By Samson Habte
New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. faces long odds in a new lawsuit that accuses a self-described “Hollywood nightlife promoter” and his attorney of extortion, practitioners tell Bloomberg Law.
The lawsuit, filed in California state court July 27, says the defendants tried to extract a $1 million settlement from Beckham by threatening to expose his alleged trysts with prostitutes.
That salacious claim has generated extensive tabloid coverage. But the case also tests the murky boundaries California courts have sketched for deciding when a lawyer goes too far in a letter demanding the payment of a settlement to a client. Demand letters often give rise to extortion claims—particularly in Hollywood, where lawsuits against celebrities often involve implicit (or explicit) threats to publicize embarrassing facts that would injure the celebrity’s public image.
Beckham’s suit targets two people: a man who says the football star’s bodyguards gave him a “barbaric beating” at a Beverly Hills party in January; and a lawyer suing Beckham on behalf of that alleged victim.
Beckham says the lawyer co-defendant made extortionate threats in a letter demanding $1 million to resolve his client’s underlying injury claims, and in progressively heated emails he sent as settlement negotiations stalled.
Beckham says the opposing attorney peppered one demand letter with allusions to “damaging” text messages that would surface if the suit didn’t settle—one of which allegedly showed Beckham requesting a $1,000 appointment with a prostitute.
The dispute that triggered Beckham’s extortion complaint arose in January, when Ishmael Temple says he suffered a brutal assault at the hands of men he suspects to be members of the the football star’s security detail.
The alleged beating took place at a Beverly Hills party that Temple attended at Beckham’s invitation, according to text messages attached to a court filing.
Temple’s lawyer and co-defendant, Emmanual Nsahlai, sent a letter to Beckham’s attorney two weeks later, proposing a $1 million settlement. After settlement talks broke down, he sent a July 4 email that triggered the extortion countersuit.
That email said Temple would add defamation claims to his lawsuit based on press statements in which Beckham’s lawyer called him a “pimp” and “escort provider.” It also referenced “three years of SMS [text] messages” that would undercut Beckham’s claim that he had no relationship with Temple.
In one text Beckham asked “to have sex with [Temple’s] female friend visiting from Arizona in exchange for the payment of $1,000 to the girl,” the email said. Temple also had “evidence of drugs of the most prohibited types readily available and consumed at [Beckham’s] parties,” the email said. “He has saved all pics and videos too.”
“The email also stated Mr. Nsahlai’s intention to talk about the case ‘to anyone and everyone who will listen,’ with a specific reference to Hollywood gossip outlet TMZ,” Beckham’s complaint says.
That “is extortion, plain and simple,” Beckham’s attorney, Andrew Jablon, said in a July 31 email to Bloomberg Law. The alleged bodyguards are “not in [Beckham’s] employ,” and he won’t be extorted, Jablon said.
But Nsahlai told Bloomberg Law the references to Beckham’s purportedly criminal activities do not constitute an extortionate threat.
The allusions to “possible criminal acts by Mr. Beckham, including offering $1000 in exchange for sex,” were referenced in response to “his attorney repeatedly naming my client a ‘pimp,’ and attacking my client’s character [by calling him] an extortionist,” Nsahlai said.
“None of the words alluding to possible criminal activities of Mr. Beckham were in any way related to settlement resolution,” Nsahlai said. “Our settlement demand of $999,999 never once mentioned his purported criminal acts.”
Beckham’s attorney had a different take. “Mr. Nsahlai’s threats to disclose false allegations of misconduct entirely unrelated to the claims in the underlying lawsuit (i.e., that Mr. Beckham is somehow responsible for the alleged assault by third parties not in his employ) absent a ‘satisfactory settlement offer’ is extortion, plain and simple,” he said in an email to Bloomberg Law.
Temple’s lawyer said he will soon move to dismiss the extortion suit under California’s anti-SLAPP statute and litigation privilege.
The anti-SLAPP statute provides litigants and lawyers with a way to extinguish suits that seek to hold them liable for conduct protected by the First Amendment—in this case, the right to petition; the litigation privilege immunizes acts and statements made in connection with the pursuit of civil claims.
In 2006, the California Supreme Court held that those defenses can’t be invoked to insulate conduct that meets the definition of extortion. The ruling came in a case that, like Beckham’s suit, arose from demand letters.
But two practitioners told Bloomberg Law that the demand letters here do not meet the definition of extortion, and that it is thus likely that Beckham’s suit will be dismissed.
Max Kennerly, a Philadelphia plaintiffs’ attorney who handles products liability and complex tort cases, told Bloomberg Law he thinks “Beckham’s complaint will have a tough time surviving a motion to dismiss.”
“‘Litigation demand as extortion’ cases generally come in two flavors: an outright demand for money primarily or solely to avoid embarrassment, and the mentioning of embarrassing facts in the context of the case,” Kennerly said. “The former counts as extortion, but the latter does not.”
“The emails attached to the complaint show Nsahlai raising the solicitation of prostitution text after Beckham’s lawyer had accused his client of being a ‘pimp’ and ‘escort service provider,’” he said.
“It would be problematic if Nsahlai had simply thrown that accusation out there to extract a settlement, but the context here is different: Nsahlai starts with a non-frivolous personal injury claim and the solicitation of prostitution allegation apparently comes up in response to assertions made by Beckham’s own lawyer,” Kennerly told Bloomberg Law.
Edwin R. McPherson, a Hollywood-based attorney who often represents celebrities in defamation suits, said he also thinks that Beckham’s extortion claims will fail.
The timing of the purportedly extortionate July 4 email, which came months after Temple’s underlying lawsuit was docketed, is an important factor, McPherson said in an interview with Bloomberg Law.
There is a clear “trend to expand the litigation privilege” when the defense is invoked to insulate conduct that occurs after litigation has commenced, McPherson said. “I think based on that, this Beckham suit is clearly going to go down in flames on a SLAPP motion,” he said
A 2013 California decision that dismissed extortion claims against Marty Singer —a well-known attorney to celebrities—shows just how strong of a defense the litigation privilege can be in cases like this, McPherson said.
Singer sent a draft complaint and demand letter accusing a client’s business partner of diverting corporate funds. Singer said he “deliberately left blank” spaces in the draft complaint “dealing with your using company resources to arrange sexual liaisons with older men, including “Judge [name redacted] a/k/a ‘Dad’ (see enclosed photo).” There “will be no blanks” in the actual complaint, he said.
A trial judge said that allegation was “tangential” to the underlying dispute, clearly extortionate, and not protected by the litigation privilege. An appeals court disagreed, saying the allegations of sexual impropriety were “inextricably tied” to the corporate fraud claim.
That decision points up how narrow the “illegality” exceptions to the anti-SLAPP statute and litigation privilege are, McPherson said. The case teaches that “you can pretty much put anything you want in the complaint,” he said.
“In theory it has to be reasonably related to what’s going on [in the underlying suit]. But if you look at Singer, how reasonably related?” McPherson said. He said he’s told clients, “You can get in a rear ender, and you could put in the complaint, ‘He rear ended me and by the way he’s a child molester.’”
Jablon, of Resch Polster & Berger LLP, Los Angeles, represents Beckham. Counsel for the defendants have not yet entered appearances.
The case is Beckham v. Nsahlai, Cal. Super. Ct., No. BC715870, complaint filed 7/27/18.
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