PUBLISHED: 01:28 EST, 3 January 2016 | UPDATED: 09:05 EST, 3 January 2016
Down on his luck and with nowhere no turn, 16-year-old John Willis made a phone call that would transform his life.
With his father long gone and his mother dead, he was taking steroids to beef himself up and convince the owner of a club in Boston that he was 18 and therefore old enough to be a bouncer.
After helping a young Asian man called Woping Joe out of a fight at the club, he was handed a card with a phone number and told to ring it if he ever needed help.
Days later, with just 76 cents to his name and nowhere to sleep, he found himself dialing the number for a lift. Just minutes afterwards he was picked up by two BMWs car packed with young, Chinese men.
At the time he was just looking for a warm meal and a roof over his head, but a decade later he would be the Chinese mafia’s number two, known as Bac Guai John – or White Devil.
This legal blog, recently inducted into the ABA Journal’s Hall of Fame, has been providing a Top 10 list for the past five years. The way we’d describe 2015 is eclectic, full of interesting disputes covering a wide range of legal topics including privacy, intellectual property, bankruptcy, antitrust, contracts and defamation.
Our top disputes of 2015 leaves out some long-running ones that came to momentous decisions (see: “Happy Birthday” or Google Books) and shortchanges some new ones that will likely provide plenty to write about moving forward (see: Sean Penn vs. Lee Daniels or the “Bones” lawsuit). There’s obviously room for debate about what belongs on the list. Our goal is to spotlight legal controversy both significant and much-discussed within and outside Hollywood. (A separate list for top legal and regulatory matters on the international front is also forthcoming.)
Without further ado, here — in reverse order — are the legal dramas that were most gripping this past year:
10: Gawker steps into the legal ring against Hulk Hogan
Well, the first trial ever over a celebrity sex tape didn’t happen. Not yet. After a postponement, Hogan’s $100 million lawsuit over the gossip site’s posting of a sex tape excerpt, and Gawker’s “newsworthy” defense, is now primed to begin trial in March. But plenty of fireworks in the case proceeded nevertheless. Gawker filed a lawsuit against the FBI to uncover documents from the government’s investigation of the Hogan tape. As Gawker faced backlash over a separate story about a Conde Nast executive who allegedly was involved with a male escort, other tabloids gained access to and printed an extended transcript of the sex-tape footage that showed Hogan uttering the N-word and making racist comments. A tarnished Hogan has been hunting the source of that leak, blaming Gawker, and a Florida judge in October allowed extensive discovery including an examination of Gawker employee tech equipment. Recently, Gawker announced that it would be switching its coverage to more politically-focused matters.
9. HBO beats defamation claims over a child labor report
Gawker hasn’t gone to trial yet over its news practices, but HBO did after a seven-year buildup in a case that examined an episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel where young children in India were shown hand-stitching Mitre-branded soccer balls for pennies or less in order to pay off their parents’ debts. The trial inside a New York federal courthouse lasted a full month! It opened with harrowing images and an attack on HBO’s journalism just as the pay network was celebrating documentary hits like The Jinx and Going Clear. HBOfought back against Mitre’s defamation claims, and a jury heard conflicting testimony about who was exploitative and who was socially responsible. HBO prevailed, which represented a good outcome for the network, but one that also leaves untouched the judge’s controversial decision that the plaintiff — a multinational corporation — shouldn’t be considered a “public figure” for the purpose of figuring out whether defamation occurred.
8. Sony Pictures settles claims by ex-employees over hacked data
A nightmare of the scariest sorts best describes what happened to Sony Pictures when hackers stole the company’s most sensitive information and distributed it to the public on the verge of the release of The Interview. The subsequent class actions from ex-employees were just part of the fallout from this situation. Sony’s responsibility for safeguarding private data came into examination in the litigation, but the case didn’t go far. In October, Sony came to a proposed settlement to pay at least $5.5 million to resolve negligence claims. Some of the provocative issues that came up in the case — for example, how do victims of identity theft prove specific hacks are to blamed for their troubles when hacking has now become commonplace — will await testing in future cases.
7. Sports broadcasting faces a flood of antitrust lawsuits in the wake of a judge’s May ruling
The health of over-the-air and cable television is increasingly tied to live sports, the phenomenon that resists ad-skipping and cord-cutting. Thus, an antitrust lawsuit against Major League Baseball over how telecasts of games are packaged and distributed represents a huge deal. In May, a federal judge in New York agreed to certify a class of plaintiffs who aim to cut down territorial restrictions on game telecasts. The following month, the National Hockey League settled its own class action by agreeing to allow fans to obtain price-discounted streams of their favorite teams. These developments encouraged a flurry of similar antitrust lawsuits against the National Football League and their broadcast partners. Those latter cases have now been consolidated. Meanwhile, MLB is now set to go to trial in January. The outcome will be worth the ticket.
6. Hollywood talent agencies go to war
Agents in the entertainment industry have been defecting to rival agencies for decades. There’s often a bit ofEntourage-like drama that follows such flights, but nothing quite like the lawsuit that resulted when 12 agents at Creative Artists Agency moved over to United Talent Agency and brought with them top clients including Will Ferrell, Chris Pratt and Ed Helms. California usually favors employee mobility, but CAA alleges a “lawless midnight raid” with claims of interference against UTA, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of the duty of loyalty against the agents themselves. Much of the dispute is now playing out in arbitration, but there’s a big piece being litigated in open court. Unless settled, the war between CAA and UTA figures to addressCalifornia’s “seven-year rule” limiting lengthy personal services contracts. Typically applied to talent, the arguments on this subject will impact the alignment of stars and their dealmakers for decades to come.
