Reality TV or Court TV? Lawsuits Test Limits of Outrageous Behavior

Equipo
By Equipo
15 Min Read

Tran Dang sued the makers of the Netflix dating series “Love Is Blind” over allegations of “false imprisonment,” saying it confined her and the rest of the cast to hotel rooms without their phones. She also accused a fellow cast member of groping her and exposing himself.

Bravo’s “Real Housewives” universe has inspired a string of lawsuits, as the drama and battles have moved from TV screens to social media to tabloids to court dockets. Caroline Manzo, who had signed on to appear in a spinoff, accused the companies behind the show of failing to intervene when a co-star forcibly groped and kissed her during filming, and charged that they “regularly ply the Real Housewives cast with alcohol, cause them to become severely intoxicated” and then encourage or allow them to “sexually harass other cast members because that is good for ratings.”

And Faith Stowers, a former member of the cast of “Vanderpump Rules,” a spinoff of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” sued the companies behind the show, claiming that after she had reported instances of racism, harassment and another cast member brandishing a knife at her, the show had retaliated against her by making her role unpaid.

Reality TV is fueled by on-camera insults, extreme drunkenness, aggressive sexual behavior and physical confrontations that would instantly spark human resources complaints or lawsuits in most workplaces. The industry has long shielded itself from litigation with tightly written contracts laden with nondisclosure agreements and provisions requiring closed-door arbitration proceedings to settle any disputes.

But that could be changing. The #MeToo-era has opened new legal avenues: A 2022 federal law gives an employee who makes allegations of sexual assault or harassment the right to resolve disputes through the courts even if their contract calls for arbitration. And last year’s Hollywood strikes prompted new calls for reality stars to unionize, or at least be paid more. High-profile lawyers taking on the industry in court speak of a “reckoning.”

“In some cases, the behavior that is being targeted seems like the bread and butter of reality TV,” said Danielle Lindemann, a sociologist who wrote the book “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us.”

Much of the recent scrutiny has focused on Andy Cohen, an executive producer of “The Real Housewives” franchise since it started in the mid-2000s who has became famous in his own right for appearing in boisterous reunion shows with cast members, hosting the talk show “Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen” and appearing, sometimes tipsily, with Anderson Cooper on CNN’s New Year’s Eve broadcasts.

In February, a former cast member on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” Leah McSweeney, filed a lawsuit against Bravo and Cohen, claiming that despite her well-known struggle with alcoholism, the show’s producers had encouraged her to relapse in an effort to boost ratings, and then declined to cast her again after she complained that the production was working against her efforts to stay sober. She also claimed that Cohen had used cocaine with cast members. A lawyer for Cohen, Orin Snyder, said that her lawsuit was “littered with false, offensive and defamatory statements” and denied that Cohen had ever used cocaine with cast members.

Bravo said that an outside investigation had found that McSweeney’s allegations against Cohen were “unsubstantiated.” In court papers, it denied that producers had pushed McSweeney to drink and asserted its right to choose casts as it sees fit.

Cohen has gone on a publicity blitz, appearing on the covers of The Hollywood Reporter and New York Magazine, which proclaimed him “The Last Inappropriate Man on Television.” (Denying the cocaine allegations, he told New York that “If you read my books, I tell you every drug I do.”) But McSweeney’s case against him, and others against Bravo, are still pending.

A lawyer for McSweeney, Gary Adelman, questioned Bravo’s investigation, saying that his client had not been contacted for it. Her complaint, like several others, challenges the enforceability of the clause in her contract that pushes disputes into private arbitration.

“Arbitration clauses are used as a sword, not as a method of justice, in our opinion,” Adelman said in an interview.

Even as it fights the recent round of lawsuits in court, the reality TV industry has made some conciliatory responses.

Netflix and the production companies behind “Love Is Blind” recently agreed to a $1.4 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by a former participant, Jeremy Hartwell, whose lawyers calculated that those featured on the show were paid about seven dollars an hour, less than half of minimum wage in California, and argued that contestants should be treated like employees. The settlement is subject to the court’s approval.

And last fall, NBCUniversal, which owns Bravo, said that it had updated its policies, imposing stricter rules on alcohol consumption and more serious consequences for violence and offering more psychological support. Bravo defended confidentiality clauses as standard, saying that they are intended to prevent spoilers of shows before they air.

But networks and production companies are also fiercely defending themselves, characterizing the lawsuits in court documents as frivolous and aggressively fighting challenges to the contracts that have long made the industry tick.

“When you freely sign a contract not under duress, it’s difficult to get out of that,” said Angela Angotti, a lawyer who co-hosts a podcast about legal issues in reality television called “The Bravo Docket.”

Reality TV stars are generally employed as independent contractors, and they tend to make much of their money through the sponsorships and publicity that result from their exposure. But last year’s Hollywood strikes prompted current and former cast members to question that arrangement.

Bethenny Frankel, who has made a career out of her reality TV fame, including on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” called for unionization of reality TV stars, accusing the industry of exploiting its talent for profit and encouraging destructive onscreen behavior.

