Skeptical Judge Gives 'Straight Outta Compton' Lawsuit One Last Shot

Former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller's lawsuit is troubled, says California federal judge.
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At a hearing on Monday, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald nearly ran a lawsuit brought by former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller straight outta his courtroom.

Heller is suing almost everyone involved in Straight Outta Compton — the biopic of the rap act consisting of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E and others — thanks to Paul Giamatti's unflattering portrayal of him. The plaintiff contends that he was defamed in the film for doing things like withholding a $75,000 check from Ice Cube and enjoying lobster brunches while contracts were being finalized. Heller also says he was not compensated for the use of his likeness and claims that the defendants stole his work and breached an agreement that settled an old dispute with the Eazy E estate.

NBCUniversal seeks to have the lawsuit dismissed as an impingement of free speech and argues that Heller has no hopes of prevailing since the film touched upon controversial historical events subject to various interpretations — and that Heller himself has injected himself into the controversy by authoring his own book recounting his version of these events.

"Mr. Heller is clearly a sophisticated and wealthy man," said Fitzgerald at Monday's hearing. "He's written this book. They've made this movie ... in the '80s, as an old white guy, I was aware of N.W.A. As the case goes forward, Mr. Heller is going to have some real trouble here." 

The judge granted defendants' motions in part, but has allowed an amended complaint to cure deficiencies. (A copy of the tentative order was only provided to the attorneys in the case.)

"The court's made it clear we have one more shot at this," said Heller's attorney Michael Shapiro.

Heller gets another day, but the judge also noted at the hearing that he "is very much a public figure," a determination that could play into California's SLAPP statute as well as make it more difficult for Heller to prevail on his defamation claims. He'll need to show that any of the defendants — including Dr. Dre and Ice Cube — had knowledge of falsity or recklessly disregarded the truth. 

The lawsuit targets a great number of people and companies: director F. Gary Gray, the Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Legendary Pictures, the estate of Eazy E, etc.

When the lawsuit was originally filed, we noted that Shapiro was slapped with sanctions last year for failing to serve the many defendants in a lawsuit over music used in The Steve Harvey Show. The possibility of sanctions hangs over this case as well if Heller can't provide specific allegations to each of the defendants. 

Jeff Scott, attorney for the defendants, told the judge he wants to "cut the wheat from the chaff" in terms of defendants. He added, "You can't just sue 20 people and say I'll figure it out later."

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