In an unusual gambit, the Disney Co. is seeking to have the long-running Winnie the Pooh case moved from state court to federal court so it can become part of a copyright case Disney filed late last year.
The move prompted an immediate accusation from the Slesinger family, which licenses the character to Disney, that Disney is seeking further delay and a more hospitable judge. They also claim Disney is running away from its own motion, the so-called “trash motion.”
Disney claims it was forced into the move when the Slesingers added new material to their Pooh lawsuit, making it relevant to the federal copyright case.
Removal of a case to federal court is usually done in the early stages of a lawsuit. It is virtually unprecedented to remove a decade-old case. Presumably, the Slesingers will oppose removal, but even if they don’t, it is up to the federal judge assigned to the case to decide whether it belongs in federal court.
Slesinger attorney Bert Fields said, “In my view, this is another desperate view by Disney to change judges, forum shop, and even run away from their own motion.”
Not so, says Disney attorney Daniel Petrocelli. “This perception that we’re running away from this judge is just PR by Fields and Co. They just want the judge to believe we are antagonistic to him. We can’t wait to get our sanctions motions in front of a judge.”
The trash motion was filed by Disney in February. It alleges illegal activity by the Slesingers, including charges that they hired an unlicensed private detective to steal thousands of files from Disney’s trash, including privileged documents. The Slesingers responded that it is not illegal to take trash when it is on a public site and that Disney had known about the documents for at least eight years and had never objected.
Disney seeks to have the Slesingers’ case thrown out as a sanction for their alleged discovery abuses. In the alternative, they seek to have sanctions against Disney for destroying documents dropped. Last year, an appellate court upheld a ruling by L.A. Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige that a jury could be told that Disney destroyed documents.
Because Disney removed the case, the trash motion, which was scheduled for a May 8 hearing, will not be heard until the issue of which court has jurisdiction is resolved.
The Slesingers have been battling Disney since 1981, when they sued in L.A. Superior Court, claiming they were underpaid royalties by as much as a billion dollars. More recently, they have sought termination of the license agreement as a remedy.
In November, Disney and Clare Milne, the heir of Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne, filed a copyright lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeking a ruling that Milne can terminate the license held by the Slesingers and grant rights directly to Disney.