Judge Knocks Out Key Claim in 'Straight Outta Compton' Lawsuit

Universal wins a First Amendment argument by getting a judge to dismiss a claim that Jerry Heller's likeness was misappropriated.
Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures
'Straight Outta Compton'

Earlier this week, a court hearing was held in former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller's lawsuit over Straight Outta Compton, Universal's highly successful biopic of the iconic rap act consisting of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E and others. The outcome of this hearing was a decision that let Heller have another shot in his lawsuit, but a review of the judge's final order issued on Wednesday reveals that Heller can't proceed on one of his big claims.

In his wide-ranging complaint filed last October, Heller alleged that the film was a misappropriation of his name and likeness. He claimed that the defendants needed his consent to have a "Jerry Heller" character played by Paul Giamatti. As the complaint stated, "Defendants did not even bother to give the character a fictional name, like 'Garry Beller,' for example." 

Misappropriation of likeness is a state-based claim that has become a trendy one — often leading to the conclusion that producers need so-called "life rights" in order to do biopics. However, dealing with a dispute over Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals came very close to drawing a First Amendment line on such claims when lawsuits involve non-commercial transactions like feature films. Now comes U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald's assessment of Heller's publicity rights claim against Straight Outta Compton.

"The subject matter of the Film involves matters of public interest," he writes. "The Film concerns a public controversy over Plaintiff’s tumultuous relationship with the 'hugely successful' N.W.A. Because there is little doubt that N.W.A. has had an immense influence on popular culture both domestically and internationally, the role Plaintiff played in N.W.A.’s rise to stardom is certainly a matter of public interest. The First Amendment, therefore, insulates Defendants of any liability for misappropriation of likeness."

A motion to dismiss is granted without leave to amend, meaning that in Heller's "one last shot" at the lawsuit, it won't be on this terrain.

Instead, Heller will pursue defamation claims, but Fitzgerald makes clear in his order that the plaintiff must spell out the specific statements or actions of the film's characters deemed to have been untrue and hurt his reputation. Simple "interpretations of various scenes" won't suffice.

What's more, the judge agrees with the defendants that Heller is a "limited purpose public figure," meaning that in order to prevail in his defamation claims, he'll need to show "actual malice," meaning knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. The judge could have picked from a number of different cases as support for this proposition. Rather ironically, he uses Donald Trump's unsuccessful counterclaim in the Trump University lawsuit. That was the subject of a 2013 appellate opinion before Trump became a presidential contender and spoke about the need to reform the nation's libel laws.

Universal, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and other defendants score more wins. Fitzgerald holds that claims of trade libel and false light are duplicative of the defamation claim and can't proceed. He also has stricken a tortious interference claim as well. Here's the full order