ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Gina Carano Strikes Back!

Gina_Carano_by_Gage_Skidmore
Image by Gage Skidmore
CC BY-SA 3.0

This case was brought to my attention by our blog's Founder and Editor Emeritus Frank Snyder.  He posted a link to the case on the AALS Listserv for contracts professors, and discussion ensued.  I acknowledge that what follows is indebted to that discussion, and I thank my colleagues for alerting me to the issues raised in the litigation.  

ADDENDUM:  Just learned via Riddhi Setty writing on Bloomberg.com that Gina Carano's suit is being funded by Elon Musk.  This makes sense, given Mr. Musk's earlier offer to pay the legal bills of anyone who claims that they were unfairly treated by an employer due to Twitter posts.  Musk v. Disney seems like a good match-up.

On February 6th, mixed martial arts fighter, actor, and professional bad-ass Gina Carano (Ms. Carano, right) filed her complaint against The Disney Company (Disney) and others.  The case is of interest not only because of Ms. Carano's success in her role in the Star Wars/Disney series, The Mandalorian, among other boundary-breaking performances, but also because of the interesting legal issues raised by her complaint.

The Complaint alleges that Disney wrongfully terminated Ms. Carano based on the political content of her social media posts made while away from work.  She further alleges that Disney discriminated against her as a woman, as men who posted similar things on social media did not suffer the same adverse employment decisions.

According to the Complaint, Ms. Carano's character, Cara Dune, was a key element in the success of The Mandalorian.  Undoubtedly, she had more rizz than the faceless protagonist, but nobody on that show could compete with the adorable muppet, Grogu, known to fans as "Baby Yoda" (below left).  She was paid only the applicable minimum salary of $25,000 per episode.  Late in 2020, Jon Favreau, who created The Mandalorian, allegedly represented to Ms. Carano that she would be featured in a new spinoff series, for which her compensation would increase as much as tenfold.

Then, in February 2021, Defendant Lucasfilm made the following announcement:

Gina Carano is not currently employed by Lucasfilm and there are no plans for her to be in the future. Nevertheless, her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.

Carano characterizes this and other statements by defendants as calculated, malicious, false, and knowingly in violation of California statutes that protect employees from persecution for their political beliefs.  She alleges that, based on such false allegations, Disney not only terminated her but also refused to hire her for additional projects. 

Grogu Issues:

Was Ms. Carano an Employee?

Ms. Carano's first cause of action is for wrongful discharge under California Labor Code §§ 1101, et seq, which prohibits employers from "[c]ontrolling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees."  One issue that may arise in the case is whether she comes within the ambit of the statute.  She may have not have been an employee at the time that Disney announced that her "termination."  After all, according to the Complaint , in announcing Ms. Carano's termination, defendant Lucasfilm said that she was not "currently employed." 

While her employment status might be relevant to her first cause of action, her second cause of action is for both wrongful discharge and refusal to hire.  So even if Ms. Carano was not an employee for the purposes of here §1101 claim, she would not need to be for her claim under California Labor Code § 98.6.  That section prohibits adverse employment actions against "any employee or applicant for employment" for conduct protected under §§ 1101 et seq.  

Ms. Carano cites to various projects of which she was going to be a part.  The problem is that, with the possible exception of a Mandalorian movie, the projects she mentions do not seem to ever have been made.  I think that might move her alleged harm into the realm of speculation.  If I had a dime for every time someone has approached me with a movie treatment based on this blog, well . . . you can do the math yourself.

Her third claim is sex discrimination, because male employees who engaged in expression similar to hers were not subject to termination.  I think the challenge here will be to show that the other expression is similar in legally relevant ways and to show that Disney had no non-discriminatory ground for deciding to end its relationship with Ms. Carano.  Ms. Carano cites to a social media post by Mark Hamill in which he linked to something from J.K. Rowling and "liked" it.  When people objected to the allegedly transphobic content of Ms. Rowling's post, Mr. Hamill issued a retraction of his "like" to the extent that it extended to that message.  Ms. Carano, by contrasts, insists that she has never, ever engaged in expression that was remotely objectionable.  To a company that cares about its image and disagrees with Ms. Carano's characterization of her social media posts, her refusal to acknowledge poor judgment may be a ground for treating her differently from those willing to recognize error.

