Lack of Clarity in Consent Decree Dooms Subsequent Injunction

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The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed an injunction based on a prior consent order, concluding that the order was insufficiently precise to support an injunction prohibiting conduct by defendants in preparing a movie script. Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Cleopatra Records, Inc., Case No. 17-2849 (2nd Cir. Oct. 10, 2018) (per curiam) (Newman, J, concurring).

This case concerns a dispute over plans for a film relating to the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash, titled Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash. Artimus Pyle, a Lynyrd Skynyrd band member and crash survivor, authored the script for the movie, which was produced by Cleopatra Records. The key issue in the case was whether a consent order entered into between Judith Van Zant Grondin (widow of Ronnie Van Zant) and the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including Pyle, prevented Pyle and Cleopatra Records from releasing the film.

The district court found that the film violated the consent order because it was ultimately about Lynyrd Skynyrd, evoking the Lynyrd Skynyrd legacy and providing background history on the band. The district court therefore granted plaintiffs a permanent injunction, reasoning that Cleopatra Records was bound by the consent order despite being a non-signatory because it acted “in concert or participation” with Pyle, a signatory to the consent order, to produce the film. Cleopatra Records appealed.

The Second Circuit found the language of the consent order inconsistent or at least insufficiently specific to support an injunction, because it appeared to both permit and prohibit certain actions. For example, the consent order permitted Pyle to make a movie that describes his experiences with Lynyrd Skynyrd and to refer to the band, but prohibited making a movie that is a history of the band. The Court found these two provisions difficult to reconcile and noted that based on the film script, the plane crash is part of the “history” of the band while also being an “experience” Pyle had with the band.

Although it concluded that the district court’s grant of an injunction was not a First Amendment violation, the Second Circuit found that it did implicate free speech concerns, requiring a close look at the rationale underlying the injunction. The Court found that the injunction restricted the actions of an entity that was not a party to the contract alleged to be the source of the restriction—i.e., Cleopatra Records. Even though an injunction may be applied to an entity that acts “in active concert or participation” with anyone bound by the injunction pursuant to Rule 65(d)(2)(C) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, this application is not appropriate in the context of an injunction applied to an entity that contracts with someone arguably bound by the injunction’s terms in order to prepare an expressive work such as a movie. Thus, the Court found that Pyle was permitted to tell his life story, including the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash from his perspective, and reversed the district court’s injunction.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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