Judge Allows Kids to Sue Over Filming of Fox's 'Empire' at Their Jail

EMPIRE: Taraji P. Henson -episode- One Before Another- Publicity-H 2016
Jean Whiteside/FOX



21st Century Fox has a lot on its legal plate at the moment — in particular, sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims at its Fox News unit — and so the due process rights of juveniles is probably not foremost on the minds of the Murdoch clan. On Thursday, nevertheless, an Illinois federal judge refused to dismiss a proposed class action lawsuit over the way that Fox's hit drama, Empire, commandeered a detention center in the summer of 2015.

Two minors, through their legal guardians, brought a 12-count complaint in August 2016 on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated youth. They alleged that officials at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center put the place on lockdown so it could be used to film episodes of Empire, the series about a feuding music-industry family led by Lucious Lyon.

The plaintiffs say were ordered into "pod" areas at the detention center and sat there for days on end, depriving them of their normal school, the recreation yard, the library, the infirmary and the chapel. During this time, their sick requests were allegedly ignored and their family visits were eliminated. The kids say some of those who were incarcerated had entered the jail having been diagnosed with a mental disorder and that the lockdowns were psychologically damaging. As for their claims that due process rights were denied, they allege the lockdowns weren't rationally related to a legitimate non-punitive purpose.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve writes in an opinion order (read here) that the plaintiffs have "plausibly stated" a claim. She adds, "In fact, Plaintiffs' allegations regarding the denial of access to the infirmary and the rejected sick-call requests — alone — state an actionable claim."

The judge does trim the lawsuit. Out goes, for example, a Fourteenth Amendment claim predicated on the alleged use of excessive force beyond arrest.

And Fox's role as a co-defendant is in doubt.

St. Eve decides the plaintiffs "have failed to sufficiently allege that the Fox Defendants and any of the state actor/government Defendants reached an understanding to deny the juvenile detainees’ constitutional rights" and also isn't impressed by many of the liability theories put forth including a conspiracy or a "respondeat superior" posit that officials were acting as Fox agents.

Nevertheless, she is allowing the plaintiffs to try again against Fox, particularly in regard to a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The judge also notes in a footnote the possibility of claims based on indemnification.

The officials — Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Superintendent Leonard Dixon — are squarely facing an ongoing case over the Empire filming. 

Evans attempted a rare argument that he was immune via the U.S. Constitution's 11th Amendment, the one shielding states from suit in federal court, because he was acting in an official administrative capacity. St. Eve goes through developments in Illinois law with respect to who administers the juvenile detention centers and eventually decides that "the parties’ legal arguments concerning immunity are muddied by this change in administration, as well as Plaintiffs’ allegations that the Chief Judge’s Office was exercising county administrative authority — not judicial authority."

As for Dixon, he argued he was protected by qualified immunity, which shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established. That's rejected because St. Eve decides that the plaintiffs' allegations "fall squarely" within protections as their allegations about their confinement amount to "punishment and that Defendants had no legitimate governmental reason for the lockdowns that took place in June, July, and August 2015."