Current Trends - The Blind Side's Michael Oher and Tuohy Family - Episode 113
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another Legal Tea episode today, episode one hundred and thirteen! Today’s topic is a current trend … on this type of episode, we dive into something going on in the current time or that I’ve stumbled across on the news or social media, that is pertinent to my little estate and elder law world. Well, today’s episode is going to be an interesting one and, of course, timely one – and it’s going to be on the recent news regarding Michael Oher (Orr), who is the inspiration for the main character in the super popular movie, The Blind Side. In case you happen to forget, The Blind Side was loosely-based on a true story and was about a kid (in real life, that’s Michael) who lived an impoverished life and ultimately was in the foster care system. He ends up crossing paths with Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy (Two-ees) (played by Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock), who ends up embracing him as part of their own family. Super long story short, the Tuohys become Michael’s family, he takes on football, goes to college at Ole Miss, and ends up playing professionally for the Baltimore Ravens. It’s a good movie, for sure!
So, in “real life” the kid, Michael, and the Tuohys are real-life people – and mid-August of this year, 2023, their real-life story made the news … and not in a good way. According to an ESPN article, in Shelby County, Tennessee, Michael filed a 14-page petition with the local probate court stating that the Tuohys never adopted him, but after he turned 18 years old, actually about three months after he turned 18, Michael stated that they “tricked him into signing a document making them his conservators, which gave them the legal authority to make business deals in his name.” Furthermore, Michael’s petition argues that they used this conservatorship power to make deals that “paid them and their two birth children millions of dollars in royalties from [the] Oscar-winning film that earned more than $300 Million, while Oher got nothing for a story that would not have existed without him.”
With a Petition, you have to “ask for something” … like, tell the Court, “hey, here are some facts and this is what I want from you, Court!” So, his Petition was ASKING the Court to 1) terminate the conservatorship, 2) issue an injunction which would now allow the Tuohys to use his “name and likeness” which is like his “brand” so to speak, 3) to see an accounting of the conservatorship assets, and 4) to have the Tuohys pay him his share of the profits, including damages.
Wow! These are some intense allegations and some intense requests!
Following the filing of Michael’s Petition, of course, this started hitting news, social media, etc. and as the ESPN article shares, the Tuohys did not immediately return phone calls from reporters and additionally, their attorney also declined to comment as well, but did say that the family would file a response to Michael’s Petition soon. However, shortly after the initial hustle bustle of the news, Sean Tuohy shared with the Daily Memphian that he was “stunned by [Michael’s] allegations and said [they] didn’t make any money off the movie … only a share of proceeds from Michael Lewis’ book, which was the foundation for the film.” He further doubled down and said that he and his family were devastated and that “it’s upsetting to think we would make money off any of our children. But we’re going to love Michael at 37 just like we loved him at 16.”
Interestingly, this has really become a game of he-said, she-said because like the ESPN article mentions, in a book by the Tuohys which was released in 2010 called “In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving”, they shared that they divided the money/profits from the movie in five ways – between the Dad/Mom Tuohy, Michael, and the Tuohy’s two biological children. So, they say that Michael DID get a share and Michael says he did NOT. There’s a short blurb in the ESPN article that I really think summarizes this unfortunate situation and it reads: “The Petition marks a sharp break in what had been an inspiring, if unsettlingly stereotypical, feel-good story. As the movie portrayed the story, the Tuohys adopted Oher, a poor, virtually homeless and academically challenged Black teenager. They made Oher part of a functional family for the first time. They helped him catch up in school, taught him the basics of football and how to harness his physical skills, putting him on the road to sports stardom. The truth, however, was more complicated.” Weirdly, it kind of reminds me of when people say there’s what is on social media … and what happens in real life. Very similar, huh.
So, all of that was the initial saga. That all happened in mid-August 2023. So, now we’re sitting here in September (and for reference I’m recording this in early September, but this episode won’t be released until later on in September … so if something happens between now and then, this episode is going to not be totally up-to-date!). Following the initial saga, there were, of course as standard court proceedings would have it, some subpoenas filed – specifically, on Alcon Entertainment (which is the production company behind The Blind Side movie); Creative Artists Agency (which is the talent agency the Tuohys worked with); and on Memphis Shelby County School system (which is the school system Michael attended).
