Non-Precedential ‘Win’ for Record Labels: 9th Circuit Denies Attorney’s Fees for Voluntarily Dismisse Defendant
By Sharona Hakimi – Edited by Aaron Dulles
On February 6, 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of a W.D. Washington District Court denying defendant Dawnell Leadbetter’s motion for attorney’s fees and costs. In December of 2006 a group of recording companies voluntarily dismissed their claims against Leadbetter in an online file-sharing copyright infringement suit. Leadbetter subsequently sought attorney’s fees, which the court denied on the grounds that Leadbetter was not a “prevailing party.”
The Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 505, provides that a prevailing party may be entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees in a copyright action. However, because the claims against Leadbetter were voluntarily dismissed without prejudice, the Court of Appeals found that she was not entitled to attorney’s fees. The district court and appellate court both looked to the standard established in Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598 (2001), that a “prevailing party” is one who has received judgment on the merits or “settlement agreements enforced through a consent decree.” The district court reasoned that because the record companies claims were dismissed without prejudice, Leadbetter could not be considered a “prevailing party.”
The EFF filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Leadbetter’s motion for attorney’s fees. In their brief, they argued that these record labels, which are all members of the RIAA, are participants to a larger campaign that has “entangled innocent internet users in its litigation dragnet.” By awarding attorney’s fees in this case, the EEF stated the court would help “balance the overall equities in the RIAA’s nationwide campaign.” The EEF contends that if individuals like Dawnell Leadbetter have to pay out of pocket for her fees, future innocent litigants will not stand up to the recording industry. Instead, the EEF believes the public will “suffer under the misperception that such misguided theories are, in fact, the law.”
Though triggering a flurry of postings by anti-RIAA bloggers, this case is in fact non-precedential and unpublished. It is unclear if this decision will play any role of actual significance in future online copyright infringement actions. Even so, according to Ben Schaffer of Copyright and Campaigns, this case gave a “significant procedural victory to the recording industry,” sending a “message to defendants in such p2p cases that they should be forthcoming with information about infringing activity on their ISP accounts early in litigation.”
According to Schaffer, the suit arose when the record labels discovered a KaZaA username “dawnlead@KaZaA” with 788 music files in its sharing folder. Believing the user to be Dawnell Leadbetter, the record companies filed suit. However, after discovery, the labels decided it was actually Leadbetter’s fiancé and son who were the likely infringers. They therefore filed a motion of voluntary dismissal against Dawnell, which the district court granted without prejudice.
For the district court, the lack of prejudice was dispositive, distinguishing the case from Capitol Records, Inc. v. Foster, 2007 WL 1028532 (W.D. Okla. Feb. 6, 2007), a copyright action where attorney’s fees were awarded when the case was dismissed with prejudice. The court also distinguished the present case from Corcoran v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 121 F.2d 575 (9th Cir. 1941), where the defendant prevailed on a motion requiring clarification of the plaintiff’s complaint.