5. Judge stops Aretha Franklin documentary from playing Telluride
In terms of shocking legal decisions, witness a judge’s decision in September to grant iconic soul singer Aretha Franklin’s emergency injunction motion to stop the film Amazing Grace from premiering at the Telluride Film Festival. Usually judges frown on prior restraints under the First Amendment, but in this instance, the judge determined the Amazing Grace producer had a contractual obligation to get her permission to use old concert footage and thus violated her right of publicity when he didn’t. We think the judge got it terribly wrong. The parties in the dispute are still negotiating a settlement in time for Sundance next month. If that doesn’t happen, the case could provide an important appellate review squaring a celebrity’s publicity rights with free speech.
4. Relativity Media declares bankruptcy
Hollywood’s biggest Chapter 11 filing in years hasn’t provided a satisfying answer to the core mystery of what went wrong for a studio aiming to bring a Moneyball-type quantitative approach to producing films. The bankruptcy of Ryan Kavanaugh’s company did, however, deliver a front row seat to the kind of arm-twisting and jockeying that happens when big financial institutions lend hundreds of millions of dollars only to see debt mature. Besides providing months of vicious legal filings — from accusations of
A legal standoff will not stop the ongoing resettlement
Three Syrian refugee families—including a dozen children between the ages of two and 15—will arrive in Dallas and Houston this week, despite Texas’s on-going lawsuit challenging the federal government’s process in resettling Syrian refugees in the state.
The Obama administration said in a court filing on Friday that a family of six Syrian refugees, who were originally scheduled to arrive in Dallas on Dec. 4 , will now arrive Monday, after spending the weekend in New York. A second family of six is also expected to arrive in Houston Monday. A third, eight-member family, as well as a 26-year-old woman whose mother has already been placed in the area, are expected in arrive in Houston on Thursday.
Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, with the backing of Governor Greg Abbott, filed a lawsuit requesting an immediate order blocking the arrival of all new Syrian refugeesin the state, in light of “reasonable concerns about the safety and security of the citizenry of the state of Texas.”
Two days later, on Dec. 4, Paxton’s office said it would no longer seek an immediate order blocking the arrival of the refugees, but said it would continue with the lawsuit pressing federal authorities to provide more information on those already slated for resettlement in Texas. Paxton rolled back his initial demand after federal authorities provided state officials with demographic information about the Syrian families arriving today, according to his office.
The shift, however, which came just hours before a federal judge was expected to rule on the case, did not sit well with some Texas conservatives. Abbott’s office remained quiet about the decision, which one Texas official told TIME was “not the governor’s first choice.” Abbott has since said publicly that he opposes accepting any more Syrian refugees on the grounds that the background check process is “inadequate.”
Katherine Wise, a spokeswoman for Paxton, told TIME that the attorney general’s office will continue to pursue a lawsuit against both the federal government and the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit that works to resettle refugees, to determine whether federal authorities are complying with the requirements under the 1980 Refugee Act. The state argues that the law requires federal authorities to regularly consult with, and provide information to, state and local officials in advance of resettling refugees in those localities.
A puzzlement about the debate over accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees next year and more in the future is the lack of discussion of a fundamental point: Does Obama have the legal authority to order their admission to the U.S. as a humanitarian measure?
The answer is “no.”
The dictionary definition of a “refugee” is “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.”
This definition underlies most of the media discussions of the Syrian situation, with its emphasis on the humanitarian crisis, which is indeed horrendous. The definition also underlies the President’s uncontested authority to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees outside of the United States if he believes that such assistance will “contribute to the foreign policy interests of the United States.” [22 U.S.C. sec 2601(b)(2)] The U.S. has already spent over $4 billion on Syrian relief under this authority.for this purpose.
However, the meaning of “refugee” in U.S. immigration law is narrower than this dictionary definition.
In immigration law, for purposes of admitting someone to the U.S., the crucial factor is whether a person has a legitimate fear of persecution, not whether a humanitarian crisis exists. By statute [8 U.S.C. Sec.1101(42)], a “refugee” is: “any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality . . . and who is unable or unwilling to return to . . . that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion…”
The statute then stretches this definition to include a person who is within his own country but who has the requisite fear of persecution. But the status of “refugee” can be granted only under “special circumstances” specified by the president. And before determining that special circumstances exist, the president must “consult,” in the form of in-person discussions between cabinet rank officials and members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees concerning all aspects of the situation. No agreement is necessary; just consultation [8 U.S.C. Sec. 1157(e)].
Section 1157 also provides for caps on the number of refugees admitted each year, and for presidential estimates of the likely numbers at the beginning of each year.
Nothing in the stretched definition changes the basic requirement that a refugee be someone who has well-founded fear of persecution.
The current controversy started on September 10, when the administration announced via press briefing a plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees next year. The next step was a formal Presidential Determination on refugee levels for FY2016, which projected admission of 85,000 total. The word “Syria” does not appear in the Determination, and the goal of resettling 10,000 Syrians appears only in news reports and briefings, such as a WhiteHouse.gov memo by DHS on How We’re Welcoming Syrian Refugees While Ensuring Our Safety.
Neither the press briefing nor the Presidential Determination nor the DHS memo mentions the statutory criterion of fear of persecution, and it is unclear why 10,000 Syrians will meet the standard. The State Department’s Report to Congress reviewing the section 1157(e) factors and explaining the reasoning behind the estimates does not explain why Syrian refugees meet the criterion.