A federal judge is allowing juvenile inmates to continue part of their lawsuit over filming of the television show “Empire” at a Cook County detention center.
The issue dates to the summer of 2015, when officials made the county’s Juvenile Temporary Direction Center available for Twentieth Century Fox Television to film scenes for the hit TV show. Minors — identified in the complaint only as T.S. and Q.B. — said filming restrictions such as otherwise unnecessary lockdowns 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, the office of the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court and JTDC superintendent Leonard Dixon. 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.
On May 23, the minors filed a second amended complaint realleging four complaints against Fox — joint action liability, constitutional conspiracy, inducing county officials to breach fiduciary duties and a state law tort conspiracy — and adding an unjust enrichment claim. Fox again moved to dismiss the complaints, but St. Eve did not scuttle the entire action.
The plaintiffs said the filming violated their 14th Amendment due process rights, and brought the joint action liability claim as an argument Fox was acting under color of state law. In April, St. Eve said the minors didn’t allege an agreement in relation to a shared unconstitutional goal. The amended complaint referenced Fox’s pre-shoot scouting work and contract offers indicating an awareness of the changes they sought, but St. Eve said, even though Fox may have been aware of the possible rights infractions, there remains no evidence such infringement was the company’s actual goal.
She dismissed that claim with prejudice, and used the same reasoning to strike down the constitutional conspiracy allegation, writing that “invoking the word ‘illicit’ does not necessarily describe a shared, unconstitutional goal, and it is well-established that vague allegations of a conspiracy between private and state actors do not bring private actors within the scope” of federal law.
The new allegations about the pre-filming work, however, proved helpful in sustaining the inducement claim, because the minors said the company offered to rent two floors of the detention center and pay wages and overtime for county staff, offers made conditional to administrators changing the normal operations. Absent that formal, financial offer, the center would not have disrupted its inmates’ routines.
Yet even with that count surviving, St. Eve still said the minors had not provided details sufficient to allege Fox and the county had a deal “for the purpose of accomplishing either an unlawful purpose or a lawful purpose by unlawful means,” a flaw that led her to dismiss the Illinois civil conspiracy claim.
St. Eve also allowed the unjust enrichment claim to stand, writing that, at this stage, it is not crucial to determine if the claim requires a predicate cause of action involving improper conduct. Moreover, she continued, minors’ plausibly alleged improper conduct with the tortious inducement claim, and also noted their explanations of how Fox benefitted economically from filming that relied on improper conduct, as well as from broadcasting the finished episodes.
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.