A lawyer for a woman who accused Irish dance entertainer Michael Flatley of rape committed extortion when he threatened to go public with the allegation unless the "Riverdance" star paid him at least $1 million, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.
"That the threats were couched in legalese does not disguise their essential character as extortion," Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the court.
The ruling permits Flatley to pursue a lawsuit against former Illinois lawyer D. Dean Mauro for extortion and infliction of emotional distress. Mauro was sued for his work on behalf of Tyna Marie Robertson, who after failing to collect from Flatley accused him of rape in an unsuccessful lawsuit. No criminal charges were ever filed against Flatley.
Bert Fields, who represented Flatley in the case, said celebrities are often targets of false charges, and "a lot of people pay off rather than risk the embarrassment."
"Celebrities are victimized more frequently than you would expect by this kind of thing," Fields said.
James Holmes, a lawyer for Mauro, said he still expects to prevail in the lawsuit. Holmes said the ruling creates a "dilemma" for lawyers, because they are ethically obligated to represent their clients zealously but will now be vulnerable to charges of extortion if they are too aggressive in making demands.
"What happens if they do not put out an aggressive letter on behalf of their client?" Holmes asked.
According to ruling, Flatley said he and Robertson had consensual sex in October 2002 in his hotel suite in Las Vegas, where he was starring in "Lord of the Dance."
Flatley said Robertson was "very friendly" when he met her in Las Vegas earlier, so he gave her the telephone number of his personal secretary.
Robertson later called and arranged to meet with Flatley on Oct. 19, the ruling said. She arrived at the dancer's two-bedroom suite at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and put her belongings in his bedroom.
Flatley said he and Robertson dined together and then returned to his suite, where he took off his clothes and got into bed. He said Robertson went to the bathroom, then reappeared naked, entered his bed and stayed the night.
The dancer said his secretary spent the night in the suite's other room and heard no cry or complaint. The next morning, Robertson entered the common area of the suite and kissed Flatley in his secretary's presence, the dancer said. "Her demeanor was relaxed and happy," the ruling quoted him as saying.
Not quite three months later, Mauro sent Flatley a letter informing him of the rape charges and giving him less than a month to settle the case before Robertson sued. "We are positive the media worldwide will enjoy what they find," Mauro wrote. He also noted that he would be paid 40% of whatever settlement Flatley gave.
Attached to the letter was a draft of Robertson's lawsuit, her medical records for treatment for an alleged rape and the resumes of experts who would be willing to testify against Flatley.
Mauro later told one of Flatley's lawyers he would not extend his deadline for a settlement.
"I know the tour dates; I am not kidding about this; it will be publicized every place [the dancer] goes for the rest of his life," Flatley's attorney quoted Mauro as saying.
Fields eventually called Mauro and asked what it would take to settle the case. Fields said Mauro told him "it would take seven figures" to prevent the lawsuit, according to the ruling. Otherwise, Mauro said, his client would "go public," the ruling said.
Fields contacted the FBI and arranged for Flatley to be interviewed by agents, although Fields said nothing ever came of the FBI probe. When Flatley failed to pay, Mauro and Robertson filed their lawsuit, and Flatley then countersued.
Mauro argued that his statements to Flatley and his lawyers amounted to a "pre-litigation settlement offer" and were protected by a California law aimed at deterring lawsuits intended to chill constitutionally protected speech.
But the high court said extortion is not protected by the Constitution.
"A threat that constitutes criminal extortion is not cleansed of its illegality merely because it is laundered by transmission through the offices of an attorney," Moreno wrote in Flatley vs. Mauro.