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Dora Explores a Minor Platform

By Diane Krausz and Jennifer Bellusci

Chapter Nine "Contracting with Minors", in the recently published Counseling Content Providers in the Digital Age, describes and compares the approval procedures required by New York and California courts for agreements signed by minor performers. Glenn Litwak and I, as the co-writers of the Chapter, conclude as follows: "...California offers a more streamlined and less expensive process than that required under the laws of the State of New York." For this reason, apparently, many New York based production companies have decided not to petition for court approval when dealing with agreements for minor performers with, until now, very little publicly reported consequences.

On October 7, 2010, it was reported that a complaint had been filed by Caitlin Sanchez, performing as the voice of "Dora the Explorer", against MTV Networks, et al. Ms. Sanchez, who is now 14 years old, lives in New Jersey. Her services for Dora were performed in New York City pursuant to an agreement with Uptown Productions, Inc., a production entity of Nickelodeon. The complaint claims that Ms. Sanchez was "swindled", "deceived" and signed a contract with "convoluted, vague, incomplete and misrepresented terms." It also claims that both MTVN (Nickelodeon's parent company) and CESD, Ms. Sanchez's agent, failed to pay Ms. Sanchez appropriate compensation for her services in connection with the program, including residuals, merchandise products, and recordings. The complaint does not contain even one citation for a law, statute or case in support of its position. More interestingly, it fails to allege or even mention, what if true, is the most important fact: Neither of the contracts signed by Ms. Sanchez was submitted to a court and was not court approved pursuant to New York State Arts and Cultural Affairs Law 35.03, and therefore, Ms. Sanchez, a minor, has the right to disaffirm and void the contracts as a matter of law.

A minor disaffirming a production, agent, or manager contract is nothing new. This is precisely why Section 35.03 was enacted, to provide a mechanism similar to the California procedure where a production company/employer could have a minor's employment contract approved and rendered not able to be disaffirmed. In New York, this procedure is neither required nor used as often as in California, where its frequent application and use is limited mostly to certain counties in the Los Angeles area. Further, the extent of effort and time required to file a petition either in New York Supreme or Surrogates' Court is often a significant deterrent to a company's desire to protect the enforceability of its minors' contracts. In many instances, a minor’s reputation and employability are factors in that decision, i.e., who wants to hire someone, even a minor, who would void an agreement after the fact? So it is interesting that the Sanchez case was brought at all, and that when it was in fact commenced, the claims contained no grounds that involved her status as a minor, but rather, included claims that could apply to any actress of majority that had been allegedly treated improperly in contractual dealings.

There is virtually no case law in New York that deals with what should occur where a minor disaffirms on a completed services agreement that has not been approved by the court. The law has been upheld to allow a manager or agent to collect the value of his or her respective commission for the work done to date, on a quantum meruit theory (see Scott Eden Mgmt vs. Kavovit (149 Misc 2d.262, 563 N.Y. S. 2d. 1001 (Sup Ct. Westchester Co. 1990) and Rice v Butler (160 N.Y. 578)), which held that a talent manager or an agent must be paid for commissions actually earned, even if a contract was disaffirmed.

In the case of Sanchez, it appears that with a non-court approved contract, provided that the producer does not remove the minor's services from the continued exploitation of the program, it is likely that the minor will be able to claim a greater amount of compensation, as well as a full accounting of "back-end" merchandising and other royalties given the subsequent huge success of the "Dora" franchise. This is, of course, provided that the complaint is re-pleaded in the future in accordance with the comments in this article.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 19, 2010 10:04 PM.

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