|By: Creola Johnson, Ohio State University|
Rapper 50 Cent may soon learn that even millions of dollars don’t put him above the law. He may think he can dodge paying for a big debt by filing for bankruptcy, but the ploy probably won’t work.
More likely, he will end up paying US $5 million in damages for his involvement in publishing sexually explicit images of a rival’s girlfriend, plus a yet-to-be determined amount in punitive damages that could go into the millions of dollars.
The 50 Cent case is a lesson in the rules of bankruptcy and a warning about using the innocent as collateral damage in a war of rivals.
What triggered the case
First, some background. Rapper 50 Cent, aka Curtis James Jackson III, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 12. With Forbes listing him as being worth $140 million in 2014, it’s unlikely that he is broke.
The apparent trigger for the bankruptcy filing was a $5 million judgment for his involvement in publishing what has come to be called “revenge porn.”
Revenge porn is defined in the Wake Forest Law Review as “the distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent.“ This includes images originally obtained without consent (eg, hidden recordings or recordings of sexual assaults) as well as images originally obtained with consent, usually within the context of a private or confidential relationship (eg, images consensually given to an intimate partner who later distributes them without consent).
Revenge porn is usually a tool for exes
Revenge porn has become a nefarious tool for the angry and the jilted.
In February, a revenge porn website creator was convicted on 27 felony counts for images uploaded to the defunct site UGotPosted.com. Hunter Moore, who ran the notorious and now defunct revenge porn site Is Anyone Up, faces up to seven years in prison for his role in publishing nude photos of women without their permission.
Most revenge porn cases are based on a claim of invasion of privacy and involve publications designed to hurt the female featured in the porn video or photos.
However, in the 50 Cent case, the revenge porn case was designed to hurt Rick Ross, a rival rapper, through embarrassing Ross’s current girlfriend through the release of a doctored sex tape video.
The background on the case
Let’s flash back to the year 2008. Lastonia Leviston was dating Maurice Murray. The two made a sex tape that they both agreed would remain private. But then they broke up. Leviston tried to find the sex tape, but Murray claimed he didn’t know where it was.
Fast forward to 2009, when 50 Cent was in a “rap war” with Rick Ross, and the two were attacking each other via videos and interviews posted online.
According to court documents, ex-boyfriend Murray took the tape to 50 Cent, who watched it and recognized Leviston. By this time, Leviston was dating Ross. 50 Cent did not personally know Leviston and had never met Murray before that day.
50 Cent then modified the tape by turning it into a digital video that superimposed himself as the character, “Pimpin’ Curly,” who narrated the video with profanity-laced words directed to Leviston. He ended the video by saying to Leviston, “You a motherf–king porn star now.”
The infamous video, as doctored by 50 Cent, went online through his website in March 2009. The doctored sex tape was seen by millions, but is no longer available online.
After Leviston found out about it, she says she suffered distress and humiliation to the point of being suicidal and seeking psychiatric help.
A year later, she filed a lawsuit against 50 Cent in Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, claiming damages for invasion of privacy and for intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from his “willful, wanton, reckless and unlawful conduct.”
50 Cent then tried various legal maneuvers to get Leviston’s lawsuit thrown out of state court and removed to federal court.
Last month, a federal judge found that 50 Cent’s “attempted removal is a transparent delay tactic, an egregious abuse of the federal removal statute, and an unmeritorious attempt to avoid standing trial.”
Leviston was awarded $2.5 million for invasion of privacy in violation of NY Civil Rights Law and $2.5 million for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Five million should seem relatively small for 50 Cent, but he could face millions more in fines for punitive damages. The next phase of the trial was supposed to determine the amount of punitive damages he should have to pay for his intentional wrongdoing [he was just ordered to pay another $2 million]. Instead, he filed for bankruptcy relief on July 12, and then filed a motion to stop the trial.
