Viacom Headed to Trial Over TLC Biopic

TLC Waterfalls VH1 Poster Art - P 2013

TLC Waterfalls VH1 Poster Art - P 2013

A federal judge in Georgia has refused to grant Viacom's summary judgment in full in a lawsuit over CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, a biopic about the 1990s R&B group that first aired on VH-1 in October 2013. As a result, if no settlement comes, a trial appears likely.

The biographical film spurred a $40 million libel claim from Perri "Pebbles" Reid, the group's former manager, upset at being depicted underpaying Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas.

The lawsuit led Viacom and the other defendants to point the judge's attention to CrazySexyCool being a docudrama that may have told the group's story through a certain prism with composite characters and compressed events, but still was "accurately maintaining the essence of TLC's story" and not susceptible to defamatory meaning.

In a summary judgment opinion, U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen finds that 10 specific allegations are not capable of supporting a claim of defamation while five are capable.

Among the scenes which plausibly imply a defamatory inference, Cohen writes, are those where TLC's manager pressures the group to sign contracts without providing them time to read the agreements. Other scenes showing TLC and Reid sharing the same attorneys, with Reid controlling these lawyers to TLC's detriment, can also impart defamatory meaning as well as, in the judge's opinion, "injure Plaintiff's reputation in the music industry and expose her to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule."

Cohen becomes the second judge in the past three months to look at a music biopic and flag artists being denied proper legal representation. In June, Universal beat most of the claims brought by former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller over Straight Outta Compton, but not the claim directed at how the hip-hop artists were shown being discouraged from retaining an attorney during contract negotiations.

Reid also is being allowed to bring to a jury scenes that conveyed the idea that she improperly deducted expenses, only paid TLC $25 a week, and that it was her decision to remove Chilli from TLC.

On the other hand, Judge Cohen rules out claims that CrazySexyCool defamed Reid by allegedly showing how she put money before the group's health, was involved in Chilli's abortion, exercised control over the group's accountants for her personal benefit and never made a personal investment in TLC.

Viacom also argued that the scenes presented Tionne and Chilli's perspectives and thus represented unactionable opinion, but Cohen disagrees, finding that "all of the scenes Plaintiff alleges defame her can reasonably be interpreted to imply facts about her that are capable of being proven true or false."

The case appears headed to trial, and when that happens, Viacom may have defenses including that the allegedly defamatory statements were substantially true. But for now, the judge rules that stuff like whether TLC was actually paid a weekly stipend of $25 and whether it was Reid's decision to remove Chilli are genuine issues of material fact that will need to be addressed before a jury.

Perhaps most worrisome for other lawyers in the biopic business is the judge's discussion of whether Reid, as a public figure, has demonstrated actual malice to succeed on her lawsuit. Here, Cohen looks at whether the filmmakers intended the defamatory impression. The judge quotes a casting director who wrote that the "Pebbles" character was a "not quite ethical businesswoman."

Cohen also nods to evidence that the filmmakers rejected information favorable to Reid, pointing to deleted scenes, and writing that "viewing this evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that a reasonable juror could conclude that Defendants' decision to delete this material from the Movie was a deliberate effort to convey the alternative, more scurrilous representation that TLC did not independently review the Contracts or meet their lawyers prior to signing the Contracts, which Defendants knew not to be the case."

The judge concludes that the scenes combined with such circumstantial evidence are "sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that Defendants purposely avoided or deliberately ignored facts that would have established the falsity of one or more purportedly defamatory scenes."

Here's the full opinion.