9:39am PT by Eriq Gardner
Ex-'Dora the Explorer' Trying to Restart Legal Battle With Nickelodeon
Remember Caitlin Sanchez?
In 2010, the teenager who voiced Dora the Explorer made a huge news splash by filing a $10 million lawsuit after she was fired upon reaching puberty. The attorney for Sanchez threatened to expose humiliating secrets about Nickelodeon if the network didn't make his then-14-year-old client a substantial offer to settle her lawsuit over an "unconscionable" contract.
Then, the suit settled on confidential terms and Sanchez faded into obscurity save a few articles that marveled how grown up she now looked.
But the dispute really never went away. In fact, THR has learned that it's gotten really ugly, with Sanchez' family accusing her former lawyer of forcing a bad settlement down their throats. The family who once sued for $10 million now says they were "duped" into a deal that left Caitlin on the hook for substantial tax payments and lawyer contingency fees, pretty much wiping out the money she received. Almost since the moment the settlement was signed, Sanchez has been attempting to unwind it and reinvigorate her lawsuit against Nickelodeon and MTV Networks.
Sanchez' original claims were juicy fodder for tabloids.
In October 2010, she claimed that when she had made a deal to voice Dora the Explorer, she was given just 22 minutes to sign the contract without an experienced lawyer or lose the gig. She alleged that she was promised substantial compensation from merchandising and residuals, but that she was underpaid for her work on a franchise that is said to have earned over $11 billion in global retail sales since 2001.
A New York attorney named John Balestriere represented her. He went to the press and gave the network a deadline to pay up or said he would blab scandalous information. At the time, Nick reps openly complained about his use of "intimidation tactics."
A settlement came before the dispute went far in court. According to recent court papers, Sanchez got $500,000 to cover what she claimed she was due plus as an advance on future residuals and merchandising. She also got five percent royalties on future merchandise sales, some guarantees that she would continue certain voiceover work at the AFTRA rate, and the right to conduct audits on the producer's financial books.
A good deal?
Not according to Sanchez' family members, who have since given sworn declarations to the court how during the early days of the lawsuit, Balestriere was sanctioned for publicizing confidential information about Viacom and soon thereafter, as Balestriere made a brave public face to the press, he privately pushed the family towards settlement.
Sanchez' parents say that they didn't want to take a deal but that Balestriere yelled at them, threatening that he would lose the case and that they would owe him some $300,000. The family says Balestriere told them that dismissing "with prejudice" wouldn't mean they gave up the right to sue Nickelodeon (which the family later discovered was false) and Sanchez' father says that Balestriere falsely notarized his signature on settlement papers.
Further, they allege that the attorney they hired to handle a lawsuit over an "unconscionable" Dora the Explorer voiceover deal himself made the family sign a retainer agreement whereby Balestriere would get 37.5 percent of royalties -- including future royalties -- "as if he was her talent agent," plus a $755 an hour billable rate and things like a "success fee."
In January 2011, the family fired Balestriere, but they say that he continued to interfere with Sanchez' business.
As a result of the case, the Sanchez family owed Balestriere more than $200,000 for his work (on top of whatever payments they already had made). They were also on the hook for $106,000 in taxes because, according to the teenager's mother, Balestriere failed to have the settlement payments attributed as royalties. "That (tax) liability zeroes out what little settlement Mr. Balestriere gave to Caitlin after he took his excessive fees and disbursements never approved by this Court," her mother said in a declaration in June, 2011.
Reached for comment, Balestriere defends himself.
"My colleagues and I were glad to fight for Caitlin Sanchez and her family when they were not given their due by Nickelodeon," he says. "We obtained an excellent result for Ms. Sanchez, in fairly short order, where our firm largely bore the financial risk, and where the court who approved the settlement has repeatedly praised the result our work obtained."
The family doesn't agree and has been furiously fighting to vacate the settlement and get out of paying Balestriere. So far, those efforts have been unsuccessful.
Last November, New York judge Thomas Griesa declined to overturn the settlement, saying the family should first send an auditor to Nick parent Viacom to carry out an audit, and then if there are any discrepancies, it can be handled appropriately.
The family soon tried a new argument that a federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Viacom opposed. A judge rejected a second motion to vacate the settlement in April, reiterating what he said the previous autumn.
In June, Judge Griesa reviewed the money owed to Balestriere, who intervened in the case to defend himself. The judge confirmed that Balestriere was due about $193,000. "Although Sanchez now questions the wisdom of the settlement, it cannot be denied that she quickly obtained a substantial sum of money and valuable audit rights, and the court has repeatedly approved the reasonableness of the settlement," wrote the judge.
However, Judge Griesa ruled that allowing Balestriere's requested 30 percent of Sanchez' future recoveries of royalties to be "excessive" and trimmed it down to 15 percent.
All these decisions are now under appeal at the 2nd Circuit as the former child star of Dora the Explorer looks to redo her lawsuit against Nickelodeon and MTV Networks with new lawyers.
E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @eriqgardner