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Public figure question looks central to Kesha defamation suit

A producer countersuing for libel over claims that he raped Kesha could be considered a public figure himself, putting his case in jeopardy.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — Pop singer Kesha has been locked in litigation for years with the producer she says raped her. New York’s high court heard arguments on both of their lawsuits Tuesday to determine if that man's own notoriety is strong enough to sink his countersuit for defamation.

Known in the business as Dr. Luke, Likasz Gottwald signed the 18-year-old born Kesha Rose Sebert in 2005. As her star rose, with singles like “Tik Tok” and “Die Young" dominating Top 10 charts and getting credit as a co-writer for Brittany Spears and Miley Cyrus tracks, Kesha's deteriorating relationship with her manager became increasingly public.

With Kesha’s own mother blaming the producer for causing her daughter to develop an eating disorder among other health problems, fans of the electropop star lambasted Gottwald as a control freak. It was claimed that Dr. Luke compared Kesha’s body to a refrigerator. Their rancor even featured in a documentary about Kesha.

Next year will mark the 10-year anniversary of dueling lawsuits that Kesha and Gottwald brought against each other on the same day. Denying Kesha's claims that he verbally and sexually assaulted her, Gottwald claimed that the allegations were orchestrated as a public relations blitz with the sole aim of getting Kesha out of their contract.

A text message Kesha sent to Lady Gaga in 2016 would later become public and heavily dissected. In it, Kesha said that Gottwald had drugged and raped her in a hotel, and that he had previously raped Katy Perry. That year, Gottwald sued Kesha’s mother in 2016 for echoing her daughter's rape claims on Twitter.

The allegations brought testimony from Gage that she remembered seeing Kesha in her underwear on a bed in Dr. Luke’s home studio once. Perry meanwhile insisted she had not been raped or otherwise sexually involved with Gottwald.

A Manhattan judge entered judgment on the defamation counterclaims in 2020, ordering Kesha to pay the producer more than $373,000 in delayed royalties after finding “no evidence whatsoever that Gottwald raped Katy Perry.”

Gottwald prevailed on appeal the following year, with a panel of judges observing that he was not a public figure.

Urging the state’s high court to affirm that judgment as well, an attorney for the producer stressed that Gottwald was not a public figure and that Kesha’s suit was nothing more than a power play to get out of her contract.

The improper purpose of Kesha’s suit was “spelled out in writing,” said Gottwald's lawyer David Steinberg of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp. “Her press plan stated that it was designed to incite a deluge of negative media attention and public pressure.”

Judge Rowan Wilson appeared hesitant, however, to climb on board that theory. Just because Kesha supposedly instituted a “scorched-earth” media campaign against Gottwald, he said, that doesn’t mean the allegations of sexual assault were untrue. “You might actually have a meritorious claim and still be super-aggressive and want to destroy your adversaries,” he said.

Steinberg countered the evidence shows the litigation was designed to defame Gottwald to get out of the contract, and that no privilege exists because Kesha’s initial litigation filed in California was stayed by the courts and quickly fell apart. “This case was filed; it was abandoned,” he argued. “She said she would amend; she didn’t. She said she would appeal; she didn’t.”

Wilson later asked whether Gottwald was a limited public figure in the songwriting world, to which Steinberg argued if the issue was related to copyright or trademark law, he would be considered as such related to defamation over those types of claims. But Steinberg said he wasn’t a public figure, limited or otherwise, regarding sexual abuse allegations, nor was he a household name outside of the music industry.

“The defamation didn’t occur in the industry,” Steinberg said. “[She] defamed him throughout the world.”

Some of the judges disagreed with that assessment, though. Judge Jenny Rivera noted Gottwald had solicited tremendous public interest through interviews with the press, also arguing that plenty of households might struggle to name all nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorney Anton Metlitsky of O’Melveny & Myers, who represents Kesha, argued Gottwald was hardly a shrinking violet, noting that the producer's own attorney filed an affidavit stating he was a celebrity and had hired four public relations firms to “make him famous” as a producer for young, female artists.

“He was chosen to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That’s for famous people,” Metlitsky said. “He was a finalist as a judge in 'American Idol.' Those producers don’t pick people who aren’t going to draw an audience. He was the subject of articles in the New Yorker, Billboard magazine.”

Metlitsky also said the defamation lawsuit was clearly frivolous and intended to get Kesha to abandon her own suit.

Attorney Christine Lepera of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, who also represented Gottwald, disputed that. “This is not a frivolous litigation … and we take great issue with that,” she argued, adding the defamation suit was not designed to chill Kesha’s own suit. “There is no clear intent here, there is no express intent.”

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Entertainment

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