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After a brief pause, thanks to the death of the plaintiff, former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller’s defamation lawsuit over Universal’s Straight Outta Compton is again live. The first order of business is a motion that aims to kick Universal’s attorneys at Greenberg Traurig off the case.
Heller died in September at the age of 75 after a career where he worked with artists including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, Elton John and Kraftwerk. He’s foremost known for his collaboration with N.W.A’s Eazy-E, where the two began Ruthless Records and helped mainstream gangsta rap.
But before he died, Heller didn’t appreciate Paul Giamatti’s depiction of him in the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, so he filed a lawsuit claiming that the film defamed him by holding him responsible for breaking up the group and taking advantage of the artists, including Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. A couple months before he died, Heller was able to survive Universal’s dismissal bid — barely. The judge rejected most of the claims, but did allow him to proceed over an alleged implication that he took advantage of his unsophisticated client by discouraging the retention of an attorney during contract negotiations.
Now, the lawsuit is the hands of Heller’s estate, run by nephew Terry Heller. But before the case gets to the next stage, the litigation will be focusing on another aspect of entertainment law.
In a motion to disqualify on Monday, the plaintiff points to communications between Jerry Heller and well-known Greenberg Traurig partner Joel Katz and contends there’s a conflict.
“Specifically, in or around 1992-1993, Ruthless Records and Jerry Heller engaged Joel Katz, and Joel Katz advised Jerry Heller regarding subjects of legal issues substantially related and material to this case, specifically, involving defamation allegations against Defendant O’Shea Jackson, Sr.. p/k/a/ ‘Ice Cube.'”
At the time, 25 years ago, Katz wasn’t even working at Greenberg Traurig. (He was then a named partner at his own firm, Katz & Smith.)
Nevertheless, according to the law papers, Katz provided advice to Heller about suing over the Ice Cube song “No Vaseline.” Those who are N.W.A fans or who have seen Straight Outta Compton will recognize this track. It’s the one that Cube authored after his departure from the group and was a direct attack on his former groupmates. In the film, after Giamatti’s character listens to “No Vaseline,” he’s irate and even threatens to get the Jewish Anti-Defamation League involved.
Katz is also said to have advised Heller about Ruthless Records’ negotiations for a new distribution deal. The court papers say Heller “shared confidential information” about N.W.A, and that disqualification is appropriate to “avoid even the appearance of a breach of confidence.”
We haven’t gotten a response yet from Greenberg Traurig partners Jeff Scott and Katz, but if anything comes, we’ll update.
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