Judge lets juvenile detainees continue suit vs Cook County over filming of TV show "Empire"

By Scott Holland | Apr 24, 2017

Juvenile detainees will be allowed to continue part of their class action complaint of rights violations against Cook County prison officials and television network Fox after a federal judge in Chicago refused to dismiss the entire case, claiming the county had wrongly surrendered control of large portions of the county’s juvenile detention center while the studio filmed episodes of hit television show, “Empire.”

The issue dates to the summer of 2015, when officials locked down the county’s Juvenile Temporary Direction Center so it could be used by Fox to film “Empire.” Minors — identified only as T.S. and Q.B. — said filming restrictions changed the center’s essential rehabilitative and education nature and deprived pretrial detainees of schooling, family visits, their usual movement and attention to sick-call requests.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve on April 20 issued an opinion on three motions to dismiss the minors’ 12-count first amended complaint, which took aim at Fox, as well as Cook County, its circuit court chief judge’s office and Leonard Dixon, JTDC superintendent. While granting Fox dismissal on most of the claims, St. Eve allowed many complaints against Dixon and the county and judge’s office to persist.

The filming involved roughly 250 actors, crew members and Fox employees. Because of the access granted to allow for production, the detainees say they were confined to their cells and pods for unusual amounts of time while regular JTDC employees “were expected or directed to leave their normal duties” to serve as extras, help at delivery docks, escort actors and crew to and from the set and clean up.

The minors said 60 percent of JTDC detainees have a diagnosed mental disorder and about 25 percent take prescribed psychotropic medicine. As such, they alleged the lockdowns caused emotional and psychological pain and subjected detainees to increased risk of physical violence.

While the county tried to argue detainees’ rights were not violated as claimed, St. Eve said even the alleged denial of infirmary access and rejection of sick-call requests warranted further proceedings at trial under the 14th Amendment’s due process protections. Although the defendants argued the inconveniences were in the short term only, St. Eve said the minors’ argument the lockdowns cannot be connected to a legitimate government purpose is significant. She would not, however, allow an alternative claim based on the 4th Amendment.

St. Eve said the complaints of violations of constitutional rights can only be applied to Fox if the minors show Fox conspired with the government defendants, and noted the minors did not sufficiently allege a “meeting of the minds” related to a shared unconstitutional goal, freeing Fox from many of the claims.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans argued his office should be granted immunity under the 11th Amendment, which bars lawsuits against state officers acting in their official capacities.  St. Eve, however, said the chief judge’s office remains liable because granting permission for filming requests is not related to his judicial powers. While Evans further suggested Dixon bears responsibility as Center administrator, St. Eve noted administrative transition during the time period in question makes assigning authority “not as clear-cut as the Chief Judge’s Office suggests.”

She also rejected Dixon’s arguments for qualified immunity, but noted additional discovery about who ultimately approved the filming might allow the minors to narrow their claims.

While the county likewise was unsuccessful in securing dismissal of the breach of fiduciary duty claims, St. Eve did grant Fox’s motion to dismiss a claim of tortious inducement to the breach, writing the minors did not suggest their right to relief beyond speculation. She did grant leave for them to re-allege that count in a second amended complaint.

St. Eve said the minors failed to allege Fox knew its filming schedule had a high probability of causing severe emotional distress. But she said the county defendants were aware of the situation, and she agreed with the minors that those defendants “had a position of power … and abused this power … amounting to extreme and outrageous conduct.”

Finally, the county failed on its argument of a one-year statute of limitations on such claims because the Illinois Tort Immunity Act does not allow the period to run until plaintiffs reach age 18. Since all the plaintiffs were minors when filing, St. Eve wrote, the “statute of limitations argument is misplaced.”

The plaintiffs in the case are represented by attorneys with the firms of Eimer Stahl LLP and Weil & Chardon LLC, each of Chicago.

Fox is represented by the firm of Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, of New York and Chicago.

Cook County defendants is represented by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

And the Office of the Chief Judge is represented by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, according to federal court records.

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Organizations in this Story

20th Century Fox Cook County Cook County Office of the Chief Judge Eimer Stahl LLP FOX Kelley Drye and Warren LLP

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