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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides suit against IPS; also an interesting Illinois bankruptcy case

Angela Brook-Ngwenya v. Indpls Public Schools (SD Ind., Judge Barker), is a 9-page per curiam opinion:

Angela Brooks-Ngwenya claims that the Indianapolis Public Schools infringed a copyrighted educational program that she had developed while work- ing for the school system. She also accuses the school system of employment discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment for IPS.

She had been promoted in October 2002 to classroom assistant at Gambold Middle School. During that school year she developed “TIRS”—Transitioning Into Responsi- ble Students—to assist underachievers at Gambold. According to Brooks-Ngwenya, IPS promised to buy TIRS and hire her as a permanent classroom coordinator if the program proved successful. But IPS did not buy TIRS or give Brooks-Ngwenya a permanent job, and yet, she says, the school system continued to use the program after she was terminated in October 2003. * * *

The record includes documents related to TIRS—a proposal for the program, for example, and documents explaining how the program is designed to work. The proposal and the other documents are copyrightable, as the Copyright Office ultimately concluded. But the in- fringement claim fails nevertheless because Brooks-Ngwenya did not prove or try to prove that IPS copied any of the materials protected by her copyright. Her complaint is that IPS copied her ideas for better educating stu- dents—that is, copied the TIRS program, which is a system of rewards and recognition for students. Copyright protection does not “extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is de- scribed, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” * * *

As for employment discrimination, Brooks-Ngwenya’s claims, which are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, and on the Equal Pay Act of 1963, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d), were raised in her first suit, Brooks-Ngwenya v. Indianapolis Public Schools, No. 1:04-CV-1980-SEB-VSS (S.D. Ind. July 6, 2005). When the parties settled that suit, they stipulated to a dismissal with prejudice. Such a dismissal is a final judgment for purposes of claim preclusion (collateral estoppel, in an older vocabulary) and so bars the present suit. Affirmed.

In re Ingersol (ND Ill.) is an 18-page opinion by Judge Evans. Here is the beginning and end of the opinion:
Although many have tried to put a stake through the heart of this fee dispute which refuses to die, all have failed to do the trick. We, as the sixth forum to take a stab at it, are next in line. Now creeping along as a bankruptcy appeal, the case is here after stops at the District of Columbia Bar Attorney/Client Arbitration Board, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the Superior Court of Delaware, the federal bankruptcy court for the Northern District of Illinois, and finally the federal trial court for that district. Baise & Miller, P.C., the Washington, D.C. law firm in this dis- pute, is here today appealing an order barring its claim for additional fees under 11 U.S.C. § 105 of the bank- ruptcy code. In resolving the firm’s appeal, we must go back in time to when this saga all began.

The Ingersoll Cutting Tool Company (ICTC), since its inception in the late 1800s, was at the forefront of the metal cutting tool industry. For the vast majority of that time it was a family-owned enterprise, handed down from its founder, Winthrop Ingersoll, to future genera- tions. But that changed in 2001, when Israeli-based Iscar, Ltd. took over in a sale allegedly “masterminded” by the first outside board members in ICTC’s history. Prior to the sale, ICTC was owned by the Gaylords, descendants of Mr. Ingersoll and the appellees in this case. They claim they had no desire to sell the company but were duped by the nonfamily CEO and certain directors. * * * What is important is that when the Gaylords caught wind of this plan, they tried with all their might to stop the sale, retaining Baise & Miller to act on their behalf. And when the law firm failed to make a differ- ence—and sought more money for its services—the Gaylords found themselves trading one battle (over their company) for another (over legal fees). * * *

But perhaps there is a broader lesson in this case, a lesson for litigants of all types: Good advocacy does not exist in a vacuum; it must be balanced with a willing- ness to compromise, to behave reasonably, and, some- times, to leave well enough alone. If these counter- weights are neglected, things can get ugly in a hurry. This case illustrates the point. What started as a simple fee dispute ended as a multi-year, multi-court monster that, as far as we can tell, benefitted no one. Baise & Miller had a number of opportunities to avoid this result.

The judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 15, 2009 11:07 AM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions