Judge Asked to Let 300 Jailed Kids Sue Over Fox's Filming of 'Empire' at Youth Detention Center

Empire Season 2 - H

Television production in youth prisons hardly makes for a typical class action lawsuit. Nevertheless, on Friday, the lead plaintiffs in a nearly three-year-old lawsuit against 20th Century Fox asked a federal judge in Illinois to certify a class of juveniles who had their lives disrupted when Empire filmed scenes of the hit drama at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

The teenagers allege violations of their due process rights when for 13 days in 2015, Fox repurposed the prison as a film set. The kids were allegedly confined into "pods," had outdoor recreation eliminated and denied schooling. Prison officials allegedly engaged in bulk transfers of intake detainees, overpopulated the detention center, stopped psychological screening to identify detainees who were at risk to themselves or others and on and on.

In October 2017, U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve rejected Fox's motion to dismiss. She ruled that the named plaintiffs — known as T.S. and Q.B. in the court papers — had sufficiently alleged that Fox had induced a breach of the government officials' duties towards the youth. The plaintiffs have also survived on a claim that Fox was unjust enriched by its conduct.

Now, after the kids learned more about Fox's takeover of the prison via the discovery process, plaintiff attorneys are shooting for a larger lawsuit that would represent an estimated 300 kids.

"Common evidence shows that Fox knew that filming at the JTDC would disrupt the JTDC’s operations and impact all detainees by, for example, eliminating detainee access to the outdoor yards," states a motion in support of class certification. "In written communications, Fox’s experienced locations experts recognized that a film crew of even 30 people at the JTDC would be disruptive. But to film in the way it wanted, Fox opted to bring crews of 200 or more into the JTDC for the filming."

If this gets to trial, the plaintiffs say they will show that the filming of Empire in a youth detention center was not rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective, with experts testifying that the additional restrictions on movement and the overpopulation were detrimental to the youth.

Hoping to foreclose class certification, Fox states in its own court papers that the filming was a one-off occurrence that has not been repeated and that there are no actual damages. Fox adds that some of the inflammatory allegations are false and that testimony from the plaintiffs in depositions show anecdotal and individualized harm. 

"Plaintiffs trivialize the concept of civil rights violations," states the defendants' brief, which adds that Fox paid $1,500 per day plus reimbursement of personnel costs and out-of-pocket expenses for access to the facility.

Attorneys for the youth argue the case makes for a suitable class action.

The brief (read here) adds, "While Defendants dismiss as inconsequential the denial of access to the outdoors and the punitive increase in pod confinement, these restrictions worsen incarceration’s negative impact on young people. What is especially galling — and legally determinative here — is that these heightened restrictions at the JTDC entirely lacked justification. Imposing deprivations on kids to film a television drama is not a legitimate exercise of government power. The law on this point is clear."