Ryan Leslie, a hip hop and R&B artist, has offered up a cautionary tale about being cavalier with offers made in social media.
Last year, a man sued Leslie and sought to collect on a reward that was offered on YouTube by Leslie for finding his missing laptop.
The laptop went missing in Germany, and on a YouTube posting, Leslie said that “something very personal, something very special was taken,” and said he was offering a $20,000 reward. On a later Twitter post, he wrote that he had “raised the reward for [his] intellectual property to $1mm.”
Now, a jury has held him to that offer, ordering him to pay plaintiff and auto repair shop owner Armin Augstein for finding his laptop. The $1 million jury award came after a few hours of jury deliberations, but his fate was probably sealed by a judge last month.
On October 17, New York federal judge Howard Baer rejected Leslie’s best defenses in a summary judgment.
Leslie attempted to make the case that when he used the word “offer,” that he really meant something different. He argued that a reasonable person would have understood mention of a reward not as a unilateral contract, but instead as an “advertisement,” an invitation to negotiate.
And failing that argument, Leslie argued that it wasn’t the laptop per se that he wanted, but rather unreleased multitrack songs on the laptop, which he said came back to him ruined. He proposed that the alleged offer was not for “property,” but instead for “intellectual property.”
This type of legal fancy footwork isn’t uncommon, and in past cases involving the enforceability of unilateral contracts, it has caused headaches for plaintiffs. Getting to judgment rarely happens.
But Augstein didn’t give up. And Judge Baer didn’t buy Leslie’s reasoning.
The judge wrote:
“Leslie also relies on the fact that the offer was conveyed over YouTube (a website where many advertisements and promotional videos are shared, along with any number of other types of video) to undermine the legitimacy of the offer. I do not find this reasoning persuasive. The forum for conveying the offer is not determinative, but rather, the question is whether a reasonable person would have understood that Leslie made an offer of a reward. I conclude that they would.”
With the question of whether or not there was a real offer on the table, the question for the jury was what Leslie would have to pay. And Judge Baer further ruined Leslie’s strongest defense by ruling that he and his team were negligent in their handling of the hard drive after it was returned. As a result, the judge instructed a jury to assume the data was there when it was turned over.
According to a news report of the trial, the jury was nevertheless reluctant to award the full $1 million. During deliberations, the jurors sent a judge a note, saying “We feel the $1 million is too high,” and asking whether a lower award was possible. Augstein’s lawyers insisted the jury be instructed towards either the full $1 million amount or nothing.
After a few hours, Leslie was ordered to pay up the full amount. The musician has kept up good spirits during the ordeal, tweeting nice-looking photos of himself in front of the courthouse, and ribbing the New York Post for calling him a “rap weasel” on its cover.
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