'Straight Outta Compton' Lawsuit: Greenberg Traurig Rips Disqualification Bid

Jerry Heller's estate says 25-year-old communications regarding Ice Cube create a conflict for the firm.
Joel Katz

Greenberg Traurig, the law firm representing co-defendant NBCUniversal in the defamation lawsuit targeting the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, is facing a disqualification motion over a supposed conversation that happened 25 years old concerning Ice Cube's "No Vaseline." On Monday, the firm had its own outside counsel file a blistering response that ran the gamut from confidentiality to ethics.

The lawsuit has barely survived the judge's cuts as well as the death of the plaintiff, ex-N.W.A manager Jerry Heller. Now, Heller's nephew is seeking to use an alleged 1992 conversation whereby Greenberg Traurig partner Joel Katz supposedly advised Heller about bringing a defamation claim over "No Vaseline" — Ice Cube's broadside against his former N.W.A mates — as grounds to kick Greenberg Traurig off the case.

Katz, a transactional attorney, swears he doesn't remember the conversation. At the time, he wasn't even working at Greenberg Traurig, but Ruthless Records was one of his clients.

The typical conflict analysis would typically turn on whether there is a "substantial relationship" between prior and current representation.

"Putting aside that Mr. Katz denies advising Mr. Heller on that subject [of 'No Vaseline'], such a conversation could not possibly be substantially related to Plaintiff's claims regarding Straight Outta Compton, a movie that did not even exist at the time of those alleged communications," states Greenberg Traurig's response (read here). "'No Vaseline' merely makes generally derogatory and profane statements about a number of people, including Eazy E's manager (presumably Heller), but says nothing about Heller trying to dissuade Ice Cube from retaining an attorney — the sole remaining basis for Plaintiff's defamation claim in this action — nor does it assert any specific 'facts' at issue in this action. There is simply no evidence to suggest that Heller would have imparted confidential information in a discussion about 'No Vaseline' that would be of 'some critical importance' in this action."

Greenberg Traurig has several other arguments why the disqualification bid is meritless.

The firm seizes on word that others — including Terry Heller, Jerry's nephew and the executor of the estate — were present at the supposed meeting.

"As a matter of black letter law, the presence of third parties destroys the privilege and thereby the confidentiality of any attorney client communication, unless such third parties were necessary participants," argues Greenberg Traurig's lawyers at Jenner & Block. "In addition, there is nothing confidential about the lyrics of 'No Vaseline,' which continued the very public airing of long-running grudges involving the group N.W.A. [sic]. Indeed, in the years since the alleged meeting with Katz occurred, Heller himself publicly disclosed the details of his relationship with N.W.A. in memoirs, screenplays and other public activities."

Nevertheless, upon the allegations of a conflict — which Greenberg Traurig adds came after an "unreasonable 10-month delay" — the firm says it "took immediate steps to implement a prophylactic ethical wall" screening Katz from any interaction with the litigation. The firm asserts that it has already taken all necessary steps, and that disqualification would serve no purpose.

Finally, Greenberg Traurig rips what it sees as a "strategically motivated" disqualification motion.

"During a March 31, 2017 meet and confer with Plaintiff’s counsel regarding the instant motion, Plaintiff’s counsel stated that Plaintiff was pursuing GT’s disqualification to 'open up the possibility to settle the case' by driving up the cost of litigation for Defendants’ insurers," states the firm's court papers. "Plaintiff’s counsel also noted that if the case went on, there would be 'ugly stuff' revealed about the Defendants, including aspects of their personal lives."

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