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Riordan v. H.J. Heinz Co.

December 8, 2009

DENNIS RIORDAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
H.J. HEINZ COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This action involves pro se Plaintiff Dennis Riordan's ("Plaintiff") claims against H.J. Heinz Company ("Defendant" or "Heinz") related to Plaintiff's unsolicited submission of a proposed bottling device invention to Defendant and Defendant's later sale of its condiments in an up-side down bottle. Presently before the Court is a third motion to dismiss filed by Defendant, pursuant to which it seeks to dismiss Plaintiff's misappropriation of ideas and copyright infringement claims set forth in his Second Amended Complaint (Docket No. 37). In support of its motion, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's misappropriation claim is barred by a waiver agreement executed by Plaintiff and submitted to Defendant in conjunction with his proposed invention and/or the applicable statute of limitations and that Plaintiff has otherwise properly failed to state claims upon which relief may be granted for both misappropriation of ideas and copyright infringement. (Docket Nos. 39, 42). Plaintiff maintains that the waiver is not enforceable, the statute of limitations should be tolled and that he has properly pled his claims. (Docket Nos. 41 and 42). Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, and for the following reasons, Defendant's motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On January 21, 1999, Plaintiff filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in order to obtain a patent for a bottling container for condiments and flavored beverages, which he named a "Dual Chamber Container." (Docket No. 37 at ¶¶ 3, 9). Shortly thereafter, on January 28, 1999, Plaintiff initiated contact with Defendant by sending a letter to Dan Vogus, Defendant's Associate General Counsel, informing him that he recently applied for a patent for a container that would be "highly advantageous" to Defendant's business. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 5; Docket No. 39-2).*fn1 Specifically, the letter stated that the device is a "unique innovation that allows you to provide the consumer with two (2) products occupying the same vertical space (Space Saver), e.g., mustard and catsup." (Docket No. 39-2).*fn2 On February 1, 1999, Defendant responded that it does not, as a matter of policy, accept any unsolicited submission of ideas from outside the company absent a written understanding defining the conditions relating to such unsolicited submissions.*fn3 (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 6; Docket No. 39-4). Defendant informed Plaintiff that he must execute and return the attached "Request for Consideration of Idea" form prior to Defendant considering Plaintiff's proposed device. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 6; Docket No. 39-4).

Plaintiff signed, executed and mailed the "Request for Consideration of Idea" form on April 20, 1999 along with a minimal description of his idea and drawings of his bottling concept. (Docket No. 37 at ¶¶ 6-7; Docket No. 39-5). Pursuant to the "Request for Consideration of Idea" form, Plaintiff agreed that "[s]ubject to the conditions set forth in this document, I am submitting for [Defendant's] consideration my idea relating to: ... Dual Chamber Bottle with Symmetrical Ends." (Docket No. 39-5). Plaintiff's submission further explains that the device "[c]an be used as dispenser of for ex. Mustard & Catsup or other combinations." (Docket No. 39-5). The executed form also sets forth the terms of the solicitation as follows:

1. I acknowledge and agree that this submission has not in any way been solicited by H.J.Heinz Company ("HEINZ"), is not made in confidence, and does not establish any confidential relationship between HEINZ and me.

2. I agree that the use or non-use that HEINZ may make of any ideas submitted by me shall be at the exclusive discretion of HEINZ.

3. I acknowledge and agree that HEINZ has not and is not promising any compensation for my idea or the use of my idea, and that all agreements as to compensation, if any, shall be in writing.

4. I waive and relinquish any rights that I may have in connection with said idea, except those rights that a valid patent, trademark, or copyright may cover.

5. I agree that HEINZ shall be under no obligation to return any material that [I] submit to HEINZ.

6. I further agree that the conditions set forth in this letter shall apply to any additional disclosures I make to HEINZ by me relating to the above idea.

