You be the fashion lawyer: TEEN MODEL v. Parry (or "Are TM's parents are just hitting up Urban Outfitters for some quick cash?")

Posted by Charles Colman

As first reported late last week (and included in my most recent week-in-fashion-law column on, "CATWALK JUSTICE") an underage model's parents recently sued Urban Outfitters, photographer Jason Lee Parry, and others, for taking and using images of their 15-year-old daughter (now 16) on t-shirts and other products.  The most memorable passage from the court complaint filed in unnamed "TEEN MODEL's" name, heard via media outlets 'round the world, is the following nugget: "[TEEN MODEL] is posed in a blatantly salacious manner with her legs spread, without a bra, revealing portions of her breasts."  Probably because of the absurd amount of money sought in the case, ABC News called the lawsuit "huge."  But the only thing "huge" about it, besides the press coverage, may be the actual complaint initiating the case -- which, at 66 pages, is far too long for such a straightforward lawsuit.  That court filing is available... here.

The crux of the lawsuit seems to be that the photographer "failed to secure a written model release from TEEN's parents or from someone with the legal authorization to execute a model release on her behalf[.]"  (Emphasis added.)  The word "written" may be critical here, if (as the Hollywood Reporter explained last week) "the parents knew about the photo shoot and its racy poses[.]"  While largely dodging the question of what the parents knew or didn't know, the complaint states unequivocally that if TEEN MODEL's parents had been asked to provide written permission, "no such consent would have been given."

(N.B. Note that states differ in their requirements for obtaining consent to use one's image or persona for commercial purposes.  Underage issues aside, the primary reason consent is required here is the so-called "right of publicity," which LAW OF FASHION discussed way back in December.  In some states, oral consent is insufficient, while in others, it suffices to dispose of a right of publicity claim -- if one can convince the trier of fact that consent was actually given.)

In any event, the complaint goes on to claim that the settings and distribution channels of the images represent "utterly unsuitable environments for the inclusion of a photograph by a minor by any standards anywhere within the borders of the United States."  (This language is clearly calculated to satisfy the Supreme Court's test for determining what constitutes pornography.  Note that the Court has ruled that child porn is one of the few types of speech to which First Amendment protection does not apply at all.)  This leads one to wonder: if TEEN MODEL's parents did, in fact, know that their daughter was involved in a shoot of such moral turpitude, why did they allow her to be exposed this "unsuitable environment"?

In one overblown passage, the complaint alleges that Parry and the other defendants "were motivated solely [by] economic greed to a degree rarely, if ever, evidenced in the history of apparel retailing."  (Emphasis added.)  (In the view of this author, this type of bombast is not a great way to have your case taken seriously by a judge, especially one who has been presiding over cases for twenty-some years and has probably seen factual scenarios far more appalling than the one you're suing over.)  The complaint then states that Parry's inclusion of "TEEN MODEL" on his website "has caused TEEN to be cast in a negative light, harmful to her reputation," falsely suggesting that "TEEN is sexually promiscuous and a child of low morals."  Naturally, the complaint doesn't conclude without mentioning the emotional harm done to TEEN MODEL.

Curiously, though, while TEEN MODEL has apparently remained mum since the lawsuit was filed, previous media coverage suggests that she doesn't seem especially bothered by the "salacious" aspects of modeling.  Plus, she's not exactly a newbie to the business.

So, you be the fashion lawyer: does this case have legs (spread or otherwise)?  Are TEEN MODEL's parents out to vindicate their daughter, who was manipulated by a charismatic photographer for the benefit of an evil corporation?  Or are the plaintiffs taking advantage of a legal technicality to score some quick cash from Urban Outfitters and a photographer who believed he had consent from the relevant parties?  Share your thoughts with LAW OF FASHION's official LinkedIn group.

[This post is for entertainment and informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship among any individuals or entities.  Any views expressed herein are those of the writer on the particular date of this post, and should not necessarily be attributed to his law firm or its clients.]