Families Can Sue Over ‘Empire’ Filming at Juvie Center

CHICAGO (CN) – Cook County must face claims that it forced kids in a Chicago juvenile detention center to sit in chairs for days at a time while the hit TV show “Empire” was filming there, a federal judge ruled.

“Viewing the allegations and all reasonable inferences in plaintiffs’ favor – and the alleged deprivations as a whole – plaintiffs have plausibly stated the denial of their due process rights by alleging that the filming of the Empire episodes and defendants’ attendant conduct resulted in depriving the juvenile detainees access to the infirmary and the denial of sick-call requests, along with the elimination of schooling, family visits, and restricting the juveniles’ movement and outdoor activities,” U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve ruled Thursday.

The judge dismissed most of the claims against Fox, however, because the families cannot show the network conspired with the county to deprive the children of their constitutional rights. But she will allow the families to amend their claims, so Fox may yet face charges.

“Although plaintiffs’ allegations suggest an agreement between the private and state actors that resulted in restricting the juvenile detainees’ movement and access to facilities, plaintiffs have failed to allege sufficient facts raising a reasonable inference that the state and private actors had a ‘meeting of minds’ in relation to a shared unconstitutional goal,” St. Eve said.

In the summer of 2015, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center was placed on lockdown so that it could be used as a film set to shoot scenes for the Fox hit show “Empire.”

“The purpose of these lockdowns was to provide Fox with a realistic prison facility to use as the primary set of two highly profitable ‘Empire’ episodes,” according to a class action filed last year by relatives of incarcerated minors.

Meanwhile, the children who normally went to school, exercised, and visited their family members in those parts of the building were instead allegedly confined to “pod” areas right outside their cell doors for days on end, where they were forced to sit in the same spot at all times. “If a child needs to use the restroom or otherwise leave his seat, that child must raise his hand and receive permission from the guards,” the complaint states.

Filming at the five-story facility lasted a total of two weeks, split into three separate visits. One of the reasons for the multiple visits is that the character played by comedian Chris Rock “had originally been depicted as a cannibal,” but Fox executives wanted to reshoot those scenes, according to the class-action lawsuit.

During filming, the children’s “schooling continued in name only, visits from their families were interrupted, cut back, or effectively eliminated, sick-call requests were ignored, and programs that are intended to help them overcome the problems that landed them at the JTDC in the first place were cancelled or interrupted,” the complaint alleges.

The complaint does not state how much Fox paid Cook County for use of the juvenile center, scenes of which were featured prominently in the first two episodes of the second season of “Empire.”

“Empire,” however, has been a big success for Fox, with advertisers paying $750,000 per 30-second advertising spot in the first episode of season two, and $600,000 per 30-second advertising spot in the second episode, according to the class action.

Judge St. Eve also denied Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Juvenile Detention Superintendent Leonard Dixon’s request for qualified immunity at this stage of the litigation.

The lawsuit says the crew arrived to film at the facility just four weeks after a federal judge transferred administration of the facility back to Cook County. Systematic mistreatment of children housed at the facility had forced the appointment of a federal administrator to take over operation of the center in 2008.

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