Criminal Justice

Threats of sham lawsuit against well-known singer constitute a crime, 9th Circuit says

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Threats of baseless litigation can amount to extortion under the Hobbs Act, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco ruled Tuesday.

In its opinion, the appeals court affirmed the conviction of Benjamin Koziol, who threatened to sue singer Andy Grammer over allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and assault and battery if the well-known entertainer did not settle with him for $1 million.

Koziol had argued that the threat of litigation, even when “frivolous, meritless or made in bad faith,” can never constitute “wrongful” conduct under the Hobbs Act, which prohibits actual or attempted robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce. The court, however, concluded “that there is no statutory, constitutional or policy basis to support Koziol’s argument that threats of sham litigation are categorically excluded from criminal liability under the Hobbs Act.”

Reuters and the Metropolitan News-Enterprise have coverage.

In January 2016, Grammer’s manager received a massage from a woman he found on the internet but was asked to leave after he inquired whether there would be “mutual touching,” according to the 9th Circuit’s opinion. A few days later, the manager received a voicemail message from an attorney, who alleged that it was actually Grammer who had engaged in inappropriate behavior during the massage.

The manager’s attorney later received a letter alleging that he physically and verbally abused the masseuse and was demanding $250,000 to settle the matter, the opinion says. The manager agreed to pay the masseuse $225,000 in exchange for dropping any potential claims.

In August 2016, Koziol left a voicemail message on the manager’s phone and identified himself as the masseuse’s husband. The opinion says he initially claimed that he was in a nearby bedroom during the massage, and that he was also assaulted by the manager.

Koziol later said it was Grammer, and not his manager, who harmed his alleged wife—the masseuse—the opinion says. He claimed that he had video and photographic evidence and said in several emails he would file a lawsuit against the entertainer unless he paid him.

A federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California indicted Koziol for attempted extortion in January 2018. He was found guilty and sentenced to 70 months in prison.

“We conclude that the circumstances alleged in this case establish that Koziol’s conduct went far beyond threatening to file a lawsuit based on weak claims, and that it fell well outside the bounds of legitimate pre-litigation settlement demands,” the 9th Circuit said in its opinion.

Koziol had also invoked the Noer-Pennington doctrine, which protects the right to petition the government, including filing litigation in the courts. He argued that his conviction should be vacated “because his threatened litigation did not rise to the level of a sham and should thus be immune from liability,” the opinion says.

The 9th Circuit disagreed, contending that Koziol “fabricated evidence, lied about the existence of evidence, and knew that his claims were baseless, all of which further demonstrates that his threats to file a lawsuit were made with an improper motive.”

“From this evidence, we conclude that Koziol knew that his threatened lawsuit could never prove fruitful if brought before a jury, which is why he attempted to intimidate the entertainer into a settlement based on admittedly falsified evidence and an implied threat that scandalous allegations in a publicly filed lawsuit would irrevocably damage the entertainer’s reputation and livelihood,” the court said.

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