Shia LaBeouf Can't SLAPP His Way Out of Bartender's Slander Suit

Shia LaBeouf Honey Boy 2 - Getty - H 2019
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Shia LaBeouf can't evade a lawsuit from a Studio City bartender by arguing his claims are barred by California's anti-SLAPP statute, a California appeals court has ruled. 

The actor was sued in May 2017 after a dust-up with a bartender at Jerry's Famous Deli became a viral video. David Bernstein refused to serve LaBeouf alcohol and the actor called the bartender "a fucking racist." 

LaBeouf's lawyer Brian Wolf of Lavely & Singer filed a motion to strike Bernstein's complaint for assault, slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress pursuant to the anti-SLAPP law — which brings an early end to frivolous lawsuits arising from protected conduct like free speech concerning an issue of public interest. Wolf argued that the suit was nothing more than "civil extortion."

In February 2018, L.A. County Superior Court judge Laura A. Matz denied the motion, finding Bernstein's claims stemmed from a private dispute and rejected the notion that LaBeouf's statements contributed to the public debate on racism and were a matter of public interest because of his fame. The anti-SLAPP law includes an immediate right to appeal, so LaBeouf did just that.

California's 2nd District Court of Appeals on Friday published a decision affirming Matz's ruling. 

The three-judge panel didn't reach the merits of Bernstein's claims to determine whether or not the complaint is frivolous because they found LaBeouf couldn't get past the statute's first hurdle: proving the claim arose from protected conduct. 

"While courts have held the public’s interest in the life and work of entertainers and other celebrities can create an issue of public interest for purposes of [the statute] is the subject of the defendant’s speech or conduct that determines whether an issue of public interest has been implicated for purposes of anti-SLAPP protection," writes Justice Luis A. Lavin. "The defendant’s celebrity status, on its own, is not sufficient to render anything the defendant says or does subject to anti-SLAPP protection."

LaBeouf's statements, the panel found, weren't directed at someone in the public eye and didn't address an ongoing controversy. (Read the decision in full below.)

"Rather, the statements concerned an isolated dispute between a bartender and an inebriated client over the bartender’s refusal to serve the client alcohol at a restaurant," writes Lavin. "Although footage of the altercation was later disseminated to many people on the Internet and television, a private dispute does not become a matter of public interest simply because it was widely communicated to the public."

The panel also found that LaBeouf's use of the word "racist" didn't automatically convert his "tantrum" into an effort to "further public debate on the issue of racism."

Wolf has not yet responded to a request for comment on the decision.