James Franco will pay $2.2 million to settle suit alleging sexual exploitation, fraud

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James Franco photographed Sept. 11, 2017. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
James Franco, shown in 2017, has agreed to a settlement in a 2019 class-action lawsuit accusing him and his associates of fraud and sexual exploitation. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

James Franco will pay more than $2.2 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by two former students at his acting school, pending court approval, according to court documents filed last week and made public Wednesday.

This comes after news in February that a deal had been reached.

A total of $2,235,000 is proposed to be split as follows, according to the documents filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court: $894,000 to settle sexual exploitation claims and $1,341,000 to a common fund to settle the fraud claims. The defendants are admitting no liability.

In return, the named plaintiffs, Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal, are agreeing to release their individual claims against Franco, without prejudice. If the settlement is approved, Tither-Kaplan would get $670,500 minus $223,500 that will go to lawyers; Gaal would get $223,500 minus $74,500 to the lawyers.

The fraud class will be divided into those who paid tuition for Master Class courses and those who paid for any classes at Studio 4 Film School in New York or L.A. between February 2014 and the date the preliminary approval order is filed. They will each get a share of $827,045, which is the amount that will remain in the common fund after attorneys fees and administrative costs.

In their October 2019 lawsuit, former students Tither-Kaplan and Gaal had accused the Oscar-nominated actor — along with business partner Vince Jolivette, Rabbit Bandini Productions and the production company’s general manager, Jay Davis — of sex discrimination, sexual harassment, fraudulent business practices and intimidation, among other things.

The lawsuit alleged that the actor’s Studio 4 acting and filmmaking school was actually a setup to provide them with a stream of young, impressionable women for sexual and financial exploitation.

Tither-Kaplan was among the five women who accused Franco of inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior in a 2018 investigation by the Los Angeles Times.

“I feel there was an abuse of power, and there was a culture of exploiting noncelebrity women, and a culture of women being replaceable,” Tither-Kaplan told The Times that year.

While a Franco representative did not respond immediately to a request for comment Wednesday, the court documents indicated that all parties would agree to a mutual statement.

"While Defendents continue to deny the allegations in the Complaint, they acknowledge that Plaintiffs have raised important issues; and all parties strongly believe that now is a critical time to focus on addressing the mistreatment of women in Hollywood," the statement said, in part.

"All agree on the need to make sure that no one in the entertainment industry — regardless of sex, race, religion, disability, ethnicity, background, gender or sexual orientation — faces discrimination, harassment or prejudice of any kind."

The proposed settlement agreement was reached through mediation overseen by retired Judge Louis Meisinger.

According to the 2019 lawsuit, students who paid around $300 monthly to attend Stage 4 or participated in one of its $2,000 “Master Classes” were led to believe that they would receive audition opportunities not available to nonstudents. However, the suit claimed, those opportunities were not exclusive.

Among the master classes was one called “Sex Scenes,” taught by Franco. Students had to audition for master classes and sign away all rights to audition tapes. They were “encouraged to audition nude or partially nude if a scene called for nudity,” according to the lawsuit, and were “routinely pressured to engage in simulated sexual acts that went far beyond the standards in the industry.”

When the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiff's law firm, Valli Kane & Vagnini, said in a statement, "Studio 4 allowed Franco and his entourage to collect tuition for their own personal gain, and stockpile explicit footage of women. The school diminished a woman’s role on set to that of a sexual object who could only obtain professional opportunities through gratuitous nudity, explicit sex scenes and succumbing to sexual advances by the men in charge.”

Michael Plonsker, an attorney for Franco, said in 2019 that his client would "not only fully defend himself, but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity seeking lawsuit.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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