A California appeals court allows Douglas Gotterba to challenge the validity of a confidentiality agreement.
Douglas Gotterba, who worked for John Travolta’s aircraft company Alto in the 1980s, will get the opportunity to argue in a lawsuit that he holds no confidentiality duties to the actor. On Tuesday, the airline pilot was given the go-ahead sign by a California appeals court.
Gotterba worked for Travolta for six years. According to press interviews he’s given, he claims that his relationship with Travolta was more than professional. He stopped working for the actor in 1987, at which point he entered into a written termination agreement with Alto.
Nearly 25 years later, Gotterba came forward to “tell the story of his life and those involved in it,” including his personal relationship with Travolta. According to Gotterba, he was “unwillingly thrust” into the gossip tabloids by public revelations from another former Travolta employee.
Upon hearing that Gotterba had spoken to the National Enquirer and was planning a book, Travolta’s attorney Martin Singer sent out cease-and-desist letters. The lawyer warned Gotterba about breaching the confidentiality provision of his termination agreement.
Gotterba’s own attorney then demanded to see the asserted confidentiality provisions. He eventually saw what Singer was relying upon when the parent company of the National Enquirer forwarded the relevant portion of a four-page agreement.
But the airline pilot maintains that this agreement is “not authentic,” that it is merely an early draft of another three-page agreement that didn’t contain the confidentiality clause. So Gotterba sued Travolta and Alto seeking a judicial declaration about which agreement was valid and whether confidentiality was really enforceable.
In response, Alto aimed to kill Gotterba’s lawsuit by bringing an anti-SLAPP motion. In instances where someone’s First Amendment rights are at stake, California law provides defendants with an early exit as well as the possibility of recovering legal fees. In this case, the defendants asserted that Travolta’s right to petition was protected. The question for the trial judge and then the appeals court was whether Gotterba’s lawsuit was based upon Singer’s demand letters.
California appeals court Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert says that it is not based upon Singer’s “sabre-rattling” but rather “the validity of the asserted termination agreements.” He adds, “Although the prelitigation letters may have triggered Gotterba’s complaint and may be evidence in support of the complaint, they are not the basis of the complaint.”
The justice says that to hold otherwise “would lead to the absurd result that a person receiving a demand letter threatening legal action for breach of contract would be precluded from seeking declaratory relief to determine the validity of the contract. Declaratory relief would be limited to situations where the parties have not communicated their disagreement.”