LOS ANGELES (CN) – When pop star Britney Spears met Sam Lufti in a nightclub in 2007, her life was in shambles. Embroiled in a bitter divorce and child custody battle with then-husband Kevin Federline, Spears was also estranged from her parents and battling substance abuse.
Having recently fired her manager, publicist and bodyguards, Spears glommed on to Lufti. In a meeting with her record label, she called him her new manager and later allegedly promised him 15 percent of her income – then an estimated $800,000 a month, even though she wasn’t working.
Lufti accepted Britney’s offer on two conditions. Since he had never managed a bestselling artist – or any artist – before, he would assemble a team of professionals to help. Second, Britney agreed to let Lufti bring drug-sniffing dogs into her home and clear it of at least one of the singer’s myriad problems.
Spears and Lufti signed an artist management agreement they downloaded from the Internet in July 2007. But by September, Lufti allegedly walked away from the arrangement due to Britney’s ongoing drug use.
By the end of 2007, Spears faced court-ordered drug testing and had lost custody of her children. Lufti moved into her home and he became more of a personal assistant, arranging her life and helping her deal with the crushing paparazzi problem that had developed as each new drama unfolded.
Lufti also allegedly managed to reconcile Britney and her mother Lynne, and began working on repairing the star’s relationship with her father, James.
But in January 2008, following two 5150 medical lockdowns over fears Britney would hurt herself and an altercation between Lufti and dad James, the singer’s parents filed papers to take control of their daughter’s personal and professional life and to bar Lufti from coming near her.
Lynne published her personal opinion of Lufti in the 2008 memoir “Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World.” In it, she called Lufti a “predator,” a “fake” and a “Svengali,” and claimed he used the paparazzi as his henchman to control her daughter.
Britney’s fans responded to Lynne’s claims by assaulting Lufti and making death threats. Purportedly terrorized and in fear for his life, Lufti sued Lynne for libel, defamation and emotional distress, James for battery and emotional distress, and Britney for breach of contract in 2009.
James moved for summary judgment on the emotional distress claim. A trial court agreed, due to a sworn declaration made by Lufti that he had lived a “normal” life before Lynne’s book came out.
After Lufti made his case at trial, all three Spears filed nonsuit motions on the various actions against them. Lynne argued Lufti hadn’t shown malice, James said Lufti failed to provide evidence of injury from the alleged battery, and Britney – who was barred from testifying by a probate court order – claimed Lufti hadn’t provided evidence of an actual contract or rebutted the presumption that he had unduly influenced her during those dark days.
The trial court agreed and granted all of the nonsuit motions in 2012, and Lufti appealed days later.
A panel for the Second Appellate District found that Lufti could only speculate that Lynne had fabricated the things she wrote about him in her book, and therefore couldn’t prove actual malice.
But as to the existence of a contract between Lufti and Britney, the panel held that Lufti’s foggy memory as to when the contract started and its details did not necessarily make it unenforceable – an issue the jury should have decided.
“It is a factual question for the jury to determine whether an oral contract was formed between Sam and Britney, and if so, to interpret the material terms of that contract,” Judge Victoria Chavez wrote for the panel in a 49-page, unpublished opinion. “Sam presented evidence that he and Britney entered an oral agreement in June 2007 in which Britney agreed to pay Sam 15 percent of her income for the term of the contract. Under the relevant standards of review, we must accept this evidence as true and disregard all conflicting evidence.
“Giving this testimony the value to which it is entitled on review, we find that it is sufficient to permit a jury to find in Sam’s favor,” Chavez continued. “The conservators were entitled to point out the discrepancies in Sam’s testimony regarding the material terms of the alleged contract, and to attempt to convince the jury that Sam’s testimony was untrue. However, ultimately the question of the existence of a contract, and the question of the material terms of any such contract, were questions of fact for the jury to decide.”
The appeals court admitted that some of the evidence suggests that Lufti may have exerted undue influence over Britney, which would undermine any contract the two of them had. But the trial court did not make an undue influence finding and the panel said it did not have enough evidence to make its own determination on that issue.
As to the trial court’s dismissal of Lufti’s battery claim against James Spears – allegedly involving a single punch to Lufti’s solar plexus that did not leave a mark – the panel found that a jury should have decided if nominal or punitive damages were warranted.
“We reject James’ argument that no reasonable jury could find it highly probable that James was intent on hurting Sam,” the opinion states.
The appeals panel also found the trial court should have made its own findings as to whether Britney was competent to testify, rather than relying on the probate court’s order – and advised the court to do so on remand.
Britney remains in a conservatorship, although her personal and professional life have improved markedly since 2007.
Forbes ranked her as the highest-paid female musician in 2012, raking in $58 million.
Spears currently stars in a residency show at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, which was recently extended to 2016.
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