Legendary ladies of litigation

The current lawsuit between Lady Gaga and a former employee resembles a famous contract case.

by James Castle

History repeats itself with the filing of a complaint by Jennifer O’Neill against popular music star Stefani Germanotta, a.k.a, Lady Gaga. The complaint was filed in a federal court in New York on June 7, 2012. 

O’Neill is Lady Gaga’s former personal assistant, and she was primarily employed from Feb. 2010 through March 2011, when Gaga’s career was at its peak. O’Neill was paid a salary of $75,000 per year but is now claiming that, because she needed to be available to Gaga 24 hours a day, Gaga owes O’Neill time-and-a-half for every hour she worked beyond the forty-hour work week, per the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York State Labor Law. In addition, O’Neill claims she is entitled to an additional hour of pay at minimum wage for every day in which she worked more than ten hours, per New York State Labor Law. 

Most members of the legal community can recall at least the name of a somewhat similar case commonly studied in the standard first-year contracts course: Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon. Wood is a 1917 case that ends in the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest state court, and involves an employment contract between a famous dress designer and her agent, Wood. Lady Duff-Gordon agreed to hire Wood to market her designs through sales or licensing agreements with companies to market her designs. Lady Duff-Gordon entered into her own agreement with Sears, however, without Wood’s knowledge, and kept the profits for herself rather than splitting them in half like they had agreed.  

To be fair, the legal issues underlying these two cases are completely different. While the O’Neil case involves a dispute regarding overtime wages that would fall under the heading of labor and employment law, the Wood case primarily concerns a dispute about implied obligations — whether Wood was under any obligation to find an outlet through which to market Lady Duff Gordon’s designs. This would fall under the heading of contract law.

Nonetheless, the cases share enough overarching similarities to warrant a quick note, albeit merely on the facts. Both Lady Gaga and Lady Duff-Gordon, who was originally addressed as Lucy Christiana until her marriage to Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, reside or resided in New York City and are internationally famous in their respective times for their artistic talents. Both “Ladies” are the defendants in their respective cases, and in both cases former employees seek earnings they believe to be withheld. 

Thus far, both cases appear similar in procedure, though the Wood case took place in a state court, while Gaga’s case takes place in a federal court. After Wood filed a complaint against Lady Duff-Gordon, Lady Duff-Gordon filed a motion for “judgment upon the pleadings,” where the moving party believes no material fact of the case to be in dispute, and should win the case as a matter of law based on those undisputed material facts. Lady Duff Gordon believed there was no real contract between herself and Wood because Wood, she argued, had no obligation to market her designs. The motion was denied by the trial court, and in the end, Lady Duff-Gordon lost her case, the New York Court of Appeals holding that the circumstances surrounding the agreement implied that Wood had an obligation to make reasonable efforts to market her design’s, creating a binding contract. Today, this is called a motion for summary judgment, the procedural move Lady Gaga has chosen against her plaintiff. 

In her motion for partial summary judgment, filed on Jan. 29, 2013, Lady Gaga, in short, argues that the plaintiff, O’Neill, is not entitled to any overtime compensation under New York law for work done outside of the state. She also argues that, although she was on call 24/7, O’Neill was nonetheless allowed to use her on-call time for personal use. She is not entitled to an additional hour at minimum wage for 10 hour-plus work days because she already makes more than minimum wage even if working 24/7 on-call shifts. And finally, that any overtime compensation should be calculated using a half-time method rather than a time-and-a-half method.  

A motion for partial summary judgment, however, is not used to dispose of a case in its entirety; rather, such motions are a tactic for simplifying trials, to avoid wasting resources by ridding the case of certain claims or accepting certain claims. 

The O’Neill case appears to be particularly heated. In her deposition, Gaga wasn’t shy about her feelings toward O’Neill, calling her a “hood rat,” broadcasting that she thinks O’Neill is an ingrate and directing swear words at the opposing counsel. Gaga also mentioned that she intends to pay her current assistants the money for which O’Neill is suing, just to spite her. Lady Duff-Gordon’s case made its way to the highest court in New York, and, given Gaga’s strong negative feelings toward O’Neill and her outspoken desires to spite her, it’s likely that Gaga will attempt to drag the litigation out as long as she can, which will only increase O’Neill’s attorney’s fees and thus subtract from her overall award if she prevails. The moral of this story: Ladies of New York aren’t afraid to litigate.