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Extorting Celebrities 101: A How To

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Okay, this is not actually an instructional guide on extorting celebrities. I just found the title catchy. But as I was reading the recent story of "David Boreanaz and the Case of the Mysterious Mistress," it struck me that some are either still ignorant of the nature and dangers of extortion claims, even in the wake of the David Letterman scandal, or they just don't care. The truth is that shacking up with a celeb and demanding a monetary settlement shortly thereafter may sound like a nice way to make a quick buck, but it's also a risky, and often illegal, pursuit.

To be clear, I have no opinion on the merits in David Boreanaz's case. I don't know the participants, I'm not counsel to either of them, and I was not present during their telephone calls. I know only what their lawyers have said to the press--they had an affair, it ended, and she asked for "six figures."

For all we know, Mistress X may have had a legitimate basis for demanding all this money. Her lawyer has said that there are "claims" against Boreanaz. Maybe, for example, Mistress X sold him an Audi R8 and never got paid, or maybe she remodeled his kitchen and got stiffed on the bill. But if hypothetically speaking--and I stress the words "if" and "hypothetically" because I wasn't there--Mistress X demanded to be paid "six figures" or else she would publicize their affair--and I'm not saying she did, because again, I wasn't there--that would be a serious problem.

Extortion, to paraphrase California Penal Code § 518, is the obtaining of "property" consensually but with the use of "force or fear." Although the classic example of extortion is a threat to report a crime unless money is paid, extortion also includes threats to "disgrace" another or to expose a "secret." Importantly, it is no defense that the person being extorted is guilty as charged. If you induce a pay-off by threatening to expose disgraceful, embarrassing secrets about someone, that can constitute extortion whether or not the ugly details are true.

In my practice, I have found that the line between a permissible settlement demand and extortion can be less than crystal clear. It is not uncommon to correspond with an opposing party or attorney before a case is filed demanding a payment of money to settle a claim. And in many cases, the participants and lawyers are acutely aware that the filing of litigation will expose some embarrassing and compromising facts about the defendant--facts that said defendant would prefer remain private. In those instances, a little bit of carelessness can result in a settlement demand that rings of extortion--"pay us money or we'll file a complaint, and you know it's going to make the front cover of Variety!" I've heard stories of lawyers being jailed for mishandling pre-filing settlement discussions so badly that they were guilty of extortion. These may be urban legends, but I'm not taking chances. If you get a demand letter from me, I'll have chosen my words carefully.

This is not to say that an artfully drafted demand is a cure-all. Even without an explicit threat, a demand for money could appear extortionate, especially where the alleged extorter lacked a genuine basis for demanding cash in the first place.

So here's a thought. If you find yourself with a legitimate claim against someone--perhaps a celeb that you've been having an illicit affair with--just file a complaint. Forget this self-help stuff, where you demand a boatload of cash with clumsy comments like, "you know what it will be like if this goes public." Conversely, if you don't have a genuine claim--you'll know that's the case if you can't conceive of why someone would pay you money except to avoid the press--exercise some discretion, and find yourself a new "get rich quick" scheme.