LOS ANGELES (CN) - A pilot who claims he had an affair with actor John Travolta can fight the validity of a confidentiality agreement in order to write a kiss-and-tell book, a California appeals court ruled Tuesday.
Douglas Gotterba worked for Travolta's aircraft company Atlo, Inc. as Travolta's personal pilot from 1981 to 1987. He left Atlo voluntarily, but allegedly signed a termination agreement that contained a confidentiality clause when he quit.
Nearly 25 years after quitting, Gotterba decided to tell his life story - which includes an alleged six-year sexual relationship with Travolta. Gotterba told the National Enquirer in mid-2012 that he planned to publish a book about the affair.
Atlo's attorney, Martin Singer, responded by sending Gotterba a cease-and-desist letter demanding that he stop making statements about the time he spent with Travolta. Singer cited the confidentiality clause of the termination agreement and threatened to sue Gotterba if he continued to violate the provision.
But Gotterba claims that he never saw a confidentiality provision. He sued
Atlo, Travolta, and Travolta's production company, Constellation Productions, in 2012 seeking declaratory relief that the agreement produced by Atlo is invalid.
Although the parties agree to the existence of the termination agreement, both sides have produced their own versions and disagree over which is valid and enforceable.
Gotterba produced a three-page unsigned agreement dated March 17, 1987 that does not contain anything to restrict his disclosure of personal, confidential or proprietary information obtained during his time with Travolta. Atlo claims Gotterba's version is an early draft that was never executed by the parties.
Instead, Atlo says that its four-page agreement dated April 3, 1987, which includes such the confidentiality clause, is the enforceable termination contract. The agreement appears to have been executed by Gotterba, Atlo and Travolta.
Atlo asked the Santa Barbara Superior Court to strike Gotterba's action through an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming that Gotterba "filed this action to prevent Travolta from exercising his right to send prelitigation demand letters and/or suing to enforce the terms of the parties' 1987 agreement."
The Santa Barbara County Superior Court denied Atlo's motion. On appeal by Atlo, California's Second Appellate District agreed and found that Atlo had misconstrued the purpose of Gotterba's complaint.
"Contrary to Atlo's position and arguments, Gotterba's complaint is not based upon Atlo's saber-rattling demand letters," Judge Arthur Gilbert wrote for the panel. "The complaint seeks declaratory relief regarding the validity of the asserted termination agreements and not the propriety of Atlo's demand letters."
The prelitigation letters may have triggered the complaint, but they are not the basis of the complaint, the panel found.
"If the threats of litigation were removed from Atlo's demand letters, the same dispute would exist regarding the terms of the termination agreement, i.e., Gotterba seeks to publish a book concerning his relationship with Travolta," Gilbert wrote. "The demand letters do not form the 'actual controversy upon which to base the claim for declaratory relief,' but are merely evidence that a controversy between the parties exists."
The appeals court added that Gotterba's lawsuit does not seek to curtail Atlo's right to send demand letters or any sort of declaration regarding specific conduct by Gotterba or Atlo that is permitted or not permitted by the termination agreement, which further weighs against Atlo's anti-SLAPP motion.
"Acceptance of Atlo's arguments would lead to the absurd result that a person receiving a demand letter threatening legal action for beach of contract would be precluded from seeking declaratory relief to determine the validity of the contract," Gilbert wrote. "Declaratory relief would be limited to situations where the parties have not communicated their disagreement regarding an asserted breach of contract."
The panel declined to weigh in on whether Gotterba might actually succeed with his claims.