Monday, March 19, 2007

Berg v. Traylor (Cal. Ct. App. - March 19, 2007)

What a joy it must be to be a child actor. After all, they uniformly live charmed lives as adults, right?

Here's a little story about a child actor named Craig Lamar Traylor, who for the past six years has played Stevie Kenarbin -- the African-American kid in a wheelchair on "Malcolm in the Middle". Back in 1999, before Craig (who was then 10 years old) had any substantial acting experience, Craig -- through his mother -- hired Sharyn Berg as his personal manager in return for 15%. Then, in 2001, Craig landed his role on Malcom. And four months later, Craig purported to fire his manager in order to escape the 15%. Except the contract doesn't work that way, so the manager sued.

I'll spare you the neverending -- but somewhat interesting -- procedural and other details about the resulting arbitration proceedings and motions. Let's just say that Craig's mother -- Meshiel Cooper Traylor -- doesn't come out smelling like a rose, and Craig and his mother eventually go through four different sets of attorneys after the first three withdraw for things like not getting paid, not having their calls returned, and not having their advice followed. Eventually Berg gets a substantial judgment against both Traylors, who then appeal. And Justice Doi Todd reverses the judgment against Craig (the child) but affirms against Meshiel (the mother) on the ground that the former, as a minor, was permitted to disaffirm all of the relevant agreements but the latter was not.

There's actually an interesting underlying question in my mind about what sorts of contracts to which minors may be permissibly bound as a third party beneficiary. I definitely don't know the law here, but there doesn't seem to be a particularly good boundary between those types of obligations (to which a minor may be bound) and obligations as a principal which the minor may disaffirm.

Regardless, at least in this case, the child actor is off the hook, but his mother is not. One more thing. Justice Doi Todd is pretty shocked that no one below moved for a guardian ad litem. I'm less surprised. Sure, we all in retrospect might think that should obviously have transpired. But I don't think it's at all uncommon for people -- including litigants -- to naturally think that in civil litigation, a parent is a reasonable guardian who can effectively advance her child's best interests. So even if it was a mistake here (and I think it was), I can see why the mistake was made. Which doesn't justify it, obviously; nonetheless, my shock was somewhat less than Justice Doi Todd's.