A Los Angeles judge on Friday (Feb. 2) denied Lizzo’s motion to toss out a bombshell sexual harassment lawsuit filed by three of her former backup dancers, dismissing certain accusations but allowing the case as a whole to move forward toward a trial.
Facing allegations of harassment and discrimination, Lizzo argued last year that case should be dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP statute — a special law that makes it easier to quickly end meritless lawsuits that threaten free speech (known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation”). Her lawyers argued that the accusers were using the lawsuit to “silence” her.
But in a detailed, 34-page decision, Judge Mark H. Epstein ruled that the anti-SLAPP statute didn’t quite fit all of the lawsuit’s allegations. He tossed out some claims – including a particularly loaded charge that Lizzo fat-shamed one of her dancers – but ruled that remainder of the case could go forward.
Figuring out the proper balance – between protected speech and illegal discrimination – was “no easy task,” Judge Epstein wrote, but he said he had “tried to thread this needle.”
“It is dangerous for the court to weigh in, ham-fisted, into constitutionally protected activity,” the judge wrote. “But it is equally dangerous to turn a blind eye to allegations of discrimination or other forms of misconduct merely because they take place in a speech-related environment.”
The case against Lizzo, filed in August by dancers Arianna Davis, Crystal Williams and Noelle Rodriguez, accuses the singer (real name Melissa Jefferson) and her Big Grrrl Big Touring Inc. of creating a hostile work environment through a wide range of legal wrongdoing, including not just sexual harassment but also religious and racial discrimination. The alleged weight-shaming, the lawsuit claims, amounted to a form of disability discrimination.
In one particularly vivid allegation, Lizzo’s accusers claimed she pushed them to attend a live sex show at a venue in Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District called Bananenbar, and then pressured them to engage with the performers, including “eating bananas protruding from the performers’ vaginas.” After Lizzo herself allegedly led a chant “goading” Davis to touch one performer’s breasts, the lawsuit says, Davis eventually did so.
Repped by Hollywood defense attorney Martin D. Singer, Lizzo fired back in October, arguing that Davis, Williams and Rodriguez had “an axe to grind” against the star because they had been reprimanded over “a pattern of gross misconduct and failure to perform their job up to par.”
“Plaintiffs embarked on a press tour, vilifying defendants and pushing their fabricated sob story in the courts and in the media. That ends today,” Singer wrote. “Instead of taking any accountability for their own actions, plaintiffs filed this lawsuit against defendants out of spite and in pursuit of media attention, public sympathy and a quick payday with minimal effort.”
The filing came with sworn statements from 18 members of Lizzo’s touring company who dispute many of the lawsuit’s specific factual accusations. That included several who challenged the headline-grabbing claim that Lizzo fat-shamed some of her dancers — a particularly loaded allegation against a singer who has made body positivity a key part of her brand.
Lizzo’s counter-attack came under the anti-SLAPP law. Anti-SLAPP motions are filed every day, but it was unusual to see one aimed at dismissing a harassment and discrimination lawsuit filed by former employees against their employer. They’re more common in precisely the opposite scenario: filed by an individual who claims that they’re being unfairly sued by a powerful person to silence accusations of abuse or other wrongdoing.
In their filings, Lizzo’s lawyers argued that the anti-SLAPP law could still apply to the current case because of the creative nature of the work in question. They called the lawsuit “a brazen attempt to silence defendants’ creative voices and weaponize their creative expression against them.”
But in his ruling on Friday, Judge Epstein largely rejected that argument. He said that conduct relating to speech is protected and that California law “law wisely disfavors chilling such conduct.” But he cautioned that free speech was not a magic wand against allegations of employer wrongdoing.
“The fact that the alleged incidents take place in the entertainment or speech world is no shield of invulnerability or license to ignore law enacted for the protection of California’s citizens,” the judge said.
The judge dismissed a sexual harassment allegation involving a nude photoshoot on the set of the reality competition series Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls; a disability discrimination accusation around one dancer’s allegation that she was fired from Lizzo’s tour after disclosing her mental health issues; and another allegation stating that Lizzo’s camp intentionally interfered with the dancers’ other job prospects after placing them on a “soft hold” and telling them they could not accept other work.
Lizzo and Shirlene Quigley, the captain of the singer’s dance team, will still have to face other allegations of sexual harassment, as well as accusations of racial and religious discrimination.
“We’re very pleased with the judge’s ruling, and we absolutely consider it a victory on balance,” said the dancers’ lawyer, Ron Zambrano, in a statement. “He did dismiss a few allegations, including the meeting where Arianna was fat shamed, the nude photo shoot, and dancers being forced to be on ‘hold’ while not on tour. However, all the other claims remain, including sexual, religious and racial discrimination, sexual harassment, the demeaning visits to the Bananenbar in Amsterdam and Crazy Horse in Paris, false imprisonment, and assault. The ruling also rightfully signals that Lizzo – or any celebrity – is not insulated from this sort of reprehensible conduct merely because she is famous. We now look forward to conducting discovery and preparing the case for trial.”
In his own statement, Lizzo’s lawyer, Stefan Friedman, said: “We are pleased that Judge Epstein wisely threw out all or part of four of the plaintiffs’ causes of action. Lizzo is grateful to the judge for seeing through much of the noise and recognizing who she is – a strong woman who exists to lift others up and spread positivity. We plan to appeal all elements that the judge chose to keep in the lawsuit and are confident we will prevail.”