“You do something bad, and you do something negative — you are rewarded for that behavior,” Frankel said last year in an episode of her podcast. “You fall off the wagon? The cameras fly in. You get a divorce? Yay! You go bankrupt? Wonderful!”

A team of high-profile Hollywood lawyers who started working with Frankel, led by Bryan Freedman, ratcheted up the temperature, sending — and publicizing — a legal letter to NBCUniversal. “Please be advised that the day of reckoning has arrived,” the letter warned.

One of the clients they took on was Stowers, the former “Vanderpump Rules” cast member who accused the production of retaliation. Her lawsuit, filed in April, takes aim at clauses in her contract that her lawyers say “gag” cast members, preventing “them from speaking out about unlawful conduct they witness or experience, and threaten ruinous penalties for even minor breaches of confidentiality.” Representatives for Bravo did not respond to requests for comment on the suit.

“Love Is Blind,” the buzzy dating show in which singles date each other from separate “pods,” meeting face to face after agreeing to get engaged, is also facing a number of lawsuits.

In his class-action case, Hartwell, who said he was involved with the show for about a week in 2021, not only called for participants to be treated like employees, but charged that the show plied cast members with alcohol and withheld food and sleep to try to encourage “manipulated decisions for the benefit of the show’s entertainment value.”

Such lawsuits could hurt ratings, if viewers decide that their guilty pleasures are in fact exploitative. An article about the woes of reality TV in The New Yorker was headlined: “Is ‘Love Is Blind’ a Toxic Workplace?” The show’s creator, Chris Coelen, pushed back on some of the claims made by the participants-turned-plaintiffs in a recent interview with New York Magazine. “You are not a prisoner,” he said. “We don’t push alcohol.”

In two other lawsuits filed against “Love Is Blind,” lawyers for the show’s producers have fought aggressively to uphold contracts that require arbitration, with some success.

In March, a judge in Los Angeles ordered a dispute involving a former contestant, Renee Poche, to be dealt with in private arbitration because of the contract she signed.

In court papers Poche accused the production of allowing her to get engaged, in front of TV cameras, to a man “who was unemployed with a negative balance in his bank account” and “actively addicted to drugs and alcohol.” The man, Carter Wall, who was not named as a defendant, said in an interview that he felt Poche’s depiction of his substance use was a “stretch.”

Poche’s complaint said that after she had made “limited public remarks about her distressing time on the program,” Delirium, one of the companies behind the production, initiated arbitration proceedings against her, accusing her of violating her nondisclosure agreement and seeking $4 million. (Her suit said she had earned a total of $8,000 on the program.)

A lawyer for the show argued in court filings that the lawsuit was a “media stunt” and suggested that Poche, who is represented by Freedman and his team, had violated the nondisclosure agreement because she was disappointed at having been largely cut from the show. Her suit called her contract “illegal and unenforceable.” But citing the contract, a judge said that the matter should go to arbitration.

Arbitration clauses like the one in the Poche case tend to be upheld by courts, legal experts said. But the new federal law allowing employees with accusations of sexual assault and harassment to settle their disputes in court could change the field.

In Dang’s case against “Love Is Blind,” a lawyer for the man she accused of groping her and exposing himself to her said that he denies the allegations. Lawyers for the production objected to the claim that the show’s participants qualify as traditional employees, denied liability for the man’s conduct and disputed Dang’s allegations of “false imprisonment,” saying in court papers that she “had the ability to come and go and visit family and quit when she wanted.” They sought to take the dispute to arbitration despite the 2022 federal law.

But in April, an appellate court in Texas, where Dang’s season was filmed, ruled in her favor, finding that the recent federal law meant that she could bring her claims of sexual assault to court instead of to the arbitration her contract called for.

The same law has been cited in the “Real Housewives” lawsuit filed by Manzo, which claims that a co-star, Brandi Glanville, forcibly kissed her, mounted her and groped her during filming in Morocco on a “Real Housewives” spinoff. “They saw that I was in distress,” Manzo wrote of the production in court papers, “and yet, they continued to film.”

Glanville, who was not named as a defendant, recently called the allegations “false and defamatory,” and in an interview with Entertainment Tonight she objected to the long days that were “fueled with alcohol.”

In a motion to dismiss Manzo’s lawsuit, lawyers representing Bravo and the other companies behind the show said that after Manzo reported the encounter, Glanville was separated from the cast. They also pointed to part of her contract in which she “acknowledged that she may encounter speech or physical contact that she may consider offensive, including from other cast members, and ‘assumed all risks’ associated with the show.”

The network cited a New York trial court decision from 2013 in which a judge dismissed a complaint from a plastic surgeon who had signed a contract to participate on the reality show “Mob Wives,” writing that the surgeon had assumed a certain amount of risk when agreeing to participate in a kind of program in which it is “generally accepted that the behavior may be outlandish or provocative.”

Lawyers representing reality TV stars say that their clients do not shy away from the outlandish and provocative, but draw the line at violations of the law.

“Have fun, say crazy things,” said Derek Smith, a lawyer representing Manzo. “But outrageous, outlandish behavior should never ever include illegal behavior.”

Determining the difference may ultimately be up to the courts.

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