You’re Fired

by

Christakis v. Mark Burnett Productions (California)
(Court dismisses the action of a disgruntled reality show applicant on procedural grounds, and finds that the applicant’s waiver and release was valid and binding to preclude liability.)

The plaintiff applied to be a participant on “The Apprentice,” a popular reality game show in which individuals compete against each other to prove their business skills and earn a coveted employment position with Donald Trump. Plaintiff was one of the fifty (50) finalists vying to make the show, but was ultimately not one of the final sixteen (16) selections. He thereafter filed a lawsuit in federal court in California, claiming that the production company engaged in “systematic actions” to disqualify him from the show, and that the production company made slanderous and defamatory statements about him. His complaint alleged (1) defamation; (2) tortuous interference with prospective economic advantage; and (3) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

The plaintiff had filed a previous federal lawsuit in Massachusetts, alleging the same three causes of action. The prior lawsuit had been dismissed based upon the waiver and release agreement signed by the plaintiff prior to his participation. Additionally, the Massachusetts court had noted that the agreements signed by the plaintiff required him to submit any controversies to arbitration, and that the arbitration provision was valid and enforceable. Finally, the Massachusetts court had recognized that the agreements signed by the plaintiff included a forum selection clause (selecting Los Angeles County, California), and the clause was valid and enforceable to preclude filing in Massachusetts.

In the California action, the defendant production company filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that it was barred by the statute of limitations, the doctrine of res judicata, and the doctrine of waiver and release. The defendant also argued that no facts supported any of the alleged claims. Finally, the defendant argued it had not been properly served with the complaint. The plaintiff filed no opposition to the motion. The California District Court then granted the defendant’s motion on the merits. It ruled that the Massachusetts court ruling based upon the waiver and release provisions was a judgment on the merits which barred him from filing the subsequent California action under the doctrine of res judicata.

Additionally, after taking judicial notice of both the “Release and Waiver, Agreement Not to Sue, and Indemnification and Hold Harmless Agreement” and the “Applicant Agreement” that the plaintiff signed prior to participating in the application process, the court analyzed the language under California law and concurred that the waiver and release provisions, which applied to “preparation for, participation and appearance in or elimination from the Series” and which specifically released claims for “breach of contract” and “libel, slander, [and] defamation,” were clear and unambiguous such that they were valid and enforceable to preclude liability.

NOTE: There appeared to be no factual basis to support any of the alleged cases of action in either of the federal lawsuits. The lessons to be learned from this opinion include the need to broadly describe the scope of any reality show waiver and release agreement to include not only actual participation in the series and production, but also the application process and pre-production activities. Additionally, it is evident that courts will defer to both arbitration provisions and forum selection provisions in properly drafted agreements. The plaintiff’s claims were doomed as a result of his failure to respond, and the court seemingly would have ultimately dismissed the lawsuit on procedural grounds. However, the court’s recognition and support of the waiver and release in this context is a positive development.

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