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A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit alleging that poet Maya Angelou violated an agreement with boxing promoter Butch Lewis to sell greeting cards that included her poetry. A unanimous panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the suit, filed by Lewis in 2001, should not have been dismissed by Southern District Judge Michael B. Mukasey. Though the 2nd Circuit agreed that a letter of agreement between Lewis and Angelou lacked essential terms needed to create a joint venture between the parties, the court said Mukasey should have considered whether the letter “formed a contract other than a formal joint venture or exclusive agency agreement.” “The New York courts, at least, have indicated in other contexts that parties are not limited by the label they used in describing their agreement,” the court wrote in B. Lewis Productions, Inc. v. Angelou, 03-7864. The court also reinstated Lewis’ claim for tortious interference against Hallmark, which eventually entered into an agreement with Angelou to sell cards that included her poetry. The court said Judge Mukasey was correct to dismiss Angelou’s countersuit against Lewis. Lewis and Angelou met in 1994 and began discussing licensing agreements for her poetry. Angelou soon signed a letter that purported to create a joint venture between the two parties. Lewis then began marketing the idea for Angelou’s greeting cards to distributors, including Hallmark. In 1996, Angelou notified Hallmark that Lewis had the exclusive right to represent her in any greeting card deal with the company. Lewis obtained a draft agreement from Hallmark that would have placed Angelou’s poetry in Hallmark cards from 1997 to 2000. Angelou would receive a $50,000 advance under the agreement. Angelou declined, citing the illness of her son and concerns about her contract with book publisher Random House. She and Lewis also had had a falling out, and she no longer wanted to maintain a relationship with him. In 1999, Angelou formally terminated her relationship with Lewis. Meanwhile, Hallmark had been made aware by an undisclosed third party that Angelou might be interested in negotiating a deal for greeting cards. In June 2000, she signed with Hallmark and received a $1 million advance. Lewis sued, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and breach of implied obligation of good faith. He alleged tortious interference against Hallmark saying it aided in the breach of fiduciary duty. Mukasey rejected all of Lewis’ claims last July, but the 2nd Circuit decided not only that Lewis could have valid state law claims but that he might be entitled to compensation “even in the absence of a contract.” “B. Lewis Productions performed its obligation pursuant to the putative contract by negotiating with and securing a draft agreement with Hallmark, and [Angelou's] own letter to Hallmark confirmed his authority to do so,” the court wrote. Angelou “subsequently signed a very lucrative licensing agreement with the same card company. These circumstances arguably suggest that [Lewis] might be entitled to damages on a quantum meruit theory of recovery, somewhat analogous to a finder’s fee for developing what turned out to be a valuable business opportunity” for Angelou. Second Circuit judges Jon O. Newman and Robert A. Katzmann and Southern District Judge John G. Koeltl, sitting by designation, concurred on the ruling. Lewis is represented by Jethro M. Eisenstein of Profeta & Eisenstein. Angelou is represented by Martin R. Gold of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. Hallmark is represented by Daniel H. Weiner of Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

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