Was Her Speech Covered by the Statute?

Disney may claim that her conduct was not "political activity" in the sense of the statute.  Here, the Complaint has to walk a rather narrow line.  On the one hand, Ms. Carano insists that her social media posts did not have the meaning ascribed to them by her detractors.  She insists that there was nothing in her posts that was racist, anti LBGTQ+, or transphobic.  On the contrary, she communicated only messages of love and support for people who are targeted for bullying.  Based on her own account of the events, it is a little hard to identify her political activities. 

She notes that other Disney employees engaged in more overt political statements and suffered no adverse employment effects.  But that may be a product not of whether Ms. Carano or her co-workers were people who were associated with the Star Wars brand were engaging in political activity but whether they were engaging in speech that the audience for Star Wars found objectionable.  Which brings us to our next topic . . . .

If Her Contract Has a Morals Clause, What Impact Does that Have on the California Statute at Issue?

Screenshot 2024-02-22 at 12.47.21 PMThis was the topic that Frank Snyder first broached on the AALS Contracts Listserv, and I, having no expertise in employment law, admit that I do not know the answer.  One would think that a morals clause would have to be interpreted in a manner consistent with California's Labor Code.  My hunch is that the case should turn on whether Disney's interest in enforcing its morals clause involved reasons unrelated to the allegation that Ms. Carano was engaged in political activity.  She was attracting a lot of negative attention on social media at the same time as she was emerging as the human face of The Mandalorian. The series' eponymous character (right) never shows his face (except for that one time when he did).  He is, according to the actor who plays him, "of questionable moral character." We don't even learn his name until episode 8.  Grogu is cute and all, but he's not human.  Ms. Carano's notoriety on social media may just be bad for business, bad for the brand, and they may have distracted attention from the heartwarming story of an isolated intergalactic mercenary with an inexplicable attachment to a child of an alien species with potentially gnarly powers but, if his predecessor is any indication, no hope of ever mastering standard English usage.

The Style of the Complaint

The Complaint's Introduction begins as follows:

A short time ago in a galaxy not so far away, Defendants made it clear that only one orthodoxy in thought, speech, or action was acceptable in their empire, and that those who dared to question or failed to fully comply would not be tolerated. And so it was with Carano. After two highly acclaimed seasons on The Mandalorian as Rebel ranger Cara Dune, Carano was terminated from her role as swiftly as her character’s peaceful home planet of Alderaan had been destroyed by the Death Star in an earlier Star Wars film. 

I have two problems with this way of introducing legal claims to a court.  First, the lame jokes and references to Star Wars themes undermine the seriousness of the document and of Ms. Carano's claims.  Of course, this blog is not above lame jokes and references, but we're a blog.  There's a time and a place.  Second, by casting the defendants in the role of the evil "empire "seeking to enforce "orthodoxy in thought, speech, or action" Ms. Carano risks having this lawsuit dismissed (by the public, if not by the court) as a chapter in the culture wars rather than an attempt to vindicate her legal rights.

The problems go beyond the introduction.  Pages 10-25, 28-30 of the Complaint consist of long-winded  detours into alleged online harassment of Ms. Carano by people other than defendants.  As far as I can tell, all of this information serves only to show why Disney might have had apolitical concerns about Ms. Carano's activities on social media.  It is not clear that any of this is otherwise relevant to the legal narrative Ms. Carano is trying to tell if she is seeking to vindicate her legal rights. It is highly relevant to the narrative she is trying to tell if she is attempting to burnish her credentials as a victim of the culture wars.  I don't think it is helpful in a Complaint to make the court feel like it is a platform for an agenda.

What's Not in the Complaint

Given the allegations in the Complaint, I'm not sure why there aren't more causes of action.  It seems like Ms. Carano thinks that the defendants have said and published statements about her that she believes are malicious lies.  That seems like a claim right there.  She also alleges that defendants not only wrongfully terminated her and refused to hire her for future projects; they also interfered with her efforts to procure other employment in the industry, including perhaps by pressuring her agents to sever ties with her.  That too, seems like a claim.  Perhaps an amended complaint is coming.  Perhaps I don't know what I'm talking about.

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