Legal Fight Over Aaron Sorkin's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Adaptation Reaches "Emergency"

To Kill a Mockingbird 1- Photofest- H 2016
Léo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest

A theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee's iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird has sparked a civil war of sorts as federal judges in New York and Alabama are both being invited to exercise jurisdictional supremacy.

The mess is occurring thanks in part to a disagreement over whether a script by Aaron Sorkin strays too far from Lee's novel about a small-town Alabama lawyer named Atticus Finch who defends a black defendant in the 1930s. Additionally, producer Scott Rudin and Tonja Carter, the representative of the Harper Lee Estate, are at odds over who has ultimate approval over the Broadway play that is scheduled to open later this year.

On March 13, Carter filed the first lawsuit and asked an Alabama judge to find that Sorkin's play alters characters, the 1930s Alabama setting and the book's depiction of the fictional legal proceedings. On April 17, Rudin's production company Rudinplay filed the second lawsuit and asked a New York judge to declare that the play doesn't depart from the spirit of the novel and that Carter doesn't have the authority to object. In what seemed at the time an exercise in showmanship, Rudin also offered to arrange a performance of the play in the courthouse, although he would later request that any documents revealing plot points of the stage adaptation be filed under seal. (The judge denied this request.)

Since the dueling filings of the complaints, there's been a lot happening in the litigation, including a declaration from Rudin where he theorizes that Carter's objections to Sorkin's script are a "pretense," designed to avoid liability to the estate of actor Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch in the 1962 film. Rudin says he doesn't know specifics of the supposed dispute between Peck's camp and the Harper Lee Estate, but passes along word he heard both were involved in an arbitration proceeding concerning stage rights to the novel.

Getting past that, what's most pressing at the moment is whether the legal fight over the new stage adaptation takes place in New York or Alabama. Rudin's company is attempting to expedite the case in New York, but on Tuesday, Carter brought an emergency motion aimed at getting an Alabama judge to enjoin prosecution of the New York case.

According to Rudin's side, time is of the essence.

Joey Parnes, an executive producer and general manager of the Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, submits a declaration that investors will need to put up $7 million by July and that it's "nearly impossible" to raise these funds amid pending litigation concerning the underlying rights to the novel. Additionally, Parnes says that producers have gotten a commitment from a theater, but without confirmation the play will be moving forward, the theater owner won't allow its venue to go dark for six months. Parnes also says producers have scored commitments from a cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Will Pullen — but these actors won't risk going without a job for half a year if there's a chance the play won't move forward. Finally, Parnes says the original plan was for tickets to go on sale beginning in early May, but that won't happen, either.

Prospective harm is just part of what might form a judge's analysis.

Soon after Rudin's company filed the lawsuit, the court demanded briefing as to why this case shouldn't be paused to allow the prior lawsuit in Alabama to proceed first. After all, it's most often the first to file gaining the preference on forum. That's not always the case, however, and this time, Rudin's company raises "special circumstances."

Represented by a team of Loeb & Loeb attorneys including Jonathan Zavin, Rudin's company asserts that the Harper Lee Estate improperly raced to Alabama federal court in violation of a contractual obligation to first discuss concerns with producers.

"It would be perverse to reward Defendants for breaching their contractual obligations," states Rudin's company in a memorandum filed Monday that also argues Alabama can't exercise personal jurisdiction over Rudinplay.

Rudin's company additionally points to New York as a more convenient forum for many of the witnesses. The proposal to stage To Kill a Mockingbird in the courthouse might have seemed initially to be a stunt, but it turns out it's being leveraged in the attempt to have the dispute litigated in New York.

"As a practical matter, the staging of the Play, which will be essential to resolution of this dispute, can only take place in this forum," writes Rudin's lawyers.

With Rudin pressing the New York judge to hit the gas pedal on his lawsuit, Carter on Tuesday filed a bid in Alabama court to stop what's happening up north. 

"Both actions involve the Estate and Rudinplay, and the legal and factual issues substantially overlap," write attorneys at Bradley Arant in an emergency motion. "Under the first-filed rule, the court initially seized of the controversy — this Court — should hear the case. Rudinplay cannot establish any exception to the first-filed rule. Eleventh Circuit precedent authorizes a district court to enjoin a party from prosecuting a second-filed action, and that is the appropriate relief here. This Court should enjoin Rudinplay from further prosecuting its competing lawsuit in the Southern District of New York, so that the Court and the parties do not waste resources litigating the same issues in two different forums."

Carter says the Harper Lee Estate did address its concerns about the Sorkin play with producers before suing, and adds that nevertheless, a lawsuit can't plausibly be argued to have breached the contract.

Perhaps to any fear that a theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird could really trigger a power struggle in the nation's judiciary branch, Carter's camp adds, "Because an injunction would be directed at Rudinplay (a party before this Court) rather than the court in the Southern District of New York, there is no concern about encroaching on another court’s jurisdiction."