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Women Allegedly Held Captive with Naked Man on 'Dr. Phil' Win at Appeals Court

California Appeals Court rules reality television can be deemed protected free speech, but finds that plaintiffs in this bizarre lawsuit have likelihood of prevailing in case

"Dr. Phil" McGraw and producers of his syndicated talk show, including CBS Television, might be headed to trial to answer claims from several women who allege they were held captive against their will and forced to be in a room with a naked man. The women signed up for the show believing they were to get counseling from Dr. Phil himself.

We first reported this bizarre lawsuit filed by Shirley Dieu in March 2009. At the time, it was easy to dismiss the complaint as sheer lunacy, but then a second woman, Crystal Matchettalso claimed false imprisonment.

Since then, the plaintiffs hired a real attorney to represent them, and he filed consolidated claims against the show for fraud, misrepresentation, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and infliction of emotional distress, among others.

On the show in question, which was filmed in September 2007 and aired in December 2007, six individuals of both genders were allegedly put in a "mock house" on a sound stage and not permitted to leave. Their cell phones and laptops are said to have been taken from them. 

On the third night at the Dr. Phil House, McGraw allegedly appeared on a television monitor and announced, "Here's your dinner guest."

A fully naked man is said to have appeared at the front door. The women were shocked and horrified, they say, running away and locking themselves in a room. The TV crew allegedly laughed at them, and then refused to let them leave the house when they demanded to exit.

It was this episode that prompted the lawsuits.

In response to the claims, CBS filed an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that its conduct was protected free speech. 

A circuit court denied the motion, holding that what was shown on Dr. Phil in the controversial program was "entertainment" and didn't constitute an issue of "public interest." Therefore, it couldn't qualify as protection under the First Amendment.

But on appeal, the California Court of Appeals takes a look at this issue and in a victory for TV producers, finds that even trivial stuff like reality television and bizarre talk show episodes can be "in furtherance" of free speech. "We recognize that our application of 'in furtherance' of free speech could theoretically apply to virtually all alleged actionable conduct in connection with the production of any form of media," writes the California Court of Appeals in a decision filed last week but yet to be officially published.

A legal victory for producers of trashy shows, sure, but unfortunately for producers of the Dr. Phil program, the appeals court then goes on to examine the next prong of the anti-SLAPP statute, which is to examine whether the plaintiffs have a probability of prevailing on their claim.

In this instance, the women all signed waivers to be on the program. The plaintiffs claimed the signed contracts were "unconscionable," a claim that the appeals court can't find evidence to support, given the evidence the women submitted. However, those waivers may not have been sufficiently explicit to protect the producers from legal claims.

The appeals court notes that not all representations made by producers to the women were specifically disclaimed in the releases.

The justices write:

"In addition to the representations they specifically waived in the releases, plaintiffs also testified that defendants misrepresented that the purpose of plaintiffs' stay at the Dr. Phil House was to obtain therapy; that although it was a show, it was not a "reality" type show; and that plaintiffs could leave at any time. Plaintiffs further testified that defendants concealed that plaintiffs would have limited access to the outside world. These claims, which are supported by plaintiffs' declarations, have not been waived."

In sum, the appeals court throws out the plaintiffs' claims for negligence, but lets other claims continue at a lower court, including those for fraud, misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Now an appeals court has ruled the women have demonstrated a likelihood of prevailing.