In a decision that will make it easier for celebrities to fight spurious lawsuits, the California Supreme Court held Thursday that a settlement demand made to entertainer Michael Flatley constituted extortion and was not protected speech under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.
The legal saga began when Flatley was accused of rape in 2003 by Tyna Marie Robertson. Flatley contended the sex was consensual, and the rape case was never pursued; Robertson’s two civil suits also were dismissed. But Flatley’s attorney, Bert Fields, sued Robertson’s attorney, D. Dean Mauro for extortion and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In the trial court, Mauro moved to strike the complaint, arguing that his pre-litigation settlement demand offering to settle the case for seven figures was constitutionally protected speech under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. (SLAPP is an acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation).
Both the trial court and the California Court of Appeal held that Mauro’s letter and subsequent telephone calls demanding payment constituted criminal extortion, were not constitutionally protected speech and that the anti-SLAPP statute did not apply.
Said Fields of Thursday’s victory: “Naturally, Michael and I are delighted with the court’s ruling. It’s always an inspiring thing for a lawyer to appear before the California Supreme Court, but it’s particularly inspiring when you win.”
In upholding the lower courts’ decisions, the California Supreme Court pointed out that Mauro’s settlement demand included a list of dozens of news outlets that would receive press releases about the alleged rape if payment was not made immediately. When Mauro contacted Fields, he told Fields that if Flatley didn’t pay he would go public and the story would follow him around and ruin him. Fields responded by contacting the FBI to report Mauro’s conduct and to arrange for Flatley to give the FBI a voluntary interview.
In finding that Mauro’s conduct constituted criminal extortion as a matter of law, the California Supreme Court cited the fact that Mauro would not discuss the particulars of the case, but just gave a deadline for payment and that he threatened to go public and ruin Flatley if he demands weren’t met.