UCR Alumna’s lawsuit dismissed by the court but copyright claim expected to go to trial in 2022

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A federal court in Riverside, CA has dismissed parts of a case involving two UCR professors, non-profit company S.T.R.O.N.G Edutainment and the Regents of the University of California. On June 7, the court announced that both parties’ have agreed to an alternative dispute resolution before a magistrate judge to resolve a copyright infringement claim. A jury trial had been set for April 4, 2022.

In August 2020, the Regents of the University of California, UC Riverside Associate Professor Setsu Shigematsu and her husband, Professor Dylan Rodriguez were named in a lawsuit filed in state court by UCR alumna, Ashanti McMillon saying that her former professor used her songs, stories and likeness for her own personal and capital gain. The University of California Regents were also named in the case which was partially dismissed by judge John H. Holcomb on March 15. The court cited insufficient evidence to prove McMillon’s claims and the statute of limitations. While the UC Regents moved to dismiss all claims, defendants Shigmatsu, Rodriguez and S.T.R.O.N.G Edutainment did not move to dismiss McMillon’s first claim for relief, copyright infringement, and instead demanded a jury trial.

However, in an email dated June 7, Shigematsu said, “I have been asking for a mediation process since 2019 facilitated by the University and seeking an amicable resolution with McMillon since 2015 through multiple venues, which McMillon has in every instance rejected.”

In response to parts of the case being dismissed, Shigematsu said in an email to The Highlander, “I am glad that McMillon’s allegations were dismissed but I am also saddened. As someone who supports abolitionist movements and advocates Transformative Justice principles, I requested McMillon participate in a mediation process over a year ago but she refused. The purpose of McMillon’s lawsuit consisting of false claims and twisted representations has been to smear my name and reputation. I am eager to return to the work I love that centers teaching and research about those unjustly harmed.” The court did not address the truth of the claims but ruled lack of evidence and the statute of limitations.

The case began in spring 2013 when 29-year-old McMillon was a student of Shigematsu, a media and cultural studies professor. According to the court filings, McMillon assisted in the development of the Guardian Princess Alliance, Shigematsu’s non-profit, educational media company that was renamed S.T.R.O.N.G Edutainment. McMillon was hired in June 2013, one month before graduating from UCR with a bachelor’s degree, where she ran the company’s administrative, financial and other operations and she was paid $500 to $700 per month. S.T.R.O.N.G Edutainment stands for Stories That Root Our Next Generation and its mission is to, “create literature and media that will guide and inspire young people to protect the people and the planet for future generations,” according to Shigematsu’s website. 

The Guardian Princess Alliance released several books depicting stories of racially and culturally diverse super heroines, the first two of which McMillon was listed as a primary author. In the initial lawsuit, McMillon claimed that she was shut out from the business in 2015 and failed to receive proper compensation for her work on the project.

McMillon’s attorneys filed the initial lawsuit on her behalf on Aug. 13, 2020 seeking seven claims for relief: 

  1. Breach of contract 
  2. Fraud/misrepresentation against the University of California, Shigematsu, and Rodriguez
  3. Negligence against all defendants
  4. Intentional infliction of emotional distress against Shigematsu, violations of Cal. Lab. Code §§ 203, 1194, & 1197 against all defendants
  5. Copyright infringement
  6. Misappropriation of image and likeness in violation of Cal. Civ. Code § 3344 against the UCR Defendants
  7. Conversion in violation of Cal. Civ. Code § 3336 against the UCR defendants.

The suit also sought punitive damages to be determined at trial.

On Dec. 30, 2020, the court dismissed the first five claims for relief citing insufficient evidence and the statute of limitations. The court also dismissed claims six and seven without leave to amend saying McMillon consented to the argument that copyright law preempts her claims. 

On January 13, McMillon filed a 36-page amended complaint alleging three claims for relief against all defendants including copyright infringement, breach of contract and common law unfair competition.

On January 27, the defendants, Shigematsu, Rodriguez and S.T.R.O.N.G. Edutainment moved to dismiss the second and third claims for relief and the UC moved to dismiss all three. A hearing on the motions was held on March 12. 

Only the University of California moved to dismiss McMillon’s first claim for relief. On March 15, according to court documents, the copyright infringement claim was dismissed citing insufficient evidence to prove how the University of California oversaw, directed, or otherwise was responsible for Shigematsu’s alleged copyright infringement, which occurred after McMillon graduated. 

The second claim, breach of contract, was dismissed for all defendants due to a statute of limitations. In her amended claim, McMillon argues that Shigematsu breached their oral contract “by perpetuating a hostile takeover of the company… that forced McMillon to resign from the company.” The breach had therefore already occurred by the time that McMillon resigned from the company on February 1, 2015 but since the statute of limitations for oral contracts in California is two years, the final date to file the lawsuit would have been February 1, 2017, according to the court order. 

The final claim for relief, common-law unfair competition, was dismissed for all defendants. McMillon argued that the common-law unfair competition claim is properly before the court under Rule 15(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because it “relates back” to her dismissed claims, but the court ruled that McMillon’s argument fails to do so. The UCR defendants argued that the federal Copyright Act preempts this third claim for relief and seeing as McMillon raised no opposition to this argument, the court dismissed these claims against the defendants.

The court granted McMillon one opportunity to amend her pleading and while she responded to the opportunity with an amended complaint, the court found that the prospective additional amendments that McMillon’s counsel suggested in an oral argument will not cure the defects noted above. The court therefore dismissed all three claims for relief against the UC and dismissed the second and third claims for relief against Shigematsu, Rodriguez and S.T.R.O.N.G. Edutainment.

On March 29, Defendants Shigematsu, Rodriguez and ST.R.O.N.G. Edutainment responded to McMillon’s first amended complaint and denied multiple allegations made against them. In their response, the defendants alleged 36 affirmative defenses to each cause of action alleged in the first amended complaint. In their response, the defendants demanded a jury trial to assess the first amended complaint. 

The defendant’s lawyers, Catherine and Raphael Emanuel, told The Highlander, “Only the copyright claim remains, and Defendants look forward to a favorable resolution.”

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