Can Allegedly Raped 'Real World' Star Beat MTV's Strict Cast-Member Contract?

Cast member Tonya Cooley alleges in a lawsuit that she was victim of sexual harassment during a show trip to Thailand. Cooley believes MTV violated employment laws by encouraging the behavior and retaliating against her, but is a reality TV star really a network employee?
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By now, it's pretty well known that reality TV stars sign pretty producer-friendly contracts for the pleasure of appearing on television and potentially becoming famous. But when the Village Voice obtained a copy of MTV's standard Real World cast member contract two months ago, many were still shocked just how far it went and whether the network really needed to insulate itself from liability from such acts as cast members possibly being humiliated or forced into "non-consensual physical contact."

Now, that contract is likely to be front-and-center after former Real World cast member Tonya Cooley filed a lawsuit on Thursday against MTV and Bunim/Murray Productions, alleging she was victim to much sexual abuse during the Thailand season of the The Real World/ Road World Challenge. Cooley is alleging some pretty gruesome stuff, including being raped by a toothbrush by two other contestants when she was passed out.

But still, MTV doesn't have legal exposure because of the waiver, right? Not so fast. In her complaint, Cooley is offering a theory that MTV has violated various labor laws. At issue might be the question of whether TV reality stars like Cooley are really network employees.

In Cooley's complaint (below), she makes some pretty graphic accusations about the nightmare she experienced on the show. 

The defendants are said to have supplied unlimited alcoholic beverages to encourage participants to engage in scandalous behavior. Male contestants are claimed to have done things such as forcibly removing female bathing suits and touching intimate areas of female cast member bodies. And a couple of the contestants are alleged to have engaged in rape, as described above.

When Cooley brought her concerns to producers, she was allegedly told to "just deal with it."

Meanwhile, the producers are said to have rewarded scandalous behavior with perks such as being named team leaders and getting more air time. Eventually, after a slapping incident, the producers are said to have "terminated" Cooley and sent her home.

Now Cooley is suing for sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination and other violations of labor law.

In a statement, MTV called Cooley's claims "completely baseless."

But the allegations are significant enough that before the lawsuit was filed, the parties entered into an agreement to toll the statute of limitations, which Bradley Boyer, an attorney at Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, says suggests an internal investigation by the network and some attempts by the parties to resolve the matter before the allegations went public.

In the complaint, Cooley repeatedly states either the agreement she signed with MTV was an employment agreement or that her relationship with the network could be deemed as an employer/employee relationship by California labor code.

Is that true?

When the Village Voice published the standard Real World cast member contract, a lot of attention was drawn to the more salacious details, including participants stipulating they might die, suffer a nervous breakdown, contract STDs, get raped, have their e-mail monitored, or never escape the glare of a camera. 

Much less attention was paid to paragraph #17, which states, "I further agree that, if I am selected by Producer to be a participant, my appearance as a participant in the Program is not a performance and is not employment..."

The agreement goes onto grant "special employee" status "solely" for the purposes of workers' compensation statutes, but waives for producers "obligation or liability by reason of any such injury, illness, disability, or death." 

Cooley's allegations are no doubt troubling, and if true, might be cause for criminal investigation or some introspection from reality TV producers about their moral responsibility to ensure they're not encouraging bad behavior. But from a legal perspective, Cooley might need to first convince a judge that despite agreeing she wasn't an employee, she really is one, and thus should be given the benefit of California's strict labor code.

Maribeth Annaguey, a labor litigation lawyer at Liner Grode, says the question whether the Real World cast member contract is enforceable will be an issue decided in this case.

Part of the answer here could depend on a judge's view whether the supposed assumption of risk on something like "non-consensual physical contact" is an unconscionable contract term, but since this is a labor case, whether or not the case proceeds or not will certainly come down to the employment uncertainty.

"The test for employment is an intensely factual one," she says. "Does the alleged employer have the right of control, whether exercised or not, over the alleged employee, both with respect to how the alleged employee performs whatever the services are as well as with respect to having the ability to have the employee perform other services while employed?"

The answer will determine whether Cooley is deemed an employee or not, says Annaguey.


Twitter: @eriqgardner