Michael Jackson Estate Forces HBO Into Arbitration In ‘Leaving Neverland’ Defamation Lawsuit

In Heated Leaving Neverland Case, a California Judge Asks Whether Forced Arbitration Would Violate HBO's First Amendment Rights
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Nearly two years after filing a $100 million Leaving Neverland defamation lawsuit against HBO, the Michael Jackson estate has forced the matter into arbitration.

The Ninth Circuit recently ruled that the much-publicized complaint – which the Michael Jackson estate submitted in February of 2019 – will in fact enter arbitration, based upon provisions within a contract that HBO inked with Michael Jackson in 1992, for his Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour special.

Judge George Wu in November of 2019 granted HBO’s motion to suspend arbitration, pending an appellate court review, given the potentially far-reaching implications for HBO’s First Amendment rights.

In brief, the Bucharest deal contained a non-disparagement clause, a component of what the three-judge appeals panel characterized as a “broad arbitration provision,” in which HBO agreed that it would not “make any disparaging remarks concerning” Michael Jackson or disclose “any information” about his “personal life.” Consequently, the Michael Jackson estate maintains that HBO violated the decades-old contract by airing 2019’s Leaving Neverland, which explored sexual assault allegations made by two individuals who visited Neverland Ranch as children.

Now, the Ninth Circuit has determined that the 1992 agreement does compel arbitration, as opposed to the courtroom trial that HBO lawyers had sought. “An arbitration clause can still bind the parties, even if the parties fully performed the contract years ago,” the court wrote, emphasizing that HBO doesn’t dispute the presence of the contract, but has taken aim at “the ‘continuing validity’ of the agreement and the arbitration provision.”

Next, the judges indicated that “the arbitration agreement covers the dispute” at hand, owing in part to the broad interpretation of arbitration agreements set forth in previous rulings. Moreover, the contract states that disputes “arising out of, in connection with or relating to this Agreement shall be submitted for binding and final arbitration.”

Lastly, the panel specified in its ruling that an arbitrator, not a court, must evaluate HBO’s claims involving the possible expiration of the nearly 30-year-old contract (and, in turn, the arbitration clause). “We may only identify whether the parties agreed to arbitrate such claims; it is for the arbitrator to decide whether those claims are meritorious.”

Separately, a federal judge recently determined that Ticketmaster customers agree to the platform’s terms of use – including an iron-clad arbitration clause – when they sign into their accounts. In the overarching class-action complaint, a music fan (who purchased Rage Against the Machine tickets in February of this year) alleges that Ticketmaster retroactively altered its refund policy following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And in October, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mark Young dismissed the high-profile pedophilia lawsuit filed by James Safechuck, one of the alleged sex-abuse victims featured in Leaving Neverland.