When the late singer-songwriter Abrim Tilmon Jr. (left) wrote his 1974 tune, You’re Getting a Little Too Smart, he laid down a message that a bunch of folks — including, now, his widow and her appellate attorneys — might have taken judicial note of.
The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected legal moves under Federal Rule Civil Procedure 60(b) by the composer’s widow, Janyce Tilmon-Jones, to overturn default judgments in a copyright suit brought by Bridgeport Music and other assignees against a rapper and some recording labels for the unauthorized use of samples of Smart. Further, finding her litigation to be “frivolous and utterly without merit,” the appellate judges ordered Tilmon-Jones and her counsel to split Bridgeport’s damages and costs in the case, sums to be determined.
This case has some history: Tilmon, a member of the Detroit Emeralds, wrote his song in 1974, when it was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. In 1976, he assigned rights to the song to Bridgeport Music, which in 1998 filed a second copyright application for it. In 1997, a trial court determined, rapper Rashaam A. Smith used an unauthorized sample of the tune in his work You and Me. An employee of Bridgeport Music, in 2004, sought a copyright renewal, asserting she was the authorized agent of Tilmon-Jones. And in 2005, Bridgeport, Southfield Music and Westbound Records obtained default judgements against Smith and associated record companies for the sampled use Tilmon’s song.
In 2006, Tilmon-Jones, individually and for the Tilmon estate, sued Bridgeport and its president, asserting a variety of contractual breaches, including discussion of matters involving Smart. The case was settled and resulted in dismissal with prejudice of all claims, a court order barring any future ones — and a signed release.
It was not until 2011, however, that Tilmon-Jones came along and said she had never authorized Bridgeport nor its employee to file the copyright renewal on her behalf for Smart. That year Tilmon’s estate filed a renewal application for his song, which was granted, listing Tilmon-Jones and her two children as claimants to the copyright.
Then, Tilmon-Jones, as a nonparty to the lawsuit between Bridgeport et. al and Smith et. al., filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), requesting that the district court set aside the default judgments “because she, and not the plaintiffs, was the legal owner of the copyright at the time the lawsuit was filed.” The district court denied that motion and her motion for reconsideration. She appealed both rulings.
Did FRCP 60(b) apply to Tilmon-Jones? Rule 60(b) says Rule 60(b) “that a court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment under certain circumstances.” There are six ways for a court to accomplish this: (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; (2) newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b); (3) fraud (whether previously called intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party; (4) the judgment is void; (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged; it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable; or (6) any other reason that justifies relief. In this case, Tilmon-Jones sought relief under (4) , (5) and (6).
The appellate judges did not reach these contentions, finding more directly that Tilmon-Jones was a nonparty to the Bridgeport suit and therefore had zero claim for relief. Further, the court said her appeal lacked timeliness and was barred by the settlement she had reached in 2006.
“The conduct of Tilmon-Jones and her counsel was objectively and patently meritless and a waste of judicial resources,” the judges said. “Tilmon-Jones maintains that her appeal is not frivolous because the question of whether a non-party has standing under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) was not obviously without merit. This may be true, but it does not obviate the fact that her appeal was utterly without merit because it was untimely and barred by a release. We find that this appeal is frivolous and that sanctions are appropriate.”
By the way, it might be appropriate to hear the Emeralds’ version of the song: