BOSTON, MAThe long-running legal battle in which Martha’s Vineyard homeowner Leah Bassett is suing Mile High Media, Nica Noelle and several others connected to the company produced some wins for the defendants yesterday, when District of Massachusetts Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, who is presiding over the case, ruled on summary judgment motions filed by both sides, throwing out Bassett’s claims of breach of contract, trespassing, negligence, civil fraud, defamation, and the biggie, violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act aka RICO. The case was filed in 2018, though the acts which gave rise to it occurred beginning in October of 2014, when plaintiff Bassett agreed to lease her home in Aquinnah, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard island, to one Joshua Darling, a photographer/videographer for director Nica Noelle. Though Darling reportedly intended to live in the house while shooting for Noelle elsewhere on the island, eventually he was convinced to let her shoot gay movies in the Bassett residenceand when Bassett later found out about that (she’d spent the winter of 2014-’15 traveling), she hit the roof. “According to Defendants, Bassetts home and household items appear in scenes from nine films that were distributed by Mile High, as well as still images accompanying five other films,” the judge’s Memorandum and Order states. “Scenes showing Bassetts home also appear in two compilation titles that were distributed by Mile High. Bassett asserts that she has found twenty-one films featuring scenes or stills from her house. In addition, cast members took promotional photos at the property that they posted on their own social media accounts.” Bassett’s complaint contains numerous claims against Noelle, Mile High and the other defendants, including charges that they damaged furnishings, left the house filthy and, importantly to Bassett, included several of Bassett’s self-created artworks in the movies, which art she copyrighted in 2016, well after the features were completed and marketed. Mile High subsequently pulled 14 features shot in Bassett’s house off the market, though its attorneys argued in motions that, “There is no evidence whatsoever that Defendants intentionally sought to portray copyrighted work (even to the extent copyright protection exists). … Defendants did not use them or focus on them. Nor do they have any bearing on the films. They were just there.” Judge Saris’ 42-page Memorandum and Order details the events between the initial rental and Bassett’s discovery that adult features had been shot at her house, and to say Bassett was outraged would be putting it mildly. The judge recounts that, “In May 2015, Bassett returned home and ‘spent weeks’ repairing the damage to her property,” and that “Bassett was ‘experiencing anxiety, inability to sleep, [and] lack of concentration’ in the wake of these events. She became ‘paranoid’ and suffered from ‘sadness and anxiety [that was] deep, dark and seemingly endless.'” Regarding Bassett’s artworks that appear in the features, Judge Saris notes that, “Bassett registered the copyrights because she ‘knew that there was a possibility [she] would have to file a lawsuit.'” The judge then spends several pages considering the copyright claims, denying defense summary judgment claims based on allegations that Bassett lied when she claimed the artworks in question were an “unpublished collection”; that the copyrights to some works were invalid either due to lack of originality or because they “serve only a utilitarian purpose”; that the artworks appear in the features in a de minimus capacity, barely noticeable; or that in any case, the artworks appearing in the features were an example of “fair use,” a technical term the meaning of which has been the basis for hundreds if not thousands of court decisions. But short of looking at each of Noelle’s productions that were shot at Bassett’s house, the court has no reliable information upon which to determine if the artworks do indeed appear in little enough footage that her claim is legally insufficient. Hence, part of Judge Saris’ Order is that she is deferring ruling on the copyright claim “pending Bassetts submission, within 45 days, of a spreadsheet or other analysis that describes exactly how long each copyrighted work appears in each film, with accompanying screenshots for each period of time.” Several other issues are also covered in the Memorandum and Order, including whether the defendants intentionally or negligently inflicted emotion distress on Bassett (the judge allowed the negligent infliction count to go forward); interference with contractual relations (the judge dismissed most of it, except for the claim that Mile High, Noelle or others interfered with Bassett’s contract with Darling); whether defendants violated Massachusetts Statute Chapter 93A by “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce” (the judge found that shooting porn in Bassett’s home without her consent met that definition); and the charge of “civil conspiracy” was likewise upheld at this stage due to Darling’s allowing Noelle to break his lease with Barrett and shoot porn in the house. Finally, the judge dismissed Bassett’s breach of contract claim, since no evidence supported it; her trespassing and negligence claims were dismissed due to the statute of limitations having run out; her civil fraud claim was dismissed due to lack of evidence, as was her Civil RICO claim, which hinged on whether the features Noelle made and Mile High distributed were “obscene matter” and whether such distribution constituted a “pattern” of racketeering, which Judge Saris ruled it did not. She also ruled that Bassett’s claims that she was “defamed” by Noelle’s and Mile High employee Billy Santoro’s tweets were unsupportable. The judge also dismissed all of Bassett’s own motions for summary judgment as either improperly pled or simply unsupported by the evidence. With the motions for summary judgment out of the way, it appears that the next time this case will come before Judge Saris is after Bassett has collected all of the visual evidence of how her artwork was used in Noelle’s features, about 45 days from now. The case is Bassett v. Jensen et al., case number 1:18-cv-10576, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
written by: Mark Kernes