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Brown-Thomas v. Hynie

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

September 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,
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 AND OPINION

         This matter is before the court on Defendant Tommie Rae Hynie (“Defendant Hynie”), Defendant James Brown, II (“Defendant Brown”), and Defendant Russell L. Bauknight's (“Defendant Bauknight”) (collectively, “Defendants”) Motions to Dismiss (ECF Nos. 80-1, 81, 101).[1] Specifically, Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint pursuant to a myriad of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure including Rules 12(b)(1), 12(b)(2), 12(b)(5), and 12(b)(6). The court has already denied challenges brought forth by Defendants within their Motions to Dismiss on Rule 12(b)(1), 12(b)(2), and 12(b)(5) grounds. See Brown-Thomas v. Hynie, 367 F.Supp.3d 452, 469 (D.S.C. 2019); (see also ECF No. 183.) The court now decides Defendants' last remaining ground supporting their Motions to Dismiss-the Rule 12(b)(6) challenge. Defendants assert that the action fails to plead a plausible claim under the Copyright Act and, therefore, Plaintiffs' declaratory judgment action (claim 1) must be dismissed.

         After careful consideration of all relevant filings, the court DENIES Defendants' Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) (ECF Nos. 80-1, 81, 101) without prejudice.

         I. FACTUAL, PROCEDURAL, AND STATUTORY BACKGROUND

         A. Relevant Factual Background and State Court Litigation

         James J. Brown (“James Brown”) was an American singer. 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 both 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 in the state courts of South Carolina. (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 extensive 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 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 legal 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.) Currently, Plaintiffs are appealing the spousal status of Defendant Hynie to the South Carolina Supreme Court (ECF No. 151 at 4).[2]

         The instant matter does not concern the probate issues before the South Carolina Supreme Court. Instead, this matter focuses exclusively on Defendants' Motions to Dismiss Plaintiffs' declaratory judgment action. (ECF No. 80-1 at 31-33; ECF No. 81 at 20-22; ECF No. 101 at 12-13.)

         Plaintiffs' Allegations and the Current Action

         Plaintiffs originally filed their Complaint on January 12, 2018, in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. (ECF No. 1.) The United States District Court for the Central District of California transferred the matter to this court. (ECF No. 70.)

         In the Complaint, Plaintiffs assert 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. (ECF No. 1 at 17, 20-21 ¶¶ 60-62, 75-76.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have “conspired…to usurp [their] rights and interests in [James] Brown's [c]ompositions.” (Id. at 4 ¶ 13.) Accordingly, Plaintiffs seek relief from the court under the Copyright Act and the Declaratory Judgment Act. (Id. at 20-22 ¶¶ 74- 77.) Plaintiffs seek a declaration establishing, inter alia, [3]that a “Settlement Agreement” or any “Concealed Terms” amongst Defendants is unenforceable and void as a matter of law. (Id. at 21 ¶ 76.)

         Secondly, 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.) Finally, Plaintiffs bring a range of claims arising under South Carolina law. (Id. at 22-31 ¶¶ 78-114.)[4]

         Defendant Bauknight filed his Motion to Dismiss on September 10, 2018, while Defendant Hynie filed her Motion to Dismiss on September 11, 2018. (ECF Nos. 80, 81.) Defendant Brown filed his Motion to Dismiss on October 10, 2018. (ECF No. 101.) On October 4, 2018 Plaintiffs filed their response (ECF No. 96) to Defendant Hynie's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 81). On October 8, 2018, Plaintiffs filed their response (ECF No. 97) to Defendant Baucknight's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 80), and on October 24, 2018, Plaintiffs filed their response to Defendant Brown's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 101). As mentioned, the court has already denied challenges brought forth by Defendants within their Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), 12(b)(2), and 12(b)(5). See Brown-Thomas v. Hynie, 367 F.Supp.3d 452, 469 (D.S.C. 2019); (see also ECF No. 183.) The court now decides Defendants' last remaining ground brought forth in their Motions to Dismiss-the Rule 12(b)(6) challenge. Defendants assert that Plaintiffs' Complaint fails to plead a plausible claim under §§ 203 and 304 of the Copyright Act and, therefore, Plaintiffs' declaratory judgment action must be dismissed.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS AND APPLICABLE STATUTES

         A. Declaratory Judgment Action

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted); see also Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (“A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) . . . does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”). To be legally sufficient, a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) (2012).

         A court should not grant a Rule 12(b)(6) motion unless it appears certain that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would support her claim and would entitle her to relief. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court should accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and should view the complaint in a light most favorable ...


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