Right now, beyond some statements here and there from each sides’ lawyers, that’s about where we stand. As of this moment, in early September when I’m recording this, the Tuohys have not formally responded to the Court on Michael’s Petition; though, I have to assume at some point very soon (and heck maybe even between me recording this and it getting released to you all), that we may either see a formal response or maybe even a settlement. Many times, these kinds of things (including in real life) get settled outside the courtroom. I think I heard a statistic once that like 2% of cases actually end up “going to Court.” When I say that, I meant like duking it out in a courtroom with a trial. Most of the time, things get settled for a number of reasons – but I could see the Tuhoys wanting to settle to make this “go away” (whether they did anything wrong or not, honestly). It’s hard to have/watch your nam and reputation get slaughtered on the news, social media, and the court docket. So, we’ll see.
The ESPN article mentioned something, too, that I wanted to discuss because I think it’s an important takeaway for this episode. It shares, “There are some important legal distinctions. If [Michael] had been adopted by the Tuohys, he would have been a legal member of their family, and he would have retained power to handle his own financial affairs. Under the conservatorship, [Michael] surrendered that authority to the Tuohys, even though he was a legal adult with no known physical or psychological disabilities.” You know, we have talked about on here before many times – this idea of a conservatorship or in other states, it’s called guardianship. We’ve seen it with Britney Spears … we’ve seen it with Amanda Bynes … I’m sure we’ve seen it with others that I’m just not immediately thinking of, but I think it’s worth another discussion/some time to revisit this topic of conservatorship/guardianship.
First, how do conservatorships and guardianships fit into my little estate world? Well, as a reminder, here in Indiana – we call them guardianships. We CERTAINLY don’t see them done for celebrities at least I don’t(!) – but where we do commonly see them is in two situations. First, we help clients gain guardianship over children who may have special needs – and with turning 18, the child becomes, legally speaking, an adult. So sometimes, kiddos who are about to turn 18, the parents (or whoever may be the proposed legal guardian) want to maintain being the child’s decision-maker … and a guardianship is the legal procedure to make that happen. Second, we help clients gain guardianship over aging adults, who may be experiencing significant cognitive impairment – think, advanced dementia, Alzheimers, etc. – where the person, due to their cognitive impairment, need further assistance with decision-making. Oftentimes, we see this become a thing IF the person does NOT have a Power of Attorney in place -or- perhaps their Power of Attorney is not “strong” enough and the person trying to help with decisions is hitting roadblocks. Here, with Michael, he likely fell in the middle and at the time it was established, it was likely proven to the Judge that appointed the Tuohys as Conservators that he needed help with decision-making – and as it was discussed earlier in the episode, Michael signed off on it saying, at that time, he agreed to them being his conservators.
So, here in my little normal not-celebrity world, if we are looking at obtaining guardianship over someone, it’s worth quickly noting the process. Like so many have learned through this story, as well as Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes stories, it’s a COURT process – which means individuals hire an attorney to assist them through the proceeding – it involves a lot of paperwork, a hearing, and ultimately the Judge decides whether the proposed Guardian is an appropriate and suitable person to make decisions for the person. So anchoring back to Michael again, when the conservatorship was established, clearly the Tuohys met the burden of showing to the Judge where there was a need for a guardianship – and the Judge agreed with their argument (back then when it was initially established at least).
And just a little more on conservatorships/guardianships, generally-speaking: there are often two, let’s call them type – the Conservator/Guardian can be the Conservator/Guardian of the “person” and secondly, can be the Conservator/Guardian of the “estate.” Now, Conservator/Guardian of the “person” means you have the authority to make decisions about the “person” – so think like health care decisions, where the person should reside, attend school, etc. And, Conservator/Guardian of the “estate” means you have the authority to make decisions about the persons “financial affairs” – for this, think applying for governmental benefits, accessing bank and financial accounts, working with financial professionals and tax professionals, etc. So, here with Michael, it’s very likely they had both, but clearly, at the very least, they were over his estate if they were able to make and manage deals on Michael’s behalf – and that is part of what Michael is wanting an accounting for, right? Of what they did on his behalf.
All in all, this story on Michael and the Tuohys sure is not over – so make sure you following the updates on this story and if it warrants another Legal Tea episode, I’ll do another one. If they settle soon, that’ll be the end of it. But, if the Tuohys put on their boxing gloves, then it may warrant another episode here! Alrighty, I’m out of time, friends, so let’s wrap this episode up – next week, we’re going to dive into what happened estate-wise following the passing of the well-known Sopranos actor, THE Tony Soprano actor, James Gandolfini (Gan-dull-feen-ee). Well, he had a lot of moving parts in his estate proceeding! So, we will dive into that next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Talk to you then and stay well!