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Dr Luke’s defamation claim against Kesha made trickier as appeals court rules he is a public figure

By | Published on Wednesday 14 June 2023

Dr Luke

The New York Court Of Appeals ruled yesterday that producer Dr Luke is sufficiently famous to be deemed a “limited public figure”. This is a classification which impacts on his ongoing defamation legal battle with Kesha, increasing the producer’s burden in court. He will now need to show that Kesha acted with actual malice when she made her allegedly defamatory statements.

Luke’s defamation lawsuit against Kesha is all that remains of what began as a multi-layered multi-state legal battle between the producer and musician which was kickstarted when Kesha accused Luke of rape. He denies those allegations and – arguing that Kesha’s claims have negatively impacted his career – he sued for defamation.

As the defamation case has gone through the motions, there has been much debate as to whether Luke needs to show that Kesha acted with actual malice when making her allegations against him. If he does, that will inevitably make it harder for him to win the case.

There are two reasons under New York law why Luke might have to prove actual malice. First, if he is deemed a public figure. And second, if changes to New York state law that occurred while this litigation was going through the motions are applied to the case.

Those were amendments to free speech laws in New York state that say that the actual malice requirement can apply in defamation cases filed by people who are not public figures if the allegedly defamatory statement relates to issues of public concern.

The judge overseeing the Luke v Kesha lawsuit – Jennifer Schecter – decided that the producer was not a public figure, because while he is well known within the music industry, he’s not a famous name more generally. However, Schecter subsequently decided that the new free speech laws in New York should apply, which meant the actual malice obligation came into play.

But the Luke side then successfully appealed that latter decision, removing said obligation. The Kesha side then asked the New York Court Of Appeal to overturn Schecter’s decision regarding Luke’s public figure status and reinstate her decision that the new free speech laws should apply.

Yesterday the appeals court basically did both of those things. “We hold that [Luke] is a limited public figure who must prove by clear and convincing evidence that [Kesha] acted with actual malice”, wrote appeals judge Michael J Garcia.

After all, the judge added, Luke “purposefully sought media attention for himself, his businesses, and for the artists he represented, to advance those business interests. He had been featured in various publications, as well as on radio and television, highlighting the nature of his relationships with those artists and his development of their talent and careers”.

The appeal judges also ruled that the new free speech laws in New York state do apply to this case. Given they had already deemed Luke to be a public figure, that doesn’t really affect the actual malice obligation.

However, those new laws have another impact too: if Kesha is successful in court she can now seek to force Luke to pay legal costs and damages. Although the appeals court added that any financial claim can only apply to things that have happened, and costs that have been incurred, since the new law came into effect in 2020.

On top of all that, there was one further ruling that favoured Kesha. Luke’s defamation claim relates to a number of statements made by Kesha and her representatives, including five that were made by her legal team during previous legal wrangling.

The appeal judges ruled that those latter statements were protected by ‘litigation privilege’ and therefore the defamation claim in relation to those specific statements cannot proceed.

So all in all, the appeals court ruling very much favoured Kesha. Although legal reps for Luke told reporters that they remain confident their client will win when the actual defamation action finally gets to trial.

Attorney Christine Lepera told Law360 that Luke and his team remain “fully confident” that he will “prevail at trial as a limited public figure given [Kesha’s] conduct and knowledge in issuing the defamatory statements at issue”.