David Letterman has no private action against alleged extortionist

Last September Robert “Joe”  “Halderman the producer of the CBS show “48 Hours Mystery” was arrested and charged with allegedly attempting to extort comedian David Letterman of  $2 million in exchange for keeping silent about secret facts in the comedian’s personal life that would “collapse his world around him” if revealed.  According to the indictment, Halderman threatened to expose Letterman’s long running affairs with his assistants on “The Late Show,”

David Letterman and Stephanie Birkitt

especially a producer on the show with whom Halderman had just broken up after years of living together. Halderman also was alleged to have put together and showed to Letterman supposedly compromising photos, diary entries and a proposed screenplay that chronicled Letterman’s indiscretions with the staffers of his talk show.

The Letterman ordeal recalls a similar one endured by famed Hollywood singer and actress Liza Minelli in 2004 when her personal bodyguard and assistant M’Hammed Soumayah threatened to expose embarrassing details about her personal life and to cooperate with her then estranged husband David Gest in the couple’s pending divorce action. Prior to the blackmail, Minelli had attempted to offer Soumayah a new employment contract that would lower his salary in line with his reduced schedule of duties. However, Soumayah demanded that Minelli keep him at his old salary of well over $200,000 a year. Fearing serious damage to her reputation from Soumayah’s threats of exposure, Minelli actually did make payments for a three-month period during which Soumayah did nothing in return.

In New York State, these actions constitute the crimes of larceny by extortion and attempted extortion which could land perpetrators behind bars for years even if the damaging information they have on the celebrities (the “goods”) are true. In these two cases here, the celebrity victims sought the aid of law enforcement and the alleged extortionists were arrested. But can victims also file their own private law suits against their tormentors? It is almost intuitive that they ought to be able to do so. But can they really?

The short answer, incidentally, is that they can’t, at least in New York.  And this has nothing to do with the merits of the idea that they should or should not be able to sue. New York courts have made the call that it would be improper to continue the dispute outside the DA’s bailiwick. Translation: the courts have simply said that there should be just one bite at the apple here and that only the DA gets to do it. Whether this kind of line drawing by the courts is fair or not is a different matter and at this point only the legislature in Albany can give folks like Letterman and Minelli a private right of action.

But as far as private lawsuits are concerned, there may be a silver lining for celebs who are victims of extortion, depending on factual circumstances. For example, Minelli was able to convince the court to make Soumayah shut up pursuant to a confidentiality agreement he had signed as part of his employment relationship with her. He had worked as her bodyguard. The agreement required Soumayah not to disclose any personal facts he would learn about Minelli’s daily life in the course of his job. Letterman had no such relationship with Halderman. This means that any punch he might want to land against Halderman will have to be delivered outside of civil court.

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