An appeals court on Monday handed a victory to the estate of Michael Jackson in its battle over the 2019 HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which accused the late singer of sexually abusing two young boys.
The Jackson estate sued HBO for $100 million, arguing that the documentary violated a 27-year-old non-disparagement clause from a 1992 concert film from the “Dangerous” tour. HBO has argued that the clause is irrelevant to the present dispute and accuses the Jackson estate of seeking to silence victims of sexual abuse.
Last year, a lower court granted the estate’s motion to take the dispute to arbitration, as provided by the contract. HBO appealed, but on Monday a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling. The judges conceded that the suit may be “frivolous,” as HBO has claimed, but said it will be up to an arbitrator to make that call.
“The contract contained a broad arbitration clause that covers claims that HBO disparaged Jackson in violation of ongoing confidentiality obligations,” the panel ruled. “We may only identify whether the parties agreed to arbitrate such claims; it is for the arbitrator to decide whether those claims are meritorious.”
HBO had sought to avoid arbitration, saying that the network had never intended to grant Jackson and his heirs a veto over anything the network might ever want to say about him. The network’s attorney, Theodore Boutrous, also argued that the 1992 contract had effectively expired once each side fulfilled its obligations.
The panel — Circuit Judges Richard Paez and Lawrence VanDyke and District Judge Karin Immergut — rejected that argument.
“An arbitration clause can still bind the parties, even if the parties fully performed the contract years ago,” they ruled.
The network could appeal the panel’s ruling to the full 9th Circuit, or now make its argument before an arbitrator.
Jackson’s attorneys, Howard Weitzman and Jonathan Steinsapir, issued a statement praising the ruling.
“The trial judge and now the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have unanimously rejected HBO’s arguments,” they said. “In the court’s own words, HBO ‘agreed that it would not make any disparaging remarks concerning Jackson.’ It’s time for HBO to answer for its violation of its obligations to Michael Jackson.”