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Fox Broadcasting, Fremantle and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe have prevailed over 10 former contestants on American Idol who alleged they were the victims of racial discrimination in the way they were disqualified.
The lawsuit was brought in July 2013, and it aimed to be ambitious — talking about how producers had allegedly dug up dirt on African American contestants, had disseminated information from criminal rap sheets to the media in order to justify DQs, how the popular singing competition show was manipulated, and how the contestants were forced to sign “unconscionable Willy Wonka contracts.”
Earlier this month, U.S District Judge Naomi Buchwald heard oral arguments in the suit, and it was clear that the biggest hurdle that plaintiffs were facing was not bringing claims soon enough.
That definitely turned out to be the case.
“Here, each plaintiff’s claims run from the date of his disqualification, as the adverse and allegedly discriminatory act of disqualification or elimination from competition is sufficient to put a contestant on notice that he should ‘protect himself by seeking legal advice’ and therefore to trigger the statute of limitations,” writes the judge.
The plaintiffs attempted to argue that it wasn’t until the discovery of the results of a statistical study that was commissioned after the disqualification of season 11 alum Jermaine Jones when the clock to sue started. The study allegedly shows that the disqualifications couldn’t have happened by random decisions on the part of producers, that there is “a prima facie case of racial discrimination as a matter of law with absolute zero percent chance of error.”
Judge Buchwald responds, “Apart from ignoring the clear law that knowledge of a discriminatory motive is irrelevant, plaintiffs have provided no explanation of how JXJ’s disqualification made apparent discrimination that was otherwise obscure; rather, they simply state that JXJ’s disqualification alone revealed an actionable disparity of treatment, ln a way that plaintiffs’ alleged ten prior disqualifications did not. This conclusory assertion is not sufficient to toll the limitations period.”
As a result, the statute of limitations makes all but season nine contestant Chris Golightly a loser in court for failure to move quicker. As for Golighty, he still can’t win for other reasons.
“While the complaint asserts that defendants disqualified Golightly because he was an African-American man with a criminal record, it offers no facts beyond this bare allegation of racism to show that either Golightly’s race or his criminal record motivated his disqualification. Rather, the complaint provides a clear motive for Golightly’s disqualification that does not turn on racial animus: Golightly’s participation in a preexisting music group.”
The judge goes onto note that the contestant agreement that Golightly signed required him to warrant that he never signed a contract for his performing abilities before his appearance on the show. He had to be an amateur. “Moreover, the complaint admits that a white contestant was disqualified for the same reason in the preceding season,” writes the judge, who also dismisses a claim based on a supposed rigged contest because she says there’s no private cause of action for that, only a law allows review of FCC final orders.
In denying an opportunity to amend the lawsuit and dismissing federal claims with prejudice, the judge makes it nearly impossible that the case will continue, although an appeal is possible. The defendants were represented by Daniel Petrocelli at O’Melveny & Myers.
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