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New York’s highest court rules that ‘Dr. Luke’ is a public figure after all in defamation battle with Kesha

Dr. Luke and Kesha

Dr. Luke and Kesha (Dr. Luke via Paul A. Hebert/Getty Images. Kesha via FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

After years of setbacks, chart-topping pop star Kesha notched significant legal victories in New York’s highest court on Tuesday against the producer known professionally as Dr. Luke.

In significant pretrial rulings, the New York Court of Appeals reversed a lower appellate court’s decision that Dr. Luke — a.k.a. Lukasz Gottwald — does not qualify as a public figure because he isn’t a “household name.” Since Dr. Luke is a limited-purpose public figure, the high court found, he must prove that Kesha made her challenged statements with “actual malice.”

Kesha Rose Sebert, who’s known on a first-name basis with her fans, may also claim protections under New York’s recently revised anti-SLAPP law, which safeguards against lawsuits designed to chill free speech.

The Empire State’s top court noted that Dr. Luke was hardly toiling in obscurity when litigation kicked off nearly a decade ago.

“By 2014, when Gottwald initiated this defamation action, he was, by his own account, a celebrity — an acclaimed music producer who had achieved enormous success in a high-profile career,” the lead opinion, authored by Judge Michael Garcia, notes.

Dr. Luke noted in his complaint that he’d “written the most Number One songs of any songwriter ever” and “was named by Billboard as one of the top ten producers of the decade in 2009.” The Hollywood Reporter noted that he’s a one-time guitarist for Saturday Night Live who’s worked on hits for Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, and Miley Cyrus.

“Gottwald’s engagement with the media was ‘obviously designed to project his name and personality’ before a wide audience to establish his reputation in this field,” the ruling continues.

Dr. Luke’s name and clout made Kesha’s allegations all the more explosive.

By then a chart-topping artist of considerable fame, Kesha sued Dr. Luke in 2014, accusing him of having drugged and sexually abused her in a hotel room in 2005. Dr. Luke countersued her for defamation shortly after Kesha filed her case. Her litigation quickly stumbled, while his progressed.

Two years after its filing, New York Supreme Court Judge Shirley Kornreich denied Kesha’s request for a ruling releasing her from her contract with Dr. Luke, sparking hashtag cries from her fans to #FreeKesha. The judge dismissed all of Kesha’s abuse claims a few months later, and Kesha later dropped a separate lawsuit in California.

Denouncing the accusations as “false,” Dr. Luke’s defamation lawsuit claims that Kesha and other associates conspired to smear him to get out of a lucrative recording contract and keep more money for themselves. In 2020, a judge ordered Kesha to pay $373,000 to Dr. Luke for writing in a text message to pop star Lady Gaga that the producer had also raped singer Katy Perry, who said flatly that it never happened.

The protracted litigation and changes in New York law have delayed the adjudication of some of Dr. Luke’s remaining claims. In 2020, New York amended its anti-SLAPP statute, short for strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Reversing a lower court, the New York Court of Appeals found that Kesha could claim some of the legislation’s protections — but not all of them. The majority opinion found that the law doesn’t have retroactive application, and so Kesha may only assert a counterclaim under the legislation based on Dr. Luke continuing his litigation after the statute’s effective date.

Dr. Luke’s attorney Christine Lepera, a partner at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, highlighted the parts of the ruling most favorable to her client.

“We are pleased that the Court of Appeals agreed with Dr. Luke that the vast majority of Ms. Sebert’s statements are properly the subject of his defamation claim,” Lepera said in a statement. “Therefore, at trial, Ms. Sebert will be required to defend her harmful and long-standing press campaign against Mr. Gottwald. While the Court of Appeals is permitting Ms. Sebert to assert a counterclaim, it has been substantially narrowed. We are confident that this limited counterclaim will fail and be rejected in all events, just as we are fully confident that Mr. Gottwald will prevail at trial on his defamation claims.”

Kesha’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to emails requesting comment.

Aaron Keller contributed to this report.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."