(Id.). As a supplement to the brief description on the form, Plaintiff attached a handwritten descriptive page*fn4 and a notarized typewritten page,*fn5 containing bullet point descriptions of his bottle beverage from going flat (MAJOR CONSUMER COMPLAINT) 1 liter remains carbonated invention. (Id.). Also attached were a series of technical illustrations of the container labeled Figure 1 through Figure 6.*fn6 (Id.). Defendant responded to Plaintiff in June of 1999, thanking him for his letter regarding a potential new bottle, but ultimately rejecting his idea after reviewing the concept with the appropriate department.*fn7 (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 8).

Plaintiff claims that he introduced an idea for a "new bottling concept" to Defendant in his 1999 correspondence. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 12). Plaintiff's submission of his idea to Defendant was financially motivated. (Id. at ¶ 16). With respect to the specifics of the idea which he submitted, he avers that it was a "new bottle which can stand up-side down by the novel idea of creating a base by extending the walls of the container beyond it's [sic] capped closure and standing on the circumferential edge of that extension." (Id.). He complains that Defendant "knowingly and unlawfully deceived [him] by not informing him of [the] company's intent to expand on [his] idea by simply making the base detachable." (Id.). He further maintains that his idea was "the impetus in the development of dispensing ketchup and other condiments in an 'up-side' down manner." (Id.).

Plaintiff alleges that Defendant permitted its employees to review and examine his idea, including his drawings and description, which enabled Defendant to adapt or alter his idea and ultimately develop its up-side down condiment dispenser. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 15). He contends that these alterations were made by Defendant "in an attempt to conceal" its misappropriation of his idea. (Id. at ¶ 15). Moreover, Plaintiff complains that the Defendant's misappropriation or theft of his idea occurred three years after he submitted his "novel idea, drawings included, to Defendant," i.e., in 2002. (Id. at¶¶ 12, 16).

After his 1999 submissions to Defendant, on August 22, 2000, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued Plaintiff Patent Number 6,105,812, for his "Dual Chamber Container." (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 9; Docket No. 39-3). Plaintiff avers that Defendant officially introduced its "up-side down bottle" via a press release in August of 2002. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 10). He further alleges that in 2005 or 2006, Defendant altered their bottling terminology from "up-side down" to "top-down" bottle. (Id.). In January of 2006, Plaintiff contacted Defendant's legal department to request copies of their previous correspondence. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 11). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant informed him that he had been "red-flagged" in their system and an attorney for Defendant asked Plaintiff if he was going to sue for any reason. (Id.).

Based on the above allegations, Plaintiff asserts claims of misappropriation of ideas and copyright infringement against Heinz. (Docket No. 37). With respect to his claim of copyright infringement, Plaintiff avers that he sought a valid copyright registration for his "bottle design drawings," "artwork" and associated text on September 2, 2009, prior to the filing of his Second Amended Complaint. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 18). In support of this claim, Plaintiff has attached a "Form CO - Application for Copyright Registration" dated September 1, 2009 to his Second Amended Complaint, which he claims was mailed to the United States Copyright Office. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 19; Docket No. 37-3). He states that because of his ignorance of the law, he believed that his patent protected the subject matter of the materials to which he now seeks copyright protection. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 20).

Finally, Plaintiff seeks the following relief: (1) a declaratory judgment stating that Defendant violated Plaintiff's rights, including causing Plaintiff psychological trauma by misappropriating his idea and by infringing Plaintiff's copyright privileges; (2) an injunction ordering Defendant to cease and desist all bottling production "until a favorable resolution can be satisfactorily substantiated by all parties of concern"; and (3) compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $57,000,000, plus royalties. (Docket No. 37 at 5).

III. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff initially commenced this action by filing his Complaint pro se in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. (Docket No. 4). Thereafter, on August 11, 2008, that Court entered an order transferring the case to the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. ( Id.). On August 22, 2008, Plaintiff moved for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis (Docket No. 5), which this Court denied. (Docket No. 6). ...


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