Why 50 Cent’s legal maneuvers will fail
In Kawaauhau v Geiger, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg defined a willful injury as the actor intending “the consequences of an act,” not simply “the act itself.”
50 Cent can try to argue that he didn’t intend for Leviston to suffer emotional distress or become suicidal. However, bankruptcy law usually finds that a person “intends” any consequences that naturally flow from the act.
For example, assume that you aim and shoot a loaded gun at Michael, hoping that by injuring Michael, your actions will harm Kelly, Michael’s girlfriend. The law states that you “intended” (ie, know with substantial certainty) to harm Michael even though your motive was to hurt Kelly.
Similarly, a bankruptcy court will likely conclude that 50 Cent intended the emotional injury suffered by Leviston, even though his motive was to hurt Ross.
Moreover, the bankruptcy court could readily find 50 Cent acted maliciously because his production of this form of revenge porn was done without Leviston’s consent and without any legal justification. Therefore, under the law, he should not be allowed to use his bankruptcy case to avoid paying Leviston.
What this means for those considering bankruptcy
So, what’s the takeaway of this case for an average, nonfamous person who resorts to bankruptcy to deal with a debt perceived to be too large or unfair to pay?
Let’s look, for example, at a woman of average income. We’ll call her “Ashley.”
Ashley is a single mother who hires a legal aid attorney to help file a lawsuit seeking child support payments from “Larry,” the person whom she believes is father of her one-year-old son.
In accordance with the law in the United States, Ashley establishes that Larry is the father and obtains a garnishment order from the court that requires Larry’s employer to garnish – or deduct – an amount from Larry’s paycheck that is deemed reasonable for him to pay.
Assume further that Larry doesn’t like this and immediately quits his well-paying job, moves to another city, and starts working as a day laborer who gets paid “under the table.”
Next, Ashley hires a private investigator to track down Larry, and a year later, the investigator locates Larry and the identity of his employer.
Based on this new information, Ashley gets a new garnishment order, which requires Larry’s employer to deduct $100 per month for future payments and an additional $100 a month until he has paid the accrued $1,200 in back child support.
It’s not uncommon for fathers like Larry to seek out a bankruptcy attorney to see if they can use bankruptcy to avoid paying back child support.
What’s not well-known, however, is that back child support cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and that a bankruptcy case won’t prevent the arrest of a parent who disobeys a court order to pay child support.
The meaning of “dischargeable”
The Bankruptcy Code expressly states that child support payments are not dischargeable, but it doesn’t specifically mention debts arising from invasion-of-privacy lawsuits like the one filed by Leviston against 50 Cent.
However, the non-discharge statute does state debts are non-dischargeable if they arise from conduct constituting “a willful or malicious injury.”
Under bankruptcy law, a debtor such as 50 Cent can try to be “discharged” from paying debts if he doesn’t have enough assets to pay all the claims. But the Bankruptcy Code makes certain debts “non-dischargeable”; that is, it prevents a debtor like 50 Cent from wiping out certain debts. Classic examples of non-dischargeable debts are back child support and unpaid income taxes.
The non-discharge statute doesn’t mention invasion of privacy, but it does say debts are non-dischargeable if they arise from conduct constituting “a willful or malicious injury.”
Based on my experience as a bankruptcy law professor and practitioner, the $5 million judgment against 50 Cent is most likely covered as a willful or malicious injury.
So things look bad for 50 Cent. On Friday, July 17, the bankruptcy judge held a hearing on 50 Cent’s effort to stop Leviston’s state court lawsuit and issued an order stating that Leviston’s lawsuit can continue.
That means the punitive damages phase can now start. Punitive damages are awarded as extra damages and “are considered punishment and are awarded when the defendant’s behavior is found to be especially harmful.”
Given the fact that he took an innocent woman’s private tape, doctored it with vulgarities and published it online, 50 Cent is a ripe candidate for a severe punitive damage award.
Just like our fictional character Larry, 50 Cent is finding out that he can’t shield himself from liability simply by filing bankruptcy.