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Brown-Thomas v. Hynie

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

June 12, 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,
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.


         This matter is before the court for review of Defendant Tommie Rae Hynie's (“Defendant Hynie”) Motion to Revise the Court's March 5, 2019 Order, which was filed on April 25, 2019. (ECF No. 161.) Defendants James J. Brown, II (“Defendant Brown”), Russell L. Bauknight (“Defendant Bauknight”), and David C. Sojourner, Jr. (“Defendant Sojourner”) (collectively, “Defendants”), respectively, filed pleadings in support of Defendant Hynie's Motion. (ECF Nos. 164, 166, 168.) On May 9, 2019, Plaintiffs Deanna Brown-Thomas, Yamma Brown, Michael D. Brown, Nicole C. Brown, Jeanette Mitchell Bellinger, Sarah LaTonya Fegan, Ciara Pettit, and Cherquarius Williams's (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) filed their Response to Defendant Hynie's Motion, which vigorously opposes the Motion. (ECF No. 167.) For the reasons set forth herein, the court DENIES Defendant Hynie's Motion to Review the Court's March 5, 2019 Order (ECF No. 161).


         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, (last visited Jan. 20, 2019).[1] 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.”).[2] Subsequently, in order to obtain review of the South Carolina Court of Appeals' ruling, Plaintiffs[3] filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the South Carolina Supreme Court.[4] 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.)

         On March 5, 2019, the court issued its Order granting in part and denying in part Defendant Hynie's Motion to Stay (ECF No. 114). See Brown-Thomas v. Hynie, C/A No. 1:18-cv-02191-JMC, 2019 WL 1043724, at *1 (D.S.C. Mar. 5, 2019). Specifically, the court denied Defendant Hynie's request to stay discovery, but granted “a partial stay of the action as it relates to filing or resolving future dispositive motions.” See Id. (emphasis in original). Within the Order, the court analyzed the following factors: (i) the interest of judicial resources; (ii) the potential prejudice to the non-moving parties, Plaintiffs in this instance; and (iii) the hardship and inequities to Defendants without a stay. See Id. at *4-6. As it concerns the hardship and inequities to Defendants, the court noted that “Defendants fail[ed] to identify any ‘hardship or inequity' that they [would] suffer without a complete stay to the[] proceedings.” Id. at *6 (citation omitted). After balancing the aforementioned factors, the court held that it “will partially stay the filing of future dispositive motions, other than the pending Motions to Dismiss, but not ‘all proceedings' as requested by Defendants.” Id. Of particular relevance, the court specifically took into account the South Carolina Supreme Court's active consideration of “Defendant Hynie's relationship to James Brown[, ]” how the South Carolina Supreme Court's ultimate decision may impact the “litigants['] . . . legal strategies regarding the Copyright Act, ” and the fact that “the South Carolina Supreme Court's ruling will have no bearing on the substance of the Copyright Act, including the Act's provisions regarding renewal rights, termination rights, and other procedures.” Id. at *6-7. Accordingly, the court concluded that Defendant Hynie's “request to stay discovery is premature and fails to promote the ‘expeditious and comprehensive disposition of the causes of action on the court's docket.'” Id. at *7 (quoting United States v. Ga. Pac. Corp., 562 F.2d 294, 296 (4th Cir. 1977)). Thus, the court fashioned a stay that denied a stay in discovery, but stayed the filing and resolution of future dispositive motions, which, depending upon the outcome of the Motions to Dismiss, would allow this case to proceed and progress in a timely manner. Id. at *4-8.

         Defendant Hynie filed her Motion to Revise the Court's Order March 5, 2019 Order on April 25, 2019. (ECF No. 161.) Within her Motion, Defendant Hynie first argues that “Defendants would have presented evidence of their own ‘hardships[s] and inequit[ies]' during rebuttal” if a March hearing had not been postponed. (ECF No. 161-1 at 4.) Defendant Hynie contends that she would have presented evidence showing that “[r]esources spent by the Estate in this litigation are resources not spent on educating poor and needy children under the James Brown Trust.” (Id. at 5.) Second, Defendant Hynie reiterates a number of arguments pertaining to the court's subject-matter jurisdiction over this dispute and suggests that the court's Order would be different if it “had the benefit of [her] argument.” (Id. at 5-12.) Defendant Hynie requests the court to grant a stay of all proceedings until the South Carolina Supreme Court formally issues a decision regarding her spousal status to James Brown. (Id. at 5.) On May 7, 2019, Defendant Bauknight filed a pleading in support of Defendant Hynie's Motion, maintaining that “the Estate and Trust [will be unduly burdened] if it must defend costly and contentious litigation concerning the confidentiality of settlement negotiations in a second forum . . . .” (ECF No. 164 at 2.) On May 9, 2019, Defendants Brown and Sojourner, respectively, also filed pleadings to support Defendant Hynie's Motion and expressly incorporated her arguments. (ECF Nos. 168, 166.)

         Plaintiffs responded in opposition to Defendant Hynie's Motion on May 9, 2019. (ECF No. 167.) First, as it relates to Defendant Hynie's lack of rebuttal, Plaintiffs pointedly emphasize that Defendant Hynie was never entitled to any rebuttal during the hearing on January 22, 2019. (Id. at 9 (quoting Local Civ. Rule 7.08 (D.S.C.) (“Hearings on motions may be ordered by the court in its discretion. Unless so ordered, motions may be determined without a hearing.”)).) Secondly, maintaining that Defendant Hynie's Motion should be denied, Plaintiffs stress that Defendant Hynie's Motion fails to meet the requirements of Rule 54(b) because she (1) does not argue a change in the applicable law; (2) fails to offer “newly discovered evidence” as her evidence was “pre-existing evidence omitted from [her] briefs”; and (3) unsuccessfully demonstrates any clear error of law or manifest injustice to correct. (Id. at 8-15.) Additionally, Plaintiffs submit that Defendant Hynie's Motion is in violation of various procedural rules and also respond with substantive arguments relating to the court's exercise of subject-matter jurisdiction. (Id. at 15-28.) For those reasons, Plaintiffs request that the court deny Defendant Hynie's Motion. (Id. at 29.)

         Defendant Hynie replied to Plaintiffs' Response on May 16, 2019. (ECF No. 171.) Defendant Hynie continues to argue that she “intended to present evidence of Defendants' hardship at the hearing scheduled for March 1, 2019, but was precluded from doing so when, at Plaintiffs' request, the scheduled hearing was postponed.” (Id. at 3.) After maintaining that “a complete stay will not presently prejudice Plaintiffs in any way[, ]” Defendant Hynie submits the following:

She . . . did not ask the [c]ourt to reconsider its March 5, 2019 Order because (1) a subsequent trial produced substantially different evidence-obviously there was no subsequent trial; or (2) because of a change in applicable law-again there was none; or (3) because of clear error causing manifest injustice-based on the incomplete argument on January 22, 2019, the [c]ourt did not commit clear error.

(Id. at 3-8 (emphasis added).) Instead, Defendant Hynie firmly believes that the court should consider her rebuttal argument out of “fairness and equity, ” and Rule 54(b) does not provide a standard to revise a prior order that “does not end the action as to any of the claims or parties . . . .” (Id. at 8.) Defendant Hynie then responds to Plaintiffs' arguments concerning the procedural rules and the court's subject-matter jurisdiction. (Id. at 8-15.) Because this matter has been extensively briefed and argued, it is now ripe 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. ...

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