April 29, 2011 9:07am PT by Eriq Gardner
Lil Wayne Documentary Litigation Takes a New Turn
A $50 million lawsuit filed by Lil Wayne to stop the distribution of a documentary that was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival may be backfiring. A California appeals court ruled this week that the rapper could be liable for breaching promises made to filmmakers, including by failing to give interviews.
Lil Wayne (born Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.) filed the lawsuit after The Carter first premiered at Sundance in 2009. The hip hop superstar claimed that the documentary contained objectionable unapproved content and violated his contract with producers.
Digerati Holdings, the defendant, then filed a countersuit against Lil Wayne, saying the contractual breach was on the rapper's part. The producers said that Lil Wayne had failed to make himself available for interviews as agreed upon, failed to provide video material, and was entering into agreements with other producers for similar documentaries. Digerati also alleged that Lil Wayne's attorneys had contacted potential distributors including MTV Networks and Viacom, stating objections, which went a long ways to ruining the film's potential of scoring a distributor.
In response to that, Lil Wayne filed an anti-SLAPP motion, saying the counterclaims amounted to an abridgment of free speech.
After the trial court granted the motion in part and denied it in part, both sides appealed, and while each side gets a little to cheer about in the latest appeals court ruling, Digerati probably has the upper hand.
Justice Walter Croskey, on behalf of an appeals court panel, affirms a denial of an injunction against the release of The Carter and says that Digerati has established a probability of prevailing on claims that Lil Wayne breached his contract. This means that Lil Wayne could be liable for damages for not cooperating with filmmakers, including the rapper's refusal to make himself available for an interview around the time he was facing weapons and drug charges in 2009.
As for Lil Wayne's motion to strike claims based on free speech arguments, the appeals court splits down the middle.
On one hand, Justice Croskey fails to see how Lil Wayne's alleged failure to comply with his express contractual obligations (like interview promises) has anything to do with the First Amendment.
But the judge also takes a look at alleged efforts made by Lil Wayne's attorneys 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 an injunction. Digerati had maintained that those efforts were a breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, but the appeals court finds that statements made in anticipation of a court action may be entitled to protection under the anti-SLAPP statute. In other words, Lil Wayne had every right to protest and even wave around the threat of litigation because he was acting in good faith.
The case now goes back to a trial court where each side may get to present their contract breach arguments before a jury.