Saturday, May 25, 2024

T.I. and Tiny’s Lawsuit Over O.M.G. Dolls Goes to Trial

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Rapper T.I. and his wife, Tameka “Tiny” Harris, are heading to trial in Santa Ana this week in regards to a civil case filed against toymaker MGA Entertainment over dolls the couple says wrongly intimidate their daughter and members of her former rap group.

T.I. is trying to obtain from MGA—which over the years has produced multiple popular doll series, including Bratz, Num Noms, and Rainbow High—payment for what he claims is the company’s use of the likeness of the group, OMG Girls, when designing its line of L.O.L. Surprise! O.M.G. dolls. The company has already gone on the offensive legally against that claim from the rapper; two years ago, MGA initiated a federal lawsuit that seeks an order clearing the company of wrongdoing.

T.I. and Tiny responded with a counterclaim, accusing MGA of misappropriating and exploiting OMG Girlz in what they are claiming is a racist move that refuses to compensate the group’s creators—namely, T.I.Tiny, and her daughter—who are Black.

Now, two top L.A. trial lawyers are set to square off in a 10-day court case. T.I. and Tiny’s lawyers include Erin Ranahan and, as of November, veteran trial lawyer David Scheper and MGA’s lawyers include Jennifer Keller, who joined the case two months ago with partner Chase Scolnick. Keller gained recognition in 2011 for her successful representation of MGA in its battle against Mattel over the Bratz dolls, which Mattel alleged were based on stolen Barbie trade secrets. She and Scolnick successfully defended actor Kevin Spacey in a trial in October over a sexual battery lawsuit filed by actor Anthony Rapp in New York.

The couple, who starred in the reality TV Show T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle from 2011-2017 is expected to testify, as is Zonnique Pullins, who is Tiny’s daughter and T.I.’s stepdaughter. Jurors are also expected to hear a recorded deposition from Pullins’ former OMG Girlz bandmate, Breaunna “Jus Bre” Womack.

Lawyers representing the couple have not publicly revealed the amount they’ll ask the jury to award in damages if they win the case, as the suit “is about preventing artists’ brands, name, and likeness from being exploited by the multi-billion-dollar toy giant MGA,” they said. 

“The remarkable and numerous similarities between the OMG Girlz and MGA’s OMG Dolls are unmistakable. Seeing is believing. MGA has gotten away with ripping off many with lesser resources before, and we intend to stand up for creators through this lawsuit,” T.I. and Tiny’s lawyers said in a statement emailed to LAMag.

MGA spokesman Alan Hilowitz called the case “simply a money grab” from the parents and emphasized that it’s regarding a group that “disbanded many years ago.”

“In claiming inaccurately that MGA Entertainment copied their ‘unique’ look, they are unjustifiably seeking millions of dollars from the design and sale of our hit toy line,” Hilowitz said in an email to LAMag. “We intend to fiercely defend ourselves and our talented artists and designers, as we explain to the court how they created our best-selling toys with no influence from the OMG Girlz group.”

Formed in 2009, OMG Girlz was an active teen pop and rap group until 2015. It included rapper Lil’ Wayne’s daughter Reginae Carter, who went by Baby Carter and sisters Lourdes Rodriguez and Bahja Rodriguez, also known as Lolo and Beauty. T.I. owned the companies behind OMG Girlz, and would have agreed to allow MGA to merchandise the group—but only through a licensing agreement that his lawyers say MGA refused to negotiate.

Lawyers for rapper T.I. included these images in their counterclaim against MGA Entertainment, accusing the toymaker of misappropriating the likeness of the OMG Girlz band when designing a line of dolls. (U.S. District Court documents)

The dolls were released in 2019, four years after OMG Girlz disbanded; the OMG for the toys stands for Outrageous Millennial Girls while the rap group’s acronym stands for Officially Miss Guided. T.I.’s lawyers allege that the product copies “the unique name, image, and trade dress of the OMG Girlz without permission from the creators.”

Fans notified T.I. and Tiny’s companies Pretty Girls. LLC and Grand Hustle, LLC about what they described as an obvious infringement, their lawyers said, but MGA “responded in bad faith” when T.I.’s companies sought a piece of the doll profits.

“Rather than discuss a licensing agreement, MGA instead pre-emptively filed a lawsuit claiming that they alone created and owned the name and image of the OMG Dolls,” according to a counterclaim filed by T.I. and Tiny’s lawyers with Winston Strawn, LLP. “Grand Hustle and Pretty Hustle remain committed to a fair and equitable resolution to facilitate distribution of OMG Dolls that look like the OMG Girlz and give all children a positive example of young Black women.”

T.I. and Tiny’s lawyers’ counterclaim accuses MGA of misappropriating Black culture by mimicking the group without permission “rather than collaborating with the Black creators who over many years worked to develop the OMG Girlz brand.” But Senior U.S. District Judge James Selna struck the allegations in August 2021, saying they “have no bearing on any of the counterclaims, and that they are accordingly immaterial and impertinent.”

The couple’s lawyers also said the alleged misappropriation is “a classic example” of MGA CEO Isaac Larian’s “habit” and the company’s routine practice of “cultural appropriation.” However, the judge has barred the plaintiff’s attorneys from mentioning other alleged infringements by MGA against other artists.

Still, race could still be an issue during the trial. Judge Selna said T.I. and Tiny’s lawyers still can try to elicit testimony about the racial diversity, age, and gender of OMG Girlz fans. They’re also not prevented from presenting evidence of MGA’s diversity goals and philosophy if they try to show the court that the company geared the dolls toward people of color.

“Given that inspiration is different from misappropriation, inspiration inquiries are proper,” the judge wrote. But Selna cautioned attorneys to be careful, writing, “Veiled, calculating remarks are no less objectionable than the attribution of outright racist statements.”

Selna has also ruled that jurors won’t hear about the sexual assault allegations lodged against T.I. and Tiny by women who reported them to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors said in September 2021 they would not pursue criminal charges, citing the expired statute of limitations.

The 2009 federal gun conviction that put T.I. in prison for a year could still be mentioned at trial, however, as Selna ruled it could be used to impeach the rapper’s honesty on the witness stand if MGA’s lawyers can establish beforehand that the crime goes toward the rapper’s propensity for honesty. The judge also left open the possibility of the introduction of a mugshot of Pullins;  the rapper has said she believes one of the MGA dolls mimics the image.

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