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Fifth Circuit Flushes Away Pro Se Plaintiff’s Claims Against Oil Giants for Intellectual Property Theft and Infringement of a “Giant Plunger”

Addressing allegations by a pro se plaintiff that oil industry giants stole and infringed her various intellectual property rights related to a “giant plunger” idea submitted to BP by the plaintiff as a means of remedying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that dismissed plaintiff’s complaint, finding that the complaint failed to recite any facially plausible factual allegations to survive the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  Richards v. BP Exploration, Case No. 12-30508 (5th Cir., Apr. 3, 2013) (per curiam).

The plaintiff, Velma Jean Richards, brought a lawsuit pro se in district court against BP; Halliburton Energy Services, Inc.; Cameron International Corporation; and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (collectively referred to herein as BP), alleging that the defendants stole her copyrighted or patented giant plunger idea and surrendered it into the worldwide oil industry.  Richards submitted her giant plunger idea to BP in response to the oil company’s solicitation from the public of Alternative Response Technology (ART) proposals for addressing the oil spill.  Richards alleged that she observed media images of her giant plunger idea being used by BP.  She further alleged to have filed a provisional patent application presumably covering the giant plunger with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

At the district court, BP filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Richards only alleged “use” of her plunger idea, which fell outside the scope of copyright infringement, her claim for patent infringement was not actionable because she had not obtained a patent and her theft of intellectual property claim necessarily failed because Richards could not allege any facts establishing that BP used her giant plunger idea in any form.  The district court agreed with BP, finding that even if Richards possessed a valid copyright or patent, which the court said was “doubtful,” her bare allegations of theft and use were simply legal conclusions that were not entitled to any presumption of correctness.  According to the district court, her claims failed to cross the line from possibility to plausibility.  Undetermined, Richards appealed.

In a terse opinion, the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling.  The Court adopted the district court’s reasoning, finding that Richards failed to state a copyright infringement claim because she did not proffer plausible facts that BP copied any work of original authorship and failed to state a patent infringement claim because she did not allege that defendants made, used, or sold any patented invention owned by her.  The Court further found that Richards failed to allege any facts supporting her more general claim of theft of intellectual property under any legal theory.  Accordingly, the 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment of dismissal.

© 2022 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume III, Number 125
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