Ashley Judd Sexual Harassment Suit Against Harvey Weinstein Revived by Ninth Circuit

This combination photo shows Ashley Judd during the 2017 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., left, and Harvey Weinstein at The Weinstein Company and Netflix Golden Globes afterparty in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 8, 2017. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Actor Ashley Judd will get another shot in court at disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein after a Ninth Circuit panel revived a sexual harassment claim Wednesday that had been part of a 2018 defamation suit.

Judd claimed that long before Weinstein was sentenced this past March to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault against two women, he was a “gatekeeper” in Hollywood who smeared her career.

Weinstein’s power over actors’ careers is one reason why Judd’s sexual harassment claim was revived by the appellate court.

In a statement, Judd’s attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. with Gibson Dunn Crutcher said, “This is an important victory not only for Ms. Judd but for all victims of sexual harassment in professional relationships.  The court correctly holds that California law forbids sexual harassment and retaliation by film producers and others in powerful positions, even outside the employment context, and we look forward to pursuing this claim against Mr. Weinstein at trial.”

Weinstein’s influence could make or break an actor’s career, according to Judd.

She says she refused his sexual advances made during a business meeting in a hotel room two decades ago. Judd thought she was going to meet Weinstein at a hotel dining room for breakfast, but instead she was told to go directly to his private hotel room.

According to her complaint, Weinstein asked her to massage him and watch him shower, but she declined both offers.

In 2018, Judd filed a sexual harassment claim and a defamation complaint. She says she didn’t learn until years later that Weinstein told “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson that she was “a nightmare” to work with and that those comments cost her a role in the fantasy film franchise.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez ruled the sexual harassment claim in Judd’s complaint did not mesh with state law. The California Legislature amended the state’s sexual harassment statute to include specific jobs titles and to qualify professional relationships between directors and producers who can be held accountable.

Writing for the Ninth Circuit panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Murguia, a Barack Obama appointee, noted that in late 1996 or early 1997, Weinstein had produced the films “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Flirting with Disaster” — making him an influential and well-connected Hollywood producer.

In the panel’s 16-page opinion, Murguia rejected Weinstein’s argument that the 1994 version of the California sexual harassment statute is not “substantially similar” to the type of professional relationship he had with Judd during their hotel meeting. The examples provided in the statute includes a landlord, teacher, doctor, attorney or other roles with whom a person cannot easily end a professional relationship.

Murguia found the common theme between those relationships is a power imbalance, much like a producer or studio executive who has power over a budding actor’s career.

“Indeed, Judd alleged that Weinstein himself understood the extent of his influence and cachet in the industry by commenting in one interview that “[i]f styles of filmmaking are changing radically, I feel like the godfather of that change — that’s the Miramax legacy,” Murguia wrote.

“Accordingly, under the facts alleged, the relationship between Judd and Weinstein was characterized by a considerable imbalance of power substantially similar to the imbalances that characterize the enumerated relationships in” the state’s sexual harassment statutes, she continued.

Weinstein argued the situation can be flipped if, for instance, a contractor isn’t paid for their work after it’s done. The panel rejected the argument.

“But the fact that the traditional balance of power in a relationship may be flipped in some scenarios does not negate the reality that a power imbalance nevertheless tends to exist in these relationships under normal circumstances,” Murguia wrote for the panel.

Weinstein also claimed he and Judd didn’t have a professional relationship that fell within the scope of the state’s statute when they met in that hotel room to discuss potential roles in movies produced or distributed by Weinstein’s film company Miramax. But Murguia noted Judd’s claim involves allegations of retaliation that followed the meeting, not just the sexual advances.

“This is more than enough to allege a professional relationship at the time of the alleged harassment,” she wrote.

And while Judge Gutierrez found the professional relationship of Judd and Weinstein was not covered by section 51.9 of the state statute, because their hotel meeting was similar to a job interview, the panel found that “whether Judd and Weinstein’s relationship was in fact an employment relationship outside the purview of section 51.9 is a question for the trier of fact.”

Because the meeting was a chance for Judd to develop her career her “sexual harassment claim survives dismissal,” the panel found.

An email to Weinstein’s attorney for comment was not immediately answered.

U.S. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen, also an Obama appointee, and Senior U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein, a Bill Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Southern District of New York, joined Murguia in the opinion.

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