In 1994, Liza Minnelli hired M'Hammed Soumayah to serve as her personal assistant and bodyguard. After nearly a decade of service, Soumayah was purportedly told by Minnelli's attorney that the performer could no longer afford to pay him his full salary and that he was to accept a 50% decrease.
Two days after refusing the pay reduction, Minnelli's lawyer informed Soumayah that his responsibilities had been assigned to others, and his bi-weekly paychecks were stopped.
After litigation was threatened, Soumayah was summoned to Minnelli's residence where he was supposedly asked what it would take to refrain from filing suit. When settlement discussions faltered, Soumayah filed a civil case against Minnelli alleging assault and battery, sexual harassment, quantum meruit, retaliatory discharge and wrongful termination. Minnelli countered with allegations of extortion, attempted extortion, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty.
In Soumayah v. Minnelli , the New York County Supreme Court denied Minnelli's motion to dismiss Soumayah's quantum meruit claim and to strike certain allegations in his pleadings that were "irrelevant and inadmissible."
In the countersuit, Minnelli v. Soumayah , the Supreme Court granted Soumayah's motion to dismiss the performer's extortion, attempted extortion, and contract breach claims.
On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department, dismissed Soumayah's quantum meruit claim, and affirmed the grant of Minnelli's motion to strike, the dismissal of her extortion and attempted extortion allegations, and, maintenance of her contract breach claims.
In order to state a cause of action for quantum meruit, one must allege:
- the performance of services in good faith;
- the acceptance of the services by the person to whom they were rendered;
- an expectation of compensation therefor; and
- the reasonable value of those services.
While Soumayah performed some $89,000 in services that were outside the scope of his regular responsibilities, the record demonstrated that his employer did not accept those additional services and that Soumayah could not have truly expected compensation.
The AD1 sided with Minnelli's motion to strike, because Soumayah's complaint, "contain[ed] 'scandalous or prejudicial matter[s]' that [were] 'unnecessarily inserted' in the complaint."
With regard to Minnelli's claim that Soumayah sought monies under threat of physical harm and disclosure of her confidential information, the AD1 held that while extortion and attempted extortion are criminal offenses, there was no basis to maintain a civil lawsuit on those grounds. (Although extortion, coercion, and duress may serve as elements of a cause of action for "tortious interference with contract" or "unjust enrichment," common law has never recognized a civil extortion claim.)
Finally, since Soumayah had a contractual obligation not to disclose confidential information attained during the course of his employment, the AD1 was of the opinion that the Supreme Court correctly determined that the complaint stated a breach of contract claim based on Soumayah's purported violation of that agreement.
For a copy of the Appellate Division's decision, please use this link: Soumayah v. Minnelli
For a copy of the Appellate Division's decision, please use this link: Minnelli v. Soumayah