August 15, 2014 10:44am PT by Austin Siegemund-Broka
Judge Inclined to Trim 'Dance Moms' Star Kelly Hyland's Lawsuit
Dance Moms star Kelly Hyland's lawsuit against a co-star and production company is likely to stumble, but it might still land on its feet, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge indicated at a hearing on Thursday.
In the lawsuit filed in February by Hyland and her daughters Brooke and Paige, they allege that costar Abby Lee Miller inflicted emotional distress on the girls and defamed their mother. The complaint states that "the children on the show were being subjected to abusive and unlawful working conditions.”
The suit names the Lifetime reality series' producer Collins Avenue Entertainment as a co-defendant, with the Hylands alleging the production company breached their contract by not paying them for some episodes, among other charges.
The defendants responded with a motion to strike, which was argued at Thursday's hearing. Judge Ruth Ann Kwan stated she would likely strike the claims of defamation and emotional distress but permit the contractual claims.
The motion to strike is based on California's anti-SLAPP statute, which is aimed at deterring frivolous litigation that interferes with First Amendment rights such as free speech. In the motion, the defendants argue that the the plaintiffs' claims are "a thinly disguised challenge to Collins' production activities and editorial decisions." The judge said she would likely side with Collins and Miller on this point.
Thus, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the probability of the claims succeeding before the lawsuit goes further.
Judge Kwan said she didn't anticipate finding that the emotional distress claims would withstand jury scrutiny. Hyland claims her daughters started to have panic attacks resulting from their treatment on the show, but the judge pointed out, there is no psychiatric report that ties the girls' anxiety to Dance Moms. "That's assuming nothing else goes on in the life of a young child," noted the judge.
Hyland's attorney Michael Shapiro tells The Hollywood Reporter the disclosure of the girls' working conditions would show otherwise. "We just want to get this in front of a jury," he said. "I don't think you can tolerate treating children that way, I don't care when it is or where it is."
The defamation claim concerns a TMZ interview in which Miller allegedly implied Hyland was an alcoholic and an unfit mother. That's difficult, Kwan said, because it qualifies as an opinion rather than a statement that could be proven to be false.
The other alleged slander came in an interview on The View in which Miller talks about Hyland yanking her hair. Hyland's attorneys argued that the comments rose to defamation because Miller accuses Hyland not just of pulling hair, but of the punishable offense of ripping a clump out. Kwan seemed unconvinced a jury would split hairs the same way Hyland's lawyers did.
The judge was more receptive to the contractual claims. Hyland's lawyer Marcus Jackson argued the the contract was unconscionable because it "imposed upon [Hyland]" the condition that Collins could sue her, but not vice versa. The defendant's lawyer Jordan Grotzinger responded that the contract could not be found unconscionable because it hadn't been forced on Hyland — she chose to participate in the show, and she voluntarily signed and re-signed the contract with legal consultation. Kwan said she was unlikely to grant the motion striking those claims.
In the complaint, the Hylands alleged that Kelly had begun to complain about the girls' intense practice schedule during season two, but was told she would be sued for "everything she owned if she attempted to back out of the contract."
The complaint makes other breach of contract allegations, such as that the Hylands were never paid for appearances in season four and other money they claim to be owed, which were not covered in the hearing.
The judge took the motion under submission until an Aug. 21 hearing.