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Ross v. Roberts

California Court of Appeal, Second District, Second Division

December 23, 2013

Ricky D. ROSS, Plaintiff and Appellant,
William Leonard ROBERTS II et al., Defendants and Respondents.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Rita Miller, Judge. Affirmed and remanded. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC450511).

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[166 Cal.Rptr.3d 362] John D. Younesi, Jan A. Yoss, Los Angeles, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Liner Grode Stein Yankelevitz Sunshine Regenstreif & Taylor, Stanton L. Stein, Santa Monica, Edward A. Klein, Allen P. Lohse; Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, Linda M. Burrow, Eric S. Pettit, Los Angeles, for Defendants and Respondents.



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Plaintiff and appellant Ricky D. Ross is a former criminal who achieved some sort of celebrity status due, in part, to the enormous scale of his cocaine-dealing operations. Defendant and respondent William Leonard Roberts II is a famous rap musician who goes by the name " Rick Ross." His lyrics frequently include fictional accounts of selling cocaine. Plaintiff sued Roberts and other defendants/respondents (Maybach Music Group, Slip-N-Slide Records, and Universal Music Group) claiming that they misappropriated plaintiff's name and identity for their own financial benefit. Defendants moved for and were granted summary judgment by the trial court.

In this opinion, we find that defendants' use of the " Rick Ross" name and persona is protected expression under the First Amendment because it incorporates significant creative elements. Accordingly, we conclude that summary judgment is appropriate.


Procedural background

Plaintiff initially filed suit against defendants and several other parties in June 2010 in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, asserting federal and state law claims. Following a motion to dismiss filed by various defendants, the district court dismissed the federal claims in November 2010 and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state claims. (28 U.S.C. ยง 1367(c)(3).)

Plaintiff then filed this action in state court in December 2010. The operative first amended complaint pleaded six causes of action: (1) violation of Civil Code section 3344; (2) false advertising; (3) unjust enrichment; (4) unfair business practices; (5) common law claims of misappropriation of name and identity; and (6) misappropriation of rights of publicity. All causes

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of action relied on allegations that Roberts and the other defendants misappropriated plaintiff's name and identity to further Roberts's rap music career.

Evidence presented on the motion for summary judgment

In December 2011, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. Evidence presented in connection with the motion included the following:

[166 Cal.Rptr.3d 363] Plaintiff was born Rickie Donnell Ross. Throughout his life, he has gone by the names Ricky Ross and Rick Ross, and was at one time dubbed with the nickname " Freeway" Ricky Ross. During the 1980's, plaintiff organized and ran a vast cocaine-dealing enterprise. His network of associates packaged and transported cocaine for sale directly into at least six different states, and indirectly into many others. At the height of plaintiff's operation, he sold as much as $3 million worth of cocaine a day. He eventually amassed a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and he owned dozens of properties as well as legitimate businesses.

In 1989, plaintiff was arrested in Ohio and charged with trafficking cocaine and was indicted on separate charges in Texas. He pled guilty to the charges in both Ohio and Texas and received lengthy sentences. While in prison, plaintiff helped to uncover a ring of " dirty cops," who planted evidence and framed innocent people using false evidence. Plaintiff's testimony helped to free approximately 120 wrongly convicted men and he was rewarded with a significantly reduced sentence, leading to his release from prison in 1994.

Just six months after his release, plaintiff was arrested again and subsequently convicted on new charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. While plaintiff was in prison this time, a journalist interviewed him and wrote a piece regarding plaintiff's former cocaine supplier, who in the 1980's had close ties to the Nicaraguan Contras. The story gained significant exposure, and in the 1990's plaintiff received widespread coverage regarding his peripheral role in the Iran-Contra ...

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