A New York state court on Tuesday (Jan 25) sided with producer Dr. Luke on a key issue in his libel lawsuit against celebrity attorney Mark Geragos, ruling that tweets claiming Dr. Luke had raped Lady Gaga were the kind of “false statements of fact” that can result in a defamation judgment.
Dr. Luke – who is also suing Kesha over similar claims – took Geragos to court in 2014 over a series of tweets in which the attorney urged his followers to guess the name of an unnamed individual who Lady Gaga claimed had sexually assaulted her. When one guessed Dr. Luke, Geragos responded “#bingo.” He later told TMZ he wrote the tweet because “it’s true.”
On Tuesday, Judge Sabrina Kraus ruled that those statements were not opinion or hyperbole but a clear assertion of fact that could be proven false – an important determination in any defamation case, where truth and lies are make-or-break questions.
“Geragos’ language has a precise meaning that is readily understood,” Judge Kraus wrote, citing the dictionary defintion of “bingo” as an “endorsement of a correct assertion.” The judge also recounted how Geragos had later expressly told TMZ that his tweet was true, saying “there can be no clearer assertion of fact.”
Notably, those statements did indeed prove to be false. Court documents show that Lady Gaga later confirmed that Dr. Luke did not sexually assault her and that her accusations, made against an unnamed person during an interview on Howard Stern’s radio show, had not been aimed at the producer.
Tuesday’s ruling does not mean Geragos is automatically liable for defamation, but it narrows the scope of what Dr. Luke must prove at an upcoming trial in order to win his case. Rather than showing that Geragos made false statements that caused harm, he now must only show that the lawyer was legally at fault for doing so.
To prove that, thanks to a recently-enacted New York statute, Dr. Luke will likely need to show that Geragos acted with “actual malice” when he posted his tweets – meaning that he either lied intentionally or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
Even with Tuesday’s win, a final victory for Dr. Luke is far from a sure thing. Actual malice is a rigorous standard that’s rooted in the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, designed to make it harder for powerful people to file defamation suits against critics.
Historically, that high-hurdle has only applied to powerful “public figures,” but New York recently passed a new state statute that says all defamation accusers must show actual malice in any case involving a matter of public interest, which could apply the statute Dr. Luke’s case.
A date for the upcoming trial has not yet been scheduled; discovery in the case is set to cut off in July. An attorney for Geragos did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.
The case against Geragos is one of two-profile defamation lawsuits filed by Dr. Luke over allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. He’s also suing Kesha over her accusation that the producer once drugged and raped her. A trial in that case had been set for this fall, but was pushed back as the parties await two different appellate court rulings on key issues in the case.
Dr. Luke, whose real name is Lukasz Gottwald, is represented by Jeffrey M. Movit and Christine Lepera of the firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP. Geragos and his firm are repped by teams of attorneys from the firms Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, Thomas & Locicero PL and Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP.