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Law firm can continue to work on Straight Outta Compton defamation case

By | Published on Wednesday 5 July 2017

Straight Outta Compton

One time NWA manager Jerry Heller may have died last year, but his defamation lawsuit against the makers of the film ‘Straight Outta Compton’ lives on. Though the Heller estate has failed to have one of the law firms working for the defence chucked off the case.

As previously reported, in 2015 Heller sued pretty much everyone involved in the NWA biopic, claiming his portrayal in the film constituted defamation.

Much of the lawsuit was then dismissed last year, though one element was allowed to proceed, with the judge overseeing the case noting that “the film arguably portrays plaintiff as an exploitative record label manager who attempted to take advantage of an unsophisticated artist by discouraging him from retaining an attorney during contract negotiations”. Nothing in the record suggested that was true, and the judge reckoned there was a sufficient case to argue that that portrayal of Heller could constitute defamation.

Then Heller died last September and for a while it wasn’t clear if the case would proceed. Until, that is, a nephew came forward keen to take over the litigation on his late uncle’s behalf. And so the lawsuit continued.

Earlier this year lawyers working for the Heller family tried to have a law firm representing the defence removed from the case. The targeted legal company was Greenberg Traurig, which is representing Universal – the film studio, not the music group. One of the partners at that company, Joel Katz, once – in a previous role – counted Ruthless Records, the label Heller co-founded, as a client.

Team Heller alleged that, around about 1992/1993, the manager consulted Katz on a possible defamation lawsuit against Ice Cube over his track ‘No Vaseline’, in which the rapper dissed his former NWA bandmates. That conversation 25 years ago, Heller’s nephew argued, constituted a conflict, and therefore he wanted the court to issue a disqualification motion removing Greenberg Traurig from the case.

For its part, the law firm called the disqualification request “meritless”, stating that – aside from the fact Katz denies having ever discussed a defamation action with Heller back in 1992 – any such conversation would have no “substantial relationship” to the current dispute over the ‘Straight Outta Compton’ movie.

Anyway, Greenberg Traurig added, Katz has no involvement in this new case, and internal measures have been employed to ensure he can’t share any confidential information he may or may not have with the lawyers who are working for Universal Pictures.

The court overseeing the litigation last week sided with the law firm, mainly on the basis of that commitment. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the court said: “Assuming without deciding that Katz received confidential information in the 1992 or 1993 meeting with the Hellers … the court concludes that Greenberg Traurig has met its burden to show that an effective ethical screen has prevented Katz … from sharing any confidential information with the attorneys litigating this action”.