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Johnson v. Plastek Industries

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

March 27, 2018




         Before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by defendant Plastek Industries (herein, “Plastek”) (Doc. Nos. 10&11 [collectively, “Plastek Mot.”]), and defendants Joseph Prischak, Nar Handa, and Alex Szekely (herein, collectively, “individual defendants” or, individually, “Prischak, ” “Handa, ” and “Szekely”) (Doc. Nos. 12&13 [collectively, “Ind. Defs. Mot.”]). These motions are supported by a joint appendix, as supplemented. (Doc. Nos. 17, 26 [“Joint Appx.”].)[1]Plaintiff Robert L. Johnson (“Johnson”) is representing himself. He has filed a document styled “Plaintiff's Motion to Strike (Doc. No. 20 [“Pl. Opp'n 1”]), which the Court has construed as an opposition brief with respect to both motions to dismiss. In addition, Johnson filed a separate brief in opposition to Plastek's motion. (Doc. No. 32 [“Pl. Opp'n 2”].) Plastek filed two reply briefs (Doc. Nos. 24 and 36 [respectively, “Plastek Reply 1” and “Plastek Reply 2”]), as did the individual defendants (Doc. Nos. 25 and 37 [respectively, “Ind. Defs. Reply 1” and “Ind. Defs. Reply 2”]). On October 4, 2017, the Court issued an order (Doc. No. 34) prohibiting further filing until the motions to dismiss are resolved. On the same day, Johnson filed a document styled “Contemporaneous Motion to strike motion to dismiss, ” which has been construed as another opposition brief. (Doc. No. 35 [“Pl. Opp'n 3”].)[2] For the reasons set forth herein, both motions to dismiss are granted.


         On March 16, 2017, Johnson filed his complaint (Doc. No. 1, Complaint [“Compl.”]) against Plastek and the individual defendants, setting forth common law claims of (1) breach of contract, (2) fraudulent non-disclosure, (3) unjust enrichment, (4) fraudulent concealment, and (5) spoliation of evidence. Jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship.

         Johnson alleges that he is an inventor who, on April 22, 1993, introduced to Plastek, [3] a manufacturer of containers (including deodorant dispensers), his original concept for a toothpaste dispenser consisting of a “cylindrical product tube concealed inside of a housing fitting type transparent assembly[.]” (Compl. ¶¶ 3, 10-11; Ex. A.)[4] He alleges that he “conceived that [his] prototype of a toothpaste dispenser could be used for a deodorant dispenser.” (Id. ¶ 12.)

         As a result of this meeting, Johnson and Plastek “entered into an agreement [in] which Defendants Plastek made Plaintiff an attractive offer involved [sic] three phases, two of which would entitle Plaintiff to receive compensation in exchange for allowing Defendants Plastek to be [Plaintiff's] exclusive marketing arm . . . .” (Id. ¶ 19; Ex. B.) Plaintiff allegedly traveled to Connecticut on May 11, 1993, to present his invention to Plastek's design firm associate. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 20.) He also made a number of business trips to Ohio with Plastek employees to determine marketing feasibility with a customer, Proctor & Gamble, to whom he also gave a presentation on his prototype invention, and allegedly demonstrated how it could be used for a deodorant dispenser. (Id. ¶¶ 21-24.) Johnson also “independently held a meeting with Helene Curtis” in Chicago, Illinois on December 7, 1993. (Id. ¶ 31.)

         Johnson alleges that, on July 27, 1995, he and Plastek entered into a Confidential / NonDisclosure Agreement. (Id. ¶ 37; Ex. D.) The agreement permitted Plastek “to evaluate the usefulness to itself of [Johnson's] invention[, ]” identified in the agreement as “Tactile Feed Back Liquid Dispensing Closure[.]” (Compl. Ex. D at 42[5].) Johnson also alleges that, on July 27, 1995, he made references to his Patent No. 5, 215, 229 (“the ‘229 Patent”) and underlined certain subject matter contained in that patent. (Compl. ¶ 38; Ex. A.)

         Johnson asserts that Plastek set up a September 13, 1995 meeting with him, wherein defendant Handa showed Johnson “a prototype of a deodorant dispenser which did not turn and therefore was not useable.” (Compl. ¶ 41.) “Plaintiff explained the theoretical operation of his invention may have a center ratchet teeth gear dispensing actuation assembly including two bottles sharing a common thread structure and relate to a single closure to maintain the association of the parts.” (Id. ¶ 42.) Defendant Szekely was also at this meeting. (Id. ¶ 43.) Plaintiff claims that, on September 13, 1995, he “illustrated various deodorant dispenser sketches . . . derived from . . . [his] toothpaste dispenser . . . .” (Id. ¶ 44.)

