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Gottwald v. Sebert

New York appellate court holds that music producer Dr. Luke is neither general-purpose public figure nor limited-purpose public figure, and that he is therefore not required to demonstrate that pop star Kesha acted with “actual malice” in making allegedly defamatory statements about him.

Plaintiff Lukasz Gottwald, professionally known as the music producer Dr. Luke, filed a defamation suit against Kesha Rose Sebert, otherwise known as Kesha, claiming that the pop star and his former client had falsely asserted on numerous occasions that she had been sexually assaulted by Dr. Luke. Dr. Luke alleged that in 2005, Kesha, frustrated that her recording career was not progressing fast enough, threatened to make public a false story that, after attending a party together where Kesha had too much to drink, Gottwald had drugged her, taken her back to his hotel room and sexually abused her. He also alleged Kesha and her agents later illegally sought to end her agreement with Dr. Luke so she could reap a larger share of profits from any future records. Dr. Luke further alleged that Kesha sent Lady Gaga text messages accusing Dr. Luke of sexual assault, and Lady Gaga then spread negative messages about him as a result.  

On cross-motions for partial summary judgment before the lower court, Kesha argued that Dr. Luke was either a general public figure or a limited-purpose public figure, and therefore had to establish that she had acted with actual malice in order for a court to find her liable of defamation. The lower court rejected these arguments, and the appellate court affirmed. 

The appellate court ruled that Dr. Luke was not a general-purpose public figure because his success in the music industry did not make him a celebrity. The court further noted that the fact that he was well-known in the music industry was insufficient to establish him as a household name. The court reasoned that his efforts as a producer to obtain publicity were generally not for himself, but rather for the artists that he represented.

The court also determined that Dr. Luke was not a limited-purpose public figure. He had not injected himself into the public debate about sexual assault or abuse of artists in the entertainment industry. The court also noted that Dr. Luke had not attracted media attention for his relationship with his clients or his treatment of artists in the entertainment industry, but instead for his work as a music producer on behalf of the artists he represented.

Finally, the court determined that Kesha could be held liable for defamatory statements made by her lawyer and her press agents, since they acted as her agents in making the statement. Because a person authorizing others to speak on her behalf can be held vicariously liable for defamatory statements made by her agents, the court reasoned that the alleged campaign against Dr. Luke instituted by Kesha’s team could be used as evidence against her.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Michael Segal