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The Legal Beat: R. Kelly Throws Ex-Legal Team Under the Bus

Also this week: Dwight Yoakam ends a copyright fight, Mariah Carey can't escape a libel case, and much more.

Welcome to The Legal Beat, a new newsletter from Billboard Pro focused on the fascinating world of music law. I’m Bill Donahue, Billboard‘s senior legal correspondent, and each week I’ll be recapping and linking to all the major legal news you need to know — the big new cases, the important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between. This will be a one-stop legal cheat-sheet sent directly to your inbox, aimed at music attorneys, industry executives, or anyone else who wants to keep up with what the courts are saying about music.


The Big Story: R. Kelly Burns Bridges With Ex-Lawyers

Five months after a jury convicted R. Kelly of sex trafficking and racketeering, the disgraced singer asked a federal judge on Thursday to throw out the verdict — by throwing his previous legal team under the bus. In a motion seeking a new trial, Kelly said his previous team of lawyers had been so bad that it violated his constitutional right to effective legal counsel. He called it a “disjointed, unprepared trial team” that left him with “no singular defense strategy.”

Blaming old lawyers is hardly a new tactic for a criminal appeal, but it’s a particularly fitting end for Kelly’s long-troubled legal team. As detailed by Billboard last year, the singer’s team of attorneys was plagued by infighting over both legal strategy and who was in charge, eventually prompting two key lawyers to drop out just weeks before the trial. The four attorneys who lost at trial didn’t exactly right the ship, reportedly operating as “two separate teams.”

Kelly fired those remaining lawyers last month, leaving his fate solely in the hands of Jennifer Ann Bonjean, a New York attorney who gained notoriety last summer when she won a ruling on appeal that overturned Bill Cosby’s 2018 sex assault conviction.

Bonjean has plenty of work ahead. If this week’s challenges (so-called post-trial motions) aren’t successful, Bonjean will then appeal Kelly’s convictions to a federal appeals court, where she’ll likely make similar arguments. And she’s going to represent him in a second, upcoming trial in Chicago on separate charges related to child pornography and obstruction of justice. It’s scheduled to kick off in August, so stay tuned.

Other top stories this week…

GUITARS, CADILLACS … AND COPYRIGHTS? – Warner Music Group and Dwight Yoakam reached an undisclosed settlement to end a contentious legal battle over the rights to his 1986 debut album, just weeks after he accused the label of trying to “desperately” hang on to his music. The case was one of several big lawsuits over “terminations” – a part of the federal copyright law that allows artists to regain their control of their music decades after selling it to a publisher or label.

KARDASHIAN WEST V. WEST – Attorneys for Kanye West filed objections to Kim Kardashian’s request to be declared “legally single” next month, warning that the proposal creates a “risk of adverse consequences.” West’s lawyers demanded certain conditions, including requirements that would be imposed on Kardashian if she chooses to quickly remarry. A hearing on Kim’s “single” status is set for March 2.

MORE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST TREY SONGZ – Already facing a lawsuit in Miami over allegations of a sexual assault at a nightclub, the singer was hit with a new case in Los Angeles by a woman who claims he raped her at a Los Angeles house party in 2016. Songz has strongly denied both sets of accusations – and instead has alleged that the lawyers bringing them have engaged in shady behavior. The new case is seeking $20 million in damages.

THE BIG MAN, THE BIG FINES – The son of the late Clarence Clemons – the beloved “Big Man” sax player for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – faced a federal judge’s wrath for using his father’s name and likeness to sell cannabis and other products. Siding with a family trust that currently owns the Big Man’s IP, the judge held Nick Clemons in contempt of court … and ordered him to pay $250 every single day until he stops selling his “Big Man Blazed Baked Goods.”

MARIAH CAN’T BEAT BROTHER’S LAWSUIT – A New York judge refused to dismiss libel allegations against Mariah Carey over her best-selling memoir, saying the singer potentially defamed her brother by suggesting that he had sold cocaine and gone to prison. The judge ruled that the book’s publishing company was not on the hook, but she said Carey might be – thanks to passages about how her brother sold “powdered party favors” and had “been in the system.”

SUGE’S LAWYER GETS LIFETIME BAN – A lawyer who once represented Suge Knight pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to accusations that he plotted to pay witnesses to lie while defending the former music mogul from murder charges. Under the terms of the deal, Matthew Fletcher will avoid a prison sentence, though he will be barred for life from practicing law. Knight, meanwhile, is serving a decades-long sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2018.

FROM BOWLING ALLEY TO COURTHOUSE – A week after a video of their bowling-alley brawl went viral, Brandon Bills filed a lawsuit against DaBaby over the incident. Bills, whose sister DaniLeigh has a daughter with DaBaby, says the rapper attacked him “without warning” and left him “psychologically damaged.” For good measure, the lawsuit also named the bowling alley as a defendant, accusing the establishment of legal negligence.

DEFAMATION? PHOEBE SAYS FREE SPEECH – Phoebe Bridgers fired back at a libel lawsuit filed by producer Chris Nelson, which claims the singer defamed him with an Instagram post that said she “witnessed” and could “personally verify” allegations of abuse against him. Not only did Bridgers stand by her allegations, she accused Nelson of improperly using the court system to silence her free speech.

Elsewhere on the legal web…

-Kanye West could reportedly soon face charges over an incident in which he allegedly attacked a fan in January outside a Los Angeles hotel. Investigators reportedly believe they have enough evidence to charge a crime but have not yet made a decision on whether to do so. (TMZ)

-Sony Music and the other major labels asked a federal judge to reject a “13th-hour gambit” from Cox Communications as the cable giant seeks to overturn a $1 billion copyright verdict over illegal file-sharing. Cox has argued the labels lied about key evidence in the case. (Law360)

-A Los Angeles judge refused to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit over rapper Lil Peep’s 2017 fatal overdose. The case was filed by the rapper’s mother against his label, First Access Entertainment, and a tour manager. A trial is currently scheduled for March 2023. (Rolling Stone)