         Johnson alleges that Plastek eventually applied for a patent on a deodorant dispenser, but never disclosed that fact to him. (Id. ¶¶ 48-49.) On March 21, 2000, Szekely was awarded Patent No. 6, 039, 483 (“the '483 Patent”) “for a deodorant dispenser comprising a cylindrical product tube concealed inside of an outer oval housing.” (Id. ¶ 50; Ex. G.)

         Johnson also applied for a patent and, on April 3, 2001, he was awarded Patent No. 6, 210, 061 (“the '061 Patent”) “for a deodorant dispenser comprising a cylindrical product tube concealed inside of an outer oval housing.” (Id. ¶ 52; Ex. H.)

         On February 18, 2002, Johnson's patent attorney sent a letter to Plastek demanding that Johnson be added as a co-inventor on the '483 Patent. (Id. ¶ 53; Ex. I at 97-99.) By letter dated February 27, 2002, Plastek advised that “Mr. Johnson [had] made no inventive contribution” to the '483 Patent; the letter suggested that Johnson “present an explanation as to what subject matter from the claims of the '483 patent Mr. Johnson claims he invented[.]” (Id. Ex. J at 103.) By letter dated March 27, 2002, Johnson's attorney supplied the requested explanation. (Id. Ex. I at 100-102.) By letter dated April 30, 2002, Plastek rejected the explanation and the demand by Johnson to be named co-inventor on the '483 Patent. (Id. ¶ 54 and Ex. J at 105-08.) Johnson claims that, on July 13, 2014, he “discovered a deodorant dispenser labeled by Unilever, yet the dispenser is void of an identifiable patent number which could lead to the manufacturer . . . .” (Id. ¶ 55.) Johnson alleges that he “sought for years to determine what improper use Defendants Plastek had made of the time, effort and technology [he] contributed to it[, ]” but his discovery was delayed by Plastek's “acquisitions and mergers[.]” (Id. ¶ 56.)

         Based on these facts, Johnson sets forth five (5) counts.

         In count one, Johnson alleges that Plastek breached the parties' three-phase agreement and, without notifying him, applied for a patent, while taking control of his invention, in order “to obtain a patent without naming Plaintiff as one of the inventors if not the sole inventor” of the ‘483 Patent. (Id. ¶ 58; Ex. G.) Plastek then contacted Helene Curtis, allegedly holding itself out as Johnson's broker for his invention, but failed to disclose this contact to plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 64-66.)

         In count two, Johnson asserts a claim of fraudulent non-disclosure. He alleges that Plastek applied for a provisional patent on the subject matter that plaintiff disclosed under the parties' confidentiality agreement, but named defendant Szekely as the sole inventor, thereby preventing Johnson from assigning or selling his owned patented invention to Helene Curtis. (Id. ¶¶ 68-70, 72.) He alleges that Plastek “deceptively showed no interest in the use of Plaintiff's disclosure” of his invention, “while using [his] initiative[, ] skills and talent in order to re-engineer [his] toothpaste dispenser into a deodorant dispenser for Helene Curtis.” (Id. ¶¶ 75-76.) Despite these allegations, Johnson also claims that “the deodorant dispenser manufacturer for Helene Curtis . . . at the present time remains a mystery to the Plaintiff without intervening this court.” (Id. ¶ 78.) In sum, Johnson alleges in count two that Plastek “withheld information about applying for a patent and never told Plaintiff[, ]” and also “failed to disclose information to Plaintiff about . . . Plastek's involvement with Plaintiff's customer Helen[e] Curtis and that . . . Plastek signed Plaintiff's confidentiality agreement concerning the development of the deodorant dispenser derived from Plaintiff's toothpaste dispenser patent No[.] 5, 215, 229.” (Id. ¶¶ 81, 82.) Plaintiff acknowledges that, “[i]n 2002 [his] patent attorney sent dispute letters to Defendants Plastek . . . yet it has failed and refused to provide Plaintiff with compensation as contemplated by the agreement.” (Id. ¶ 83.) Johnson alleges that “Plastek['s] fraudulent non-disclosure” and its “malicious unwillingness to add Plaintiff as co-inventor[, ]” has caused damage to plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 85, 87.) Further, Plastek has “profited from the sales and licensing of [the ‘483 Patent] for almost two decades without prior express written consent from plaintiff.” (Id. ¶ 90.) The fraudulent non-disclosure has “deprived the Plaintiff [of] opportunities and prestige [he] would have enjoyed had [he] been credited with the invention, and harmed Plaintiff financially, personally and professionally.” (Id. ¶ 92.) Finally, Johnson asserts that it would be “unreasonable . . . to bar rights of action because of the lapse of time prior to their accrual, when they could not have been exercised.” (Id. ¶ 94.)

         In count three, plaintiff asserts a claim for unjust enrichment based on these same facts: not naming him as co-inventor, preventing him from working with Helene Curtis, using his invention for Plastek's own benefit, and profiting from ...

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