Ninth Circuit justices to hear appeal of Steinbeck estate lawsuit in Anchorage

Another chapter is set to play out this week in a decades-old family dispute over control of the classic works by author John Steinbeck.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be in Anchorage on Tuesday to hear arguments in an appeal by the estate of Steinbeck’s late son, Thomas Steinbeck, over a 2017 jury verdict in California.

In that case, a federal jury awarded the author's stepdaughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, more than $13 million in a lawsuit claiming Steinbeck's son and daughter-in-law, Gail Steinbeck, impeded film adaptations of the iconic works.

It was up to the Los Angeles jury to decide if Thomas and Gail Steinbeck interfered with deals and should pay up. Kaffaga had sued her stepbrother, his widow, Gail, and their company.

Attorney Matthew Dowd, representing the Thomas Steinbeck estate, said part of the appeal contends the 1983 agreement was in violation of a 1976 change to copyright law that gave artists or their blood relatives the right to terminate copyright deals. The appeal also disputes the award handed up by the jury, maintaining it was not supported by "substantial evidence."

Kaffaga - executor for the estate of her mother, Elaine Steinbeck, the author's widow and third wife - had alleged that long-running litigation over the author's estate prevented her from making the most of his copyrights at a time when marquee names such as Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence were interested in bringing masterpieces, "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden," back to the screen. She said the deals instead fell apart over the years.

Kaffaga had contended Thomas Steinbeck secretly signed a $650,000 deal with DreamWorks to be an executive producer on a film remake of "The Grapes of Wrath," the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that starred Henry Fonda on the silver screen and won two Oscars. She also said Gail Steinbeck learned of projects and threatened moviemakers, saying she and her husband had legal rights to the work.


Dowd said Thomas Steinbeck, who died in 2016, conveyed his intention to exercise those rights, prompting Kaffaga to claim the contract breach. He said Steinbeck was fully within his right to do so, under the 1976 “termination rights” clause.

"The problem with the 1983 agreement is that it violates the statute by basically binding up, or restricting, Thom's ability to exercise his termination rights for 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" Dowd told The Associated Press. Gail Steinbeck was not allowed to fully address the issue in court, he said.

In the same case, a judge earlier ruled the couple breached a contract between Kaffaga's late mother and Thomas Steinbeck and his late brother, John Steinbeck IV. The brothers' mother was the author's second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger.

"We would like the court to rule that the 1983 Agreement violates the statute and therefore cannot prevent the heirs from exercising their termination rights," Dowd said. "Relatedly, we are asking for a new trial and that the damages awards be vacated because they are too speculative and there is no legal basis for awarding punitive damages under California law."

Kaffaga's attorney, Susan Kohlmann, declined to comment before Tuesday's proceeding.

In a brief to the appeal, however, Kohlmann and another attorney say multiple courts have already upheld the agreement as binding and valid. The agreement, which resolved earlier litigation, gives Elaine Steinbeck's estate the "exclusive power and authority to control the exploitation and termination" of some of Steinbeck's works in exchange for the sons getting a larger share of domestic royalties, according to the attorneys.

"Yet, Appellants again seek to hijack this lawsuit and use it as a mechanism to relitigate the issue of the validity of the 1983 agreement by arguing that it is an 'agreement to the contrary' under the Copyright Act," they wrote. "The District Court properly excluded such argument, evidence, and testimony that sought to undermine the holdings of multiple courts confirming the validity of the 1983 agreement."

The lawsuit followed a decades-long dispute and litigation between Thomas Steinbeck and Kaffaga's mother over control of the author's works.

Thomas Steinbeck had lost most rounds in court, including a lawsuit he and the daughter of his late brother, John Steinbeck IV, brought that spurred Kaffaga to countersue in the case being appealed.

Gail Steinbeck's previous attorney, Matthew Berger, had argued Kaffaga's claim had no merit and she wasn't entitled to any damages because most movies optioned are never made and that estimated revenue from unproduced projects was speculation.

Berger also said Gail Steinbeck never intentionally interfered in deals she and her husband would have benefited from and that would have served their interest promoting the Nobel Prize winner’s legacy.

Rachel D'Oro, Associated Press

Rachel D'Oro is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Anchorage.