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News World Communications, Inc. v. Thompson

July 14, 2005

NEWS WORLD COMMUNICATIONS, INC., APPELLANT,
v.
ELAINEJ. S. THOMPSEN, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA5555-98) (Hon. Richard A. Levie, First Motions Judge) (Hon. Judith Bartnoff, Second Motions Judge and Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge.

Argued May 24, 2005

Before SCHWELB and GLICKMAN, Associate Judges, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

A jury awarded Elaine J. S. Thompsen $100,000 on her claim of unjust enrichment against News World Communications, Inc. (the Times), a corporation which publishes a daily newspaper known as The Washington Times. The Times filed a timely post-trial motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (JMOL) or, in the alternative, for a new trial, relying, inter alia, on a statute of limitations defense which it had asserted in pretrial motions and throughout the trial. On March 11, 2004, the trial judge denied the Times' post-trial motion. Judgment was entered on the verdict, and the Times appealed, again contending, inter alia, that Ms. Thompsen's claim was time-barred.

To decide this appeal, we must determine when the statute of limitations begins to run in a case of unjust enrichment. The issue is a novel and difficult one, and the parties have not provided us with, nor have we found, any applicable precedent in this jurisdiction. Although reasonable minds could differ as to the proper outcome, we follow the approach of courts in other jurisdictions which have addressed comparable issues, and which have held that the statute of limitations begins to run when the plaintiff's last service has been rendered and compensation has been wrongfully withheld. Applying this principle to the present record, we reverse.

I. THE TRIAL COURT PROCEEDINGS

A. Ms. Thompsen's Allegations

According to Ms. Thompsen's complaint, which was filed on July 22, 1998, the events that gave rise to this action began in September 1994, when Ms. Thompsen met Janet Naylor, who was then a political reporter for the Times. Ms. Thompsen told Ms. Naylor that she had an idea for a family magazine for the Times. Ms. Naylor was receptive, and she put Ms. Thompsen in touch with Michael Mahr, the newspaper's Advertising Director. In October 1994, Mr. Mahr asked Ms. Thompsen to fax him her proposal, and on November 17, 1994, Ms. Thompsen did so.

Ms. Thompsen further alleged in her complaint that on November 29, 1994, Ms. Thompsen met with Mr. Mahr and several other representatives of the Times at the newspaper's New York Avenue office. At that meeting, according to Ms. Thompsen, Mr. Mahr expressed great enthusiasm for Ms. Thompsen's ideas. He also asked what monetary remuneration Ms. Thompsen sought for the idea, and himself suggested one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000.00) for the idea, and two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000.00) for a consulting position to develop the idea. Ms. Thompsen responded that the amount of the remuneration would be discussed later.*fn1

On December 1, 1994, at Mr. Mahr's request, Ms. Thompsen faxed two proposed layouts to Mr. Mahr, one for the Family Times and one for the Kids Times. She followed up these submissions with "a marketing strategy and commercial ideas" for the proposed publications. On December 6, 2004, Mr. Mahr confirmed receipt and "indicated [that] he desired to go forward with Ms. Thompsen's proposals." Mr. Mahr explained that he would make some changes in his department "before the project could begin," but that this would be completed by Christmas.

Ms. Thompsen further alleged in her complaint that on January 5 or 6, 1995, after some delay, Mr. Mahr telephoned Ms. Thompsen and advised her that "[i]t's all going to happen; it is all going to take place." On February 9, 1995, Mr. Mahr left a message on Ms. Thompsen's answering machine that he wanted to get started with their project. Less than two months later, however, there was a dramatic turnaround on the part of the Times. On April 4, 1995, according to Ms. Thompsen's complaint, Mr. Mahr telephoned Ms. Thompsen at home. He stated that the project was in the works. A family magazine was being developed and it would be called "Parenting." Mr. Mahr told Ms. Thompsen that her ideas had not been novel and she would not be paid for her ideas or for the work she had done.

. . . In June 1997, the Times published its first edition of its new weekly supplement, the "Family Times."

Ms. Thompsen claims that the new supplement was similar to, and based upon, her ideas and work. She testified that shortly after April ...


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