Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Was Leaving Neverland a breach of contract by HBO based on its airing of a 1992 Michael Jackson concert?
HBO's Leaving Neverland documentary, detailing the allegations of sexual abuse leveled at Michael Jackson, has resulted in an interesting lawsuit in the Central District of California, Optimum Prods. v. Home Box Office, CV 19-1862-GW(PJWx) (behind paywall).
Because Jackson is dead, there is no defamation claim to be brought; therefore, this lawsuit is grounded in a contract between Jackson and Optimum's predecessor entity and HBO regarding televising one of Jackson's concerts from his Dangerous world tour, which HBO aired in October 1992. The contract contained a provision prohibiting HBO from making "any disparaging remarks concerning" Jackson. Optimum alleges that HBO has breached this provision by airing the Leaving Neverland documentary.
Naturally the contract also contained an arbitration provision, which provided that the parties would choose an arbitrator and, if they couldn't agree, eventually the Superior Court of the State of the California for the County of Los Angeles would select the arbitrator. Optimum initially filed its complaint in state court, but HBO removed it to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. Optimum does not dispute the existence of diversity jurisdiction but argues that the arbitration provision also acts as a forum selection provision requiring the litigation be heard by California Superior Court in Los Angeles County.
The court declines to construe the arbitration provision as conferring exclusive jurisdiction to California state court. The arbitration provision does not discuss exclusive jurisdiction at all. The plain language of the provision only provides the state court with one responsibility: choosing an arbitrator if the parties can't agree on one. That is not a conferral of exclusive jurisdiction.
There is also a dispute between the parties over whether the suit needs to be arbitrated. The court is torn on that issue. The American Arbitration Association's rule that arbitrability of a contract be decided by the arbitrator came into effect after the parties had signed the 1992 contract, and the court is hesitant to apply it retroactively. There is precedent to support retroactive application but the court thinks it doesn't make sense to pretend that the parties "clearly and unmistakably" agreed to be bound by rules that did not even exist. None of the precedent provided to the court was binding, so the court requests that the parties discuss the issue further at an upcoming hearing.