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Alliance for Water Efficiency v. Fryer

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 5, 2018

Alliance for Water Efficiency, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
James Fryer, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued November 9, 2017

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 14 C 115 - Jeffrey Cole, Magistrate Judge.

          Before Ripple, Manion, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          SYKES, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         James Fryer and the Alliance for Water Efficiency set out to produce a study about drought. Unfortunately, the collaboration ran dry, and the Alliance sued Fryer under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq. The lawsuit proved to be far less troublesome than the ensuing settlement. While the parties were supposed to part ways and publish their own reports, they instead find themselves in the fourth year of protracted litigation.

         The parties' disputes center on their obligations under the settlement. Years ago the district court ordered Fryer to turn over certain data sets to the Alliance and refrain from acknowledging a number of organizations in his study. On appeal we reversed solely on the acknowledgment issue. Alliance for Water Efficiency v. Fryer, 808 F.3d 1153 (7th Cir. 2015). Fryer then returned to the district court and sought restitution for injuries caused by the court's erroneous injunction. He also moved for attorney's fees under § 505 of the Copyright Act for having prevailed in the first appeal. A magistrate judge denied both motions and Fryer appealed.

         We affirm. Fryer does not present genuine claims for restitution; he seeks to relitigate unrelated claims for breach of the settlement. His request for attorney's fees is also unsuccessful because he did not prevail on the Alliance's copyright claim as § 505 requires. The parties compromised their positions, obtained some relief, and walked away from the underlying lawsuit. At no time has any court entered judgment on the Alliance's copyright claim.

         I. Background

         In 2011 James Fryer and the Alliance for Water Efficiency began to collaborate on a report about the economic effects of drought in the western United States. The Alliance agreed to corral funding and other organizations to support the project, and Fryer led the research team to produce the study. Both sides carried out their respective duties for a time. The Alliance amassed a number of funders and sponsors, and Fryer collected and analyzed reams of data from various public water utilities.

         Regrettably, the partnership collapsed. In April 2013 Fryer circulated a draft of the report, but the Alliance expressed concern with the analysis and methodology. Months of negotiations ensued and the parties were still unable to resolve their differences. As a result, the Alliance sought to remove Fryer from the study and continue on without him. Fryer strongly objected. He claimed sole ownership of the report and refused to turn over his work product, including the underlying data he had collected.

         The Alliance responded in federal court and sued Fryer under the Copyright Act, alleging it was the rightful owner of both the report and the utility data under the "work made for hire" doctrine. See Billy-Bob Teeth, Inc. v. Novelty, Inc., 329 F.3d 586, 591 (7th Cir. 2003). Fryer moved to dismiss, but the district court never had occasion to issue a ruling. The parties reached an oral settlement in a hearing before a magistrate judge on March 13, 2014. Now more than four years later and on their second appeal, the parties continue to litigate their obligations under the agreement.

         The settlement's provisions are cobbled together from a hearing transcript. Three of them are relevant here. First, Fryer agreed to turn over his data sets from the public utilities in exchange for $25, 000. If any utility had disclosed its data pursuant to a confidentiality agreement, the Alliance was required to secure a release before Fryer had to comply. Second, Fryer was allowed to publish his own report, but he could not acknowledge the Alliance's involvement. The Alliance was similarly permitted to issue its own study so long as it didn't mention Fryer or the California Department of Water Resources. Third, the parties agreed to enter a joint stipulation to dismiss the Alliance's suit with prejudice upon "execution" of the settlement. But because the parties have litigated virtually nonstop ever since, they have not yet entered this stipulation. The district court where this suit was first filed has continued to exercise jurisdiction over the case.

         Over the next several months, both sides thought the other was shirking its duties under the settlement. Fryer refused to turn over data he acquired from the City of Santa Rosa, California, because the Alliance hadn't yet secured the relevant release. The Alliance disagreed and demanded the data because the City had never negotiated a confidentiality agreement. Fryer also sought to acknowledge sponsors other than the Alliance in his report, but this time the Alliance refused to play ball. It had originally recruited these organizations and was worried their support could imply the Alliance's tacit approval of Fryer's project. Fryer found this concern to be beside the point. He had agreed to omit mention of the Alliance, not anyone else. Fryer further claimed he never would have agreed to a broad nondisclosure term. As a mater of academic integrity, he believed his report was unpublishable without recognizing these organizations.

         The parties were unable to resolve these disputes and entered motions to enforce the settlement before the magistrate judge. The judge ruled in favor of the Alliance on both issues. He concluded that the Alliance was entitled to the Santa Rosa data and that Fryer was bound by the settlement to refrain from acknowledging the disputed organizations unless they contacted him first and asked to be recognized. ...


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