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Wolf v. Oakland University

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 5, 2016

ALISA WOLF, Plaintiff,
OAKLAND UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.


          Mark A. Goldsmith United States District Judge

         In this copyright infringement case, Plaintiff Alisa Wolf, Ph.D., alleges that Defendants violated the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (“Copyright Act”), 17 U.S.C. § 511(a), by using her copyrighted written curriculum without permission or payment. Defendants have filed a motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. 18), contending that they are entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment and cannot be held liable for damages under the Copyright Act. A hearing on the motion was held on July 14, 2016, following which the parties submitted supplemental briefs on the issue of capacity (Dkts. 23, 24). For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' motion.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Wolf claims that she authored an original literary work entitled “Practical Film Vocational Program” before May 10, 2006. Compl. ¶¶ 15, 16 (Dkt. 1). After applying to the U.S. Copyright Office, Wolf states that she received a certificate of registration for the written curriculum dated August 11, 2006. Id. ¶ 17. Wolf claims to be the sole owner of the copyrighted material. Id. ¶ 20.

         Defendant Oakland University is a public university located in Rochester, Michigan. Defs. Br. at 4 (Dkt. 18); Pl. Resp. at 2 (Dkt. 19); Compl. ¶¶ 2, 4. The Human Development and Child Studies Department within Oakland University's School of Education and Human Services created a Center for Autism. Defs. Br. at 4. The Center provides innovative research programs for teachers and programming for individuals and their families living with autism spectrum disorder (“ASD”) under the acronym OUCARES. Id.; Compl. ¶¶ 5, 21, 25. Defendant Kristin Rohrbeck is an employee of Oakland University and has been the director of OUCARES since May 2015. Defs. Br. at 7; Pl. Resp. at 2; Compl. ¶ 7. From October 2012 to April 2015, Rohrbeck was the program coordinator for OUCARES and reported to the then-director of OUCARES, Defendant Kathleen Sweeney. Defs. Br. at 7; Pl. Resp. at 2; Compl. ¶ 6.

         OUCARES offers a two-week film camp for adolescents with ASD, as well as a twenty-week workshop for adults with ASD entitled “Practical Film Workshop for Adults with Autism.” Defs. Br. at 5; Compl. ¶¶ 21, 25. In her complaint, Wolf alleges that Defendants used her copyrighted material in a number of ways without her permission in regard to the camps and workshops, prompting this suit for copyright infringement. See Compl. ¶¶ 30-45.


         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). When evaluating a summary judgment motion,

credibility judgments and weighing of the evidence are prohibited. Rather, the evidence should be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Thus, the facts and any inferences that can be drawn from those facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

Biegas v. Quickway Carriers, Inc., 573 F.3d 365, 374 (6th Cir. 2009).

         When a defendant moves for summary judgment, it “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “To withstand summary judgment, the nonmoving party must present sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact.” Humenny v. Genex Corp., 390 F.3d 901, 904 (6th Cir. 2004). The nonmoving party “may not ‘rely on the hope that the trier of fact will disbelieve the movant's denial of a disputed fact' but must make an affirmative showing with proper evidence in order to defeat the motion.” Alexander v. CareSource, 576 F.3d 551, 558 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479 (6th Cir. 1989)). A mere scintilla of evidence is insufficient; rather, “there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

         III. ANALYSIS

         “Sovereign immunity is the privilege of the sovereign not to be sued without its consent.” Va. Office for Prot. & Advocacy v. Stewart, 563 U.S. 247, 253 (2011). The Eleventh Amendment, which specifically bars “any suit in law or equity, commended or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, ” U.S. Const. amend. XI, confirmed “the structural understanding that States entered the Union with their sovereign immunity intact, ” Stewart, 563 U.S. at 253. The doctrine of sovereign immunity extends to suits brought against a state by one of its own citizens, Hanz v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 15 (1890), and it applies to state agencies, as well as state officials sued in their official capacities, Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 70-71 (1989); Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985).

         Sovereign immunity applies to Oakland University, because it is a state institution of higher education, having been established under the Michigan Constitution and Michigan statutory law. Mich. Const. art. 8, § 6; Mich. Comp. Laws § 390.151; Hawthorne-Burdine v. Oakland Univ., 158 F.Supp.3d 586, 598 (E.D. Mich. 2016); Brooks v. Oakland Univ., No. 13-10701, 2013 WL 6191051, at *2 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 26, 2013).[2] It also applies to Sweeney and Rohrbeck, as employees of Oakland University, to the extent they were sued in their official capacities. Will, 491 U.S. at 71. Therefore, unless the State of Michigan has waived its sovereign immunity, or Congress has validly abrogated it under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, this Court will not entertain Wolf's suit. Stewart, 563 U.S. at 254; Russell v. Lundergan-Grimes, 784 F.3d 1037, 1046 (6th Cir. 2015) (sovereign immunity, guaranteed under the Eleventh Amendment, “deprives federal courts of subject-matter jurisdiction when a citizen sues his own State unless the State waives its immunity of Congress abrogates that sovereign immunity”).

         Wolf puts forth three arguments in support of her position that Defendants are not entitled to sovereign immunity: (i) Congress abrogated sovereign immunity for violations of the Copyright Act; (ii) Oakland University waived sovereign immunity under the Michigan Governmental Tort Liability Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 691.1410, et seq.; and (iii) Sweeney and Rohrbeck were sued in their individual, not official, capacities. The Court considers each in turn.

         A. The Copyright Remedy Clarification Act and Abrogation of Sovereign Immunity

         Determining whether Congress abrogated state sovereign immunity turns on two questions: (i) whether Congress “unequivocally expressed its intent to abrogate the immunity, ” and (ii) whether Congress “acted pursuant to a valid exercise of power.” Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd. v. Coll. Sav. Bank, 527 U.S. 627, 635 (1999). The language of the Copyright Act is clear and undoubtedly expressed Congress's intent to abrogate state sovereign immunity:

Any State . . . shall not be immune, under the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or under any other doctrine of sovereign immunity, from suit in Federal court . . . for a violation of ...

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