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Michael Oher “Blindsided” By Conservatorship

My thoughts on the Michael Oher news:

Seemingly every news outlet and media page this morning had the same headline: “Michael Oher sues Tuohy family.” The 2009 film “The Blind Side” is embedded in sports culture forever, but Oher is now asserting the movie misrepresented a critical premise of his story. Oher has always been outspoken about his displeasure with how the movie represented him, namely how it overshadowed his self-commitment and motivation to better his own life by attributing his rise to football fame to the Tuohys. Oher’s petition in Shelby County, Tennessee Probate Court goes a step further throwing shots at the movie’s credibility by claiming the Tuohy family essentially duped him into signing away his right contract and receive profits from his likeness, particularly from the film’s more than $300 million dollar proceeds.

The Blind Side actresses and actors portrayed a loving family who took in a young boy suffering the circumstances of a family broken from addiction. Oher’s petition paints the Tuhoy family in a much less flattering light. “Conservators Sean Tuohy and Leigh Ann Tuohy saw . . . a gullible young man whose athletic talent could be exploited for their own benefit.” Oher claims the Tuohy family presented him with what they purported to be adoption papers, but instead was a Petition for Appointment of Conservators, which was filed by attorney Debra Branan. Branan was a close family friend the the Tuohy’s, who encouraged Oher to refer to her as Aunt Debbie. The Petition for Appointment of Conservators gave the Conservators total control over Oher’s ability to negotiate for or enter any contract, despite the fact he was over 18 years of age and had no diagnosed physical or psychological disabilities.

Stated in pertinent part: “Michael Jerome Williams, Jr. [Oher] shall not be allowed to enter into any contracts or bind himself without the direct approval of his guardians/conservators.” Oher alleges in his petition filed this morning that the Tuohys falsely advised him that because he was over 18 that the legal language used in the adoption process would refer to the Tuohys as his “conservators,” but assured him the documents were for his legal adoption into the family. Oher’s petition goes on to state the Tuohys’ false and public misrepresentations have caused “irreparable injury, loss, and damage to Michael Oher, and unless the Conservators are restrained and enjoined from continuing to make such misrepresentations, will continue to cause further injury and damages.” Ultimately, Oher is seeking injunctive relief in the form of the termination of the conservatorship and prohibition of the Tuohys from further using his name, image, and likeness for profit.

Additionally, and more importantly, Oher asks the court to order the Tuohy family to pay compensatory and punitive damages for their benefits received from the misrepresentations that led to Oher signing the conservatorship, plus interest from time accrued, and attorney’s fees. The petition alleges Sean and Leigh Anne negotiated for themselves and their two natural-born children each a contract price of $225,000 plus 2.5% of all future “Defined Net Proceeds.” Two-and-a-half percent of over the film’s $300 millions dollars in profit is a large chunk of change Oher purports rightfully belongs to him.

An interesting detail the petition brought to light was the contract with 20th Century Fox for the film listed Matthew Snyder at Creative Artists Agency as Tuohy’s contact, but the agent/attorney to receive contract and payment notices for Oher was listed as Tuohy family friend and Oher’s agent, Debra Branan. Furthermore, a contract entitled “Life Story Rights Agreement,” has Oher’s signature, but Oher is unsure whether he signed it or if the familiar-looking penmanship was forged. Either way, Michael asserts he never willingly or knowingly signed this document that granted Fox the perpetual, unconditional, and exclusive right to portray his name, image, and likeness based upon his life story. He further avers nobody presented him such a contract with any explanation or context.

If Oher’s allegations are true, the Tuohy family is a long stretch away from the philanthropic, southern-charm family who took in a homeless and neglected Michael Oher out of the kindness of their hearts. Oher’s petition says it best, if the Tuohys profited millions from their trickery in misrepresenting the purported conservatorship documents as adoption papers, “they would have committed a breach of their fiduciary duty so gross and appalling that they should be sanctioned by this court by disgorgement of all sums of money received from this motion picture, plus interest from the date of receipt of any payment, and also required to pay appropriate punitive damages to their ward, Michael Oher, as determined by this court.”

After reading the flood of headlines this morning, I formed the same question many have pondered: “Why now?” The Blind Side came out in 2009, and Oher claims he only discovered the conservatorship in February of this year, much “to his chagrin and embarrassment.” Did he not exercise any due diligence as to why he was not receiving any royalties or otherwise compensated for his depiction in the wildly successful film? If those documents were not adoption papers and were instead conservatorship papers, how did he go 15 years without discovering he wasn’t legally adopted by the Tuohys? These were a couple of the red flags that made me not buy into the headlines wholeheartedly; it seems like there are some missing details. I would love to know specifically how Oher stumbled upon the facts that led him down the road to discovering the conservatorship. If what he claims in his petition is true, the Tuohy family’s exploitation of Oher in his vulnerable state is disgusting and they should absolutely be held accountable by whatever appropriate measures the court determines. Even if the Tuohys simply knew of or should have known of Michael’s misunderstanding of what he was signing and didn’t maliciously trick him into signing away his rights, the conduct was egregious and deserving of rectification in the interests of fairness, regardless of the number of years that have since passed.

Oher’s petition asks for a jury trial. An especially sympathetic jury in Shelby County, Tennessee would foreseeably be inclined to side with Oher, who is an active member of the Nashville community and gives back to the community generously. Another essential social note is the recent battle to end conservatorship undertaken by Britney Spears, who received significant public support in her fight to terminate her own conservatorship almost two years ago. The public outcry for the popular entertainer’s freedom to control her own personal and financial affairs would likely be duplicated for the heart-warming story that is Michael Oher.

According to the Associated Press, Sean Tuohy said “It’s upsetting to think we would make money off any of our children. But we’re going to love Michael at 27 just like we loved him at 16.” It will be interesting to see how the Tuohys legally respond to the petition in the near future. I could see the Tuohys defending their actions with the claim they were protecting Michael’s NCAA eligibility since up until two years ago, college athletes were forbidden from profiting from their name, image, and likeness. However, The Blind Side was released after Michael had concluded his NCAA eligibility at Ole Miss.

Oher’s story tugs at the heartstrings of everyone who has taken notice of his perseverance. The thought that an affluent family would exploit a disadvantaged Michael Oher for their own financial gain is horrifying and entirely contrary to the character of the Tuohy family depicted in The Blind Side. With that said, I’d tell anyone to stay open-minded before jumping to an empathetic conclusion based on the headlines. The truth often lies in the middle of both sides of the story, and we’ve yet to even hear the opposing side.