Broadway Producers Awarded $90,000 from New York Jury

by Robins Kaplan LLP
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A New York jury found ex-publicist Marc Thibodeau liable for breach of contract and tortious interference for a Broadway production called Rebecca, which was supposed to premiere on Broadway.  The jury did not find Thibodeau liable for defamation however, and only awarded plaintiffs $90,000 in compensatory damages— a disappointment to plaintiffs who sought $10.6 million in damages.  The verdict was announced on May 10, 2017 in New York Supreme Court after a jury deliberated for two days.

The show’s producers, Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza, sued Thibodeau after a sequence of curious events which ultimately led to the show’s doom.  The series of events began in 2012 when Sprecher and Forlenza were trying to raise $12 million for the show which was scheduled to open that year in September. They hired a stockbroker, Mark C. Hotton, who falsely claimed to have investors who would contribute $4.5 million. Hotton, who had a history of fraud charges, later told them that one of the investors had died and the money was lost; this was subsequently confirmed to be an invented story.  In October 2014, Hotton admitted to defrauding the producers out of more than $35,000 and was sentenced by a New York judge to 34 months in prison.

The producers then tried to secure an investment from Larry Runsdorf, a pharmaceutical executive, who agreed to invest $2.25 million on the condition that he remain anonymous. However, the deal fell through when he alleged he started receiving anonymous emails warning him that the “walls are about to cave in on Mr. Sprecher” and that “with this prospect of fraud, an ongoing money shortage, a bad public perception, anemic ticket sales, and a rabid press corps, the only good reason to invest in Rebecca would be for a tax write-off and a desire to be dragged in a fraud trial.”  Sprecher and Forlenza thereafter found out that Thibodeau was sending the emails and a lawsuit for breach of contract, tortious interference and defamation ensued. The producers also sued for violation of fiduciary duties but the claim was later thrown out on a motion to dismiss. To prove a breach of fiduciary duty, the producers had to allege a legal duty separate and apart from a contractual duty which they were not able to prove. In its coverage of the proceedings, The Hollywood Reporter stated that Judge Jeffrey Oing, when dismissing the count, “said that press agents would ‘gasp’ if he made the determination that publicists owe clients fiduciary duties.”

Sprecher and Forlenza described Thibodeau’s actions as a “brazen attempt to undermine the very production—a story immortalized in a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940—that he had been hired and paid to promote.”  The jury determined that Thibodeau should pay $5,000 for breach of contract and $85,000 for tortious interference. According to The New York Times, Thibodeau was “relieved and gratified” by the verdict.  One of Thibodeau’s lawyers, Andrew T. Miltenberg, echoed a similar sentiment regarding the jury’s decision to not find him guilty of defamation.  Miltenberg stated “[t]his is an important victory for free speech and for those souls, like Marc Thibodeau, who are willing to take a stand for truth.” Ronald G. Russo, a lawyer for the producers said that they were considering an appeal.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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