a final ruling on Defendant Hynie's spousal status. (Id. at 3, 5-8.) The court first addresses whether there should be “a stay of all proceedings” until the South Carolina Supreme Court's ruling and then turns to whether a stay of discovery is warranted.[7]

         A. Defendants' Motion to Stay All ...


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