An appeals court on Wednesday ruled that Ashley Judd can pursue a sexual harassment claim against Harvey Weinstein, finding that he held power over her career when he invited her to his room at the Peninsula Hotel in the mid-1990s.
The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court, which had thrown out the claim on the grounds that Judd was not Weinstein’s employee at the time of the meeting.
“(T)heir relationship consisted of an inherent power imbalance wherein Weinstein was uniquely situated to exercise coercion or leverage over Judd by virtue of his professional position and influence as a top producer in Hollywood,” wrote Judge Mary H. Murguia, for the panel. “Therefore, the district court erred when it dismissed Judd’s sexual harassment claim.”
Judd sued Weinstein in April 2018. She alleged that Weinstein had lured her to his hotel room, asked her to watch him shower and tried to give her a massage. She also sued for defamation and retaliation, claiming that after she rebuffed his advances, Weinstein effectively blacklisted her in the film industry.
She brought the suit after “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson revealed in an interview that Miramax had discouraged him from casting Judd and Mira Sorvino, saying they could be a “nightmare to work with.”
Judge Philip Gutierrez allowed Judd to proceed with the retaliation and defamation claims, but threw out the harassment claim on the grounds that California law did not cover a producer and an actress who did not have an active employment relationship. The law has since been amended to explicitly cover producers and actors.
But in its ruling, the three-judge panel held that the producer-actor relationship has a similar power imbalance to the relationships that were enumerated in the statute at the time, such as teacher-student and landlord-tenant relationships.
“That is, by virtue of his professional position and influence as a top producer in Hollywood, Weinstein was uniquely situated to exercise coercive power or leverage over Judd, who was a young actor at the beginning of her career at the time of the alleged harassment,” Murguia wrote. “Moreover, given Weinstein’s highly influential and ‘unavoidable’ presence in the film industry, the relationship was one that would have been difficult to terminate ‘without tangible hardship’ to Judd, whose livelihood as an actor depended on being cast for roles.”
The case will now head back to the lower court and proceed on all claims.
Theodore Boutrous, who represents Judd in the case, praised the ruling.
“This is an important victory not only for Ms. Judd but for all victims of sexual harassment in professional relationships,” Boutrous said in a statement. “The court correctly holds that California law forbids sexual harassment and retaliation by film producers and others in powerful positions, even outside the employment context, and we look forward to pursuing this claim against Mr Weinstein at trial.”
Update, 1 p.m.: Weinstein’s attorney, Phyllis Kupferstein, says she too looks forward to a trial, “where we expect the truth will come to light.”
“The most minimal investigation of the events will show that Mr. Weinstein neither defamed Ms. Judd, nor hindered or interfered with her career, and certainly never retaliated against her,” Kupferstein said in a statement. “Instead, Mr. Weinstein championed her work and approved her casting for two of his movies. Mr. Weinstein fought for Ms. Judd as his first choice for the lead role in ‘Good Will Hunting’ and, in fact, arranged for Ms. Judd to fly to New York to be considered for the part. Thereafter, Ms. Judd was hired for two of Mr. Weinstein’s movies, ‘Frida’ in 2002 and ‘Crossing Over’ with Harrison Ford in 2009. In addition, the record on ‘Lord of the Rings’ will finally be made absolutely clear – that Mr. Weinstein had no authority over the project as it belonged to a different production company that had full staffing control of the film.”
SAG-AFTRA also issued a statement applauding the ruling.
“The California Legislature took action to make sure that individuals like Ashley Judd, who may not be traditional employees, would have remedies against abusers, and that those abusers couldn’t escape responsibility based on technicalities related to employee status,” the actors guild said in a statement. The Ninth Circuit has rightly determined that statute means what it says, and that victims of harassment, abuse, and assault will not be cut off from justice based on technical details of employee status.”