Fox May Be Liable for ‘Empire’ Filming at Illinois Juvie Center

CHICAGO (CN) – A federal judge ruled Monday that Fox must face claims it was unjustly enriched by striking a deal with county officials to use a Chicago juvenile detention center as a set for the hit show “Empire,” forcing kids to sit in chairs for days at a time.

In the summer of 2015, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, or JTDC, 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.

A federal judge rejected the families’ constitutional claims against Fox on Monday, but upheld their claims seeking damages for unjust enrichment.

“Construing plaintiffs’ allegations and all reasonable inferences in their favor, they have not plausibly alleged that the Fox defendants and any state actor had an agreement to deny plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve wrote in a 14-page ruling. “Rather, plaintiffs’ allegations suggest that the Fox defendants were aware that their desire to film Empire at the JTDC conflicted with the juvenile detainees’ needs.”

Fox scouted the location and knew that its filming needs would interrupt the children’s education and rehabilitation, but this is not enough to show that Fox conspired with Illinois officials to violate the children’s constitutional rights, according to the judge’s opinion.

However, St. Eve found that the complaint’s claims are sufficient to support allegations that Fox induced Cook County officials to breach their fiduciary duties by allowing filming at the center and that it was unjustly enriched by the deal.

“Plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the Fox defendants economically benefitted from their improper conduct in connection to the filming of Empire at the JTDC,” St. Eve said.

The complaint does not state how much Fox paid Cook County for use of the JTDC, 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.

St. Eve had previously allowed the families’ constitutional claims against Cook County to move forward in an April ruling.

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, the class-action lawsuit states.

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 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 JTDC in 2008.

Fox spokesperson Chris Alexander said the broadcaster had no comment on St. Eve’s latest ruling.

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