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Jennifer Lopez can breathe a sigh of relief.
Two years ago, the singer-actress was sued for allegedly interfering with a film that would have told the story of her doomed marriage to Ojani Noa. The film, which was being developed for Telemundo under the working title I Owe JLo, hit problems after Lopez’s attorneys sent cease-and-desist letters to Noa, his business partner Ed Meyer and a producer named Claudia Vazquez.
Vazquez sued Lopez for $10 million for tortious interference. At a preliminary stage, Lopez attempted to strike the lawsuit. Instead, Vazquez got a stunning victory when a Los Angeles judge decided that the producer was likely to prevail over the star.
On Monday, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed the judgment. Vazquez’s hopes of collecting millions of dollars after Lopez rendered her “radioactive” in the entertainment industry have nearly evaporated.
Here’s the interesting backstory to this drama.
Lopez married Noa in 1997, but their marriage lasted barely longer than the honeymoon. Despite a divorce in 1998, the two continued to maintain a business relationship.
In 2004, Noa sued Lopez, with employment claims arising out of his work at a restaurant owned by one of Lopez’s companies. The following year, the two arrived at a settlement. The deal included confidentiality provisions that prohibited him from disclosing for monetary gain any intimate details about his relationship with Lopez and from disparaging his ex-wife in any way.
But then, Noa began shopping around a book about the marriage.
In 2006, Lopez sued Noa for breaching the settlement. The case entered arbitration, where Lopez obtained a permanent injunction against him as well as a judgment forcing Noa to pay $544,814.21 to Lopez. (Hence, “I Owe JLo.”)
Two years later, Vazquez entered into a production agreement with Meyer to produce a comedic film portraying Noa’s “tumultuous life, from Cuban immigrant to husband (and later ex-husband) of Jennifer Lopez and beyond.”
That set off a flurry of cease-and-desist letters from Lopez — and then a tabloid bonanza upon word that Meyer was going to get revenge by releasing onto the Internet “11+ hours of previously unseen home videofootage [sic] of Jennifer Lopez and Ojani Noa,” including (possibly) a naked Lopez.
In 2009, Lopez took Noa and Meyer to court, demanding $10 million for breach of contract, violation of publicity rights, invasion of privacy and other claims. J.Lo successfully obtained an injunction that stopped production on a film titled, How I Married Jennifer Lopez: The JLo and Ojani Noa Story.
But Lopez hadn’t sued Vazquez, who was working on her own project for Telemundo. Vazquez was on the receiving end of one of Lopez’s cease-and-desist letters, but because she never responded, Lopez had assumed the producer got the message and didn’t follow up with litigation.
Vazquez turned around and sued Lopez for $10 million. She claimed that J.Lo’s threats had made her “radioactive,” that her film suddenly became unmarketable and that Telemundo decided to pass on the film for legal reasons.
The legal drama, itself probably worthy of a Telemundo telenovela, then became even more intriguing when Lopez filed an anti-SLAPP motion and failed. The judge agreed with Lopez that Vazquez’s claims arose from constitutionally protected free speech and petition activity, namely Lopez’s right to enforce the 2005 agreement and 2007 injunction.
That meant that to go any further in the case, Vazquez had to demonstrate she had a likelihood of succeeding.
Guess what? The trial court said the plaintiff did in fact have a probability of winning because the injunction might not have applied to Vazquez, and yes, Lopez’s threats had resulted in the movie not being made.
But that didn’t end things. Lopez appealed, and on Monday, the actress obtained a victory after being represented by attorneys John Lavely Jr. and Paul Sorrell.
The appellate court determined that the trial court was correct in ruling that Vazquez’s claims arose from constitutionally protected activity. But the appeals court says that the judge should have gone further. “Because Lopez has shown that the letter was a statement made in anticipation of litigation, it is absolutely privileged,” wrote appellate Judge Elizabeth Grimes in an unpublished opinion.
In other words, if Vazquez bases her lawsuit on Lopez’s cease-and-desist letter, the lawsuit can’t survive because a privileged legal communication can’t be used in court. Thus, Vazquez doesn’t have a likelihood of winning her case and a lower court should have accepted Lopez’s anti-SLAPP motion. As such, Lopez has prevailed, and the case has been remanded back to the trial court to figure out if any award of attorney fees is warranted. (Vazquez can also make her own appeal to the Ninth Circuit.)
Vazquez was looking at a potential $10 million victory. She might now have to pay J.Lo’s legal bill. Who wants to make the movie?
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @eriqgardner
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