Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development v. Target Corp.

Addressing the balance between privacy rights and matters of public interest, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint, holding that the defendant was shielded by the First Amendment from a lawsuit claiming the retailer violated the publicity rights of civil rights icon Rosa Parks by selling various products that included the plaintiff’s picture. Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development v. Target Corp., Case No. 15-10880 (11th Cir., Jan. 4, 2016) (Rosenbaum, J.).

Target Corporation (the defendant), a national retail chain, sold books, a movie and a plaque that included pictures of Rosa Parks, an icon of the civil rights movement who, in 1955, refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a racially segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus. The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development (the plaintiff) owns the right and likeness of Rosa Parks. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant, alleging unjust enrichment, right of publicity and misappropriation under Michigan common law for the defendant’s sales of all items using the name and likeness of Rosa Parks. The plaintiff complained that by selling the products, the defendant had unfairly and without the plaintiff’s prior knowledge, or consent, used Rosa Parks’ name, likeness and image as used on the products. The plaintiff further argued that the defendant promoted and sold the products using Rosa Parks’ name, likeness and image for the defendant’s own commercial advantage. After the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, the district court dismissed the complaint. The plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit, sitting in diversity, applied Alabama’s choice-of-law rules, which holds that the procedural law of the forum state should be applied, while the law of the state in which the injury occurred governs the substantive rights of the case. Accordingly, the 11th Circuit applied the procedural rules of Alabama and the substantive law of Michigan.

In Michigan, the common-law right of privacy protects against four types of invasions of privacy: intrusion upon the plaintiff’s seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs; public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff; publicity which places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye; and appropriation for the defendant’s advantage, of the plaintiff’s name or likeness. The right of privacy is not absolute, and Michigan courts have long recognized that individual rights must yield to the qualified privilege to communicate on matters of public interest.

Applying Michigan law, the Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint, concluding that “the use of Rosa Parks’ name and likeness in the books, movie, and plaque is necessary to chronicling and discussing the history of the Civil Rights Movement” and that these matters therefore are protected by Michigan’s qualified privilege. As the 11th Circuit noted, “it is difficult to conceive if a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement without reference to Rosa Parks and her role in it.”