Fox Television Can't Escape 'Empire' Prison Lawsuit

Empire Season 2 - H

In 2015, Fox took over an Illinois youth detention center to film jail scenes for Empire, the hit drama about a feuding music-industry family led by Lucious Lyon. Thanks to a court ruling on Monday, Fox now finds itself stuck there for the time being.

Several minors, through their legal guardians, are suing over the Empire filming at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, contending that their due process rights were denied when they were ordered into "pod" areas and forced to sit there for days. During this time, the kids' sick requests were allegedly ignored and their family visits were eliminated. These children couldn't attend school and didn't have access to the recreation yard, the library, the infirmary and the chapel.

In April, U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve allowed claims to proceed against Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Superintendent Leonard Dixon while expressing some doubts about claims directed at Fox.

Now, however, after the complaint was amended and Fox took another shot at dismissal, the judge has decided to permit two claims against Fox to move forward as well.

St. Eve rules that the plaintiffs have properly pled a claim for tortious inducement of breach of fiduciary duties. The judge says the lawsuit sufficiently alleges that Fox "colluded" with Cook County officials by deliberately encouraging them to improperly place the youth prison on lockdown. As for Fox's knowledge about the officials' duties, the judge sees enough.

"Despite the Fox Defendants’ arguments to the contrary, in their new allegations, Plaintiffs add more factual details as to how the Fox Defendants induced the breach of fiduciary duty," states the judge's order. "Plaintiffs, for example, allege that the Fox Defendants induced the breach by offering to pay rent for the JTDC and wages and overtime for JTDC staff. Plaintiffs further allege that the Fox Defendants made their offers on the condition that the JTDC’s administrators would change the facility’s normal operations to make the second and third floors of the JTDC available for filming of the television show. In addition, Plaintiffs state that the JTDC’s administrators accepted the Fox Defendants’ inducements, and the Fox Defendants reached an agreement with the County Defendants for Empire’s film crew to film at the JTDC. Viewing these allegations and all reasonable inferences as true, Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the Fox Defendants induced the County Defendants to breach their fiduciary duty."

In conjunction, St. Eve is also permitting a claim for unjust enrichment since Fox economically benefited from the Empire prison filming. The lawsuit discusses how advertisers paid $750,000 for a 30-second advertising spot in the second season premiere plus realized further profits through international broadcasting and digital streaming and downloading.

Fox does get the lawsuit trimmed.

The judge writes that Fox can't be held joint liable for due process violations.

Her opinion states that plaintiffs "have not plausibly alleged that the Fox Defendants and any state actor had an agreement to deny Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights or that the Fox Defendants and a state actor had a common, unconstitutional goal. Rather, Plaintiffs’ allegations suggest that the Fox Defendants were aware that their desire to film Empire at the JTDC conflicted with the juvenile detainees’ needs. At best, Plaintiffs have alleged that the Fox Defendants sought to enter into an agreement that would induce the administrators to exclude children from the JTDC’s second and third floors and that all of the Defendants knew that filming Empire would result in restrictions on the children. Although the result of this alleged agreement may have deprived Plaintiffs of their constitutional rights, Plaintiffs’ allegations do not support the inference that the state and private actors shared an unconstitutional goal in the first instance."

Here's the full memorandum opinion that also rejects conspiracy claims.