Wednesday, April 27, 2011
C.A.: Suit Over Contract to Film Rapper’s Story Not SLAPP
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday ruled that claims by the producers of a documentary film about rap artist Lil’ Wayne that the performer had breached the express terms of their contractual agreement should be allowed to proceed.
Div. Three concluded that the gravamen of this contract claim against Carter and his company, Young Money Entertainment LLC, did not arise from protected activity, even though a related claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was properly subjected to a special motion to strike.
Lil’ Wayne, whose real name is Dwayne Carter, has had several run-ins with authorities for drug and weapon possession over the years. In 2009, he sued the producer of a documentary film about him for including unauthorized footage in the picture which he asserted could prejudice his defense in then-pending criminal cases against him.
The producer, Digerati Holdings LLC, cross-complained against Young Money and Carter, contending they had breached their express obligations under the production agreement by failing to make Carter and others available for formal interviews in connection with the film, and for failing to provide video and photographic materials for use in the film.
In addition, Digerati accused Young Money and Carter of breaching the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing by having “engage[ed] in a series of unreasonable, bad faith and illegal tactics to prevent the sale and distribution” of the film after it was screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival by falsely informing potential distributors that Carter had final approval rights over the documentary, that Digerati had failed to honor these rights, and that these distributors could be liable for intentional interference with contractual relations if they proceeded to acquire the film.
Young Money and Carter filed a special motion to strike the cross-complaint as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, arguing that their communications with Digerati and others concerning the dispute and their attempts to enjoin release of the film were acts in furtherance of their constitutional right of petition or free speech.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael S. Mink granted the motion as to Digerati’s breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, but ruled the claims based on alleged breach of express provisions of the contract should be allowed to proceed.
Both parties appealed, but Presiding Justice H. Walter Croskey, in his decision for the appellate court, agreed with Mink.
The justice noted the two counts in Digerati’s cross-complaint “overlap because they incorporate the same prior allegations and because a breach of the implied covenant is necessarily a breach of contract,” but “this does not necessarily mean that the gravamen of the two counts is the same.”
He reasoned that the “gravamen of the breach of contract count is Young Money’s and Carter’s alleged failure to comply with their express contractual obligations” to make Carter available for interviews and provide materials for use in the firm but “the gravamen of the count for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is their alleged efforts to undermine or prevent the potential sale and distribution of the film, both by informing distributors that the film was unauthorized and could be subject to future litigation and by seeking an injunction.”
Since the conduct which allegedly breached the express terms of the production agreement with Digerati was not in furtherance of the constitutional right of petition or free speech, Croskey said, denial of the special motion to strike the breach of contract count was proper.
The complained-of conduct which frustrated Digerati’s efforts to market the film and deprived Digerati of the benefits of the agreement, however, were protected activity, since “Young Money’s and Carter’s statements made through their attorney to Digerati protesting the exhibition of the film and asserting a right of final approval, and their alleged statements made to distributors that the film was not authorized and threatening them with litigation, concerned the subject of the dispute over the right of final approval and that the statements were made in anticipation of a lawsuit by Young Money and Carter against Digerati and the distributors,” he said.
Justices Patti S. Kitching and Richard D. Aldrich joined Croskey’s opinion.
Digerati was represented by Santa Monica practitioner Gary A. Freedman, along with Edward A. Woods, Peter W. Ross and Sonia Y. Lee of Browne Woods George. William J. Briggs II and Allison Hart Sievers of Lavely & Singer were counsel for Carter and Young Money.
The case is Digerati Holdings, LLC v. Young Money Entertainment, LLC, B218639.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company