Barbie recently sued Mattel for breach of contract and discrimination after the company refused to pay her a bonus for 2014 and stopped covering her student loans and disability insurance premiums. When Mattel then retaliated by moving to foreclose on the mortgage it holds on Barbie’s Dream House in Malibu, Barbie filed for bankruptcy. See Barbara Millicent Roberts v. Mattel, Inc.,
2015 WL 12345 (E.D. Wis. April 1, 2015) and In re Barbara Millicent Roberts
, 543 B.R. 210 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. 2015). Barbie’s choice of venue was no coincidence. By filing in her birth state of Wisconsin (rather than on Mattel’s turf in California), Barbie ensures that the jury pool for any trial will be drawn from fans, not foes. Clearly, Barbie was well-advised (more on Barbie’s legal team later).
Dubbed “Barbiegate” by the press, the messy litigation has spawned some interesting evidentiary issues, including several requiring expert testimony. For example, Mattel’s justification for eliminating the 2014 bonus relies on an obscure provision in the parties’ personal services contract that allegedly ties the payment of an annual bonus to Barbie’s successfully maintaining “cultural icon status.” Mattel alleges that Barbie is no longer a cultural icon, while Barbie begs to differ. Mattel’s social media expert cited sharp declines in “likes” on Facebook and “followers” on Twitter as evidence of Barbie’s diminished popularity. Barbie’s expert countered that social media is not a valid measure of icon status. Rather, she contends that Barbie’s starring role in multiple movies, including as supporting actress in two Toy Story
films, has permanently cemented Barbie as a role model in children’s minds. In a rebuttal report, Mattel’s expert criticized this analysis on numerous grounds, including that “role model” is not equivalent to “cultural icon” and that in any event, the question of “icon status” must be measured by the perception of parents, not children, since children don’t have money to buy dolls (thereby breaking the causal link between their perception and the drop in doll sales).
Another question of first impression is whether Barbie may testify on her own behalf at trial. As readers will recall, we recently discussed a Delaware case analyzing whether a corporation can serve as an expert witness
. The Delaware Court ruled in the negative on the ground that a corporation “possesses neither a body nor a brain.” While Barbie has no brain, she has a body, a fact which distinguishes the Delaware ruling. Moreover, Mattel has announced the launch of Hello Barbie, a new talking version that would allow Barbie to verbally take an oath (instead of using sign language, which she learned while working as a sign language teacher in 1999). Additionally, Barbie would be capable of hearing questions posed to her on direct and cross and responding truthfully (provided the Court’s Wi-Fi connection doesn’t crash). When Mattel’s counsel objected that Hello Barbie may not yet be on store shelves by the time of trial because of protests by privacy activists, the Court admonished Mattel against obstruction of justice and directed the company to begin selling Hello Barbie “with all deliberate speed” or face contempt.
As noted, Barbie has complained about Mattel failing to pay her student loans. While the contract is silent on loan repayment, Barbie contends that because the agreement compelled her to successively attend medical, dental, nursing, veterinary, culinary, business, architecture, and flight school (while simultaneously serving in the army and the police force; teaching gymnastics, yoga, and art; and running for President in 1992, 2004, 2008 and 2012), Mattel should cover the cost of all that education as a matter of equity (or in the alternative, those loans should be discharged in bankruptcy). Mattel’s vocational expert countered that Barbie made a fine living in each of her professions (e.g., her babysitting rate alone was $250/hour) and therefore has sufficient income to pay off her loans on her own. The Court has taken the issue under advisement but directed Mattel to resume payment of disability insurance premiums pendent lite
since the company’s insistence that Barbie change jobs at least once a year likely disqualifies her from securing a new “own occupation” disability policy were the current one to lapse.
Barbie has sought to dismiss the foreclosure of her Dream House by producing a deed purporting to show that Ken Carson owns a 51% interest in the property. Mattel claims that interest was transferred to Ken fraudulently in anticipation of this litigation. The real question here is whether Barbie and Ken are still in a relationship. If so, then Ken would likely qualify as a “related party” under California’s fraudulent transfer law sufficient to void the transaction ab initio
. To that end, Mattel’s Hollywood gossip expert opines that Barbie and Ken are “still a couple” as per a picture snapped by paparazzi and published on TMZ showing them embracing at an anniversary party for Barbie’s parents, George and Margaret Roberts, at their home in Wisconsin. Through his agent (since Ken can’t speak and there is no talking Hello Ken doll in the works), Ken claims the picture is Photo Shopped.
A final question with which the Court will struggle is Barbie’s claim for discrimination. Presently, neither the EEOC nor the Courts have recognized toys as a protected class. Other forms of discrimination seem equally implausible. Age discrimination is not an option – Barbie is still the same age she was in 1959. Neither is gender discrimination – Barbie earns much more than Ken does. While some of Barbie’s friends have been pregnant (Midge) or disabled (Becky), Barbie has never been so depicted. As such, the basis for the discrimination claim remains a mystery for now, and it will likely get dismissed.
An interesting footnote here is that during depositions, it was revealed that, despite her many storied careers, Barbie was never a lawyer. That revelation has led to conspiracy theories that Mattel deliberately prevented Barbie from attending law school in order to deter her from ever suing Mattel since she would be unable to represent herself, thus forcing her to incur high legal fees (under the parties’ contract, each side pays its own attorneys’ fees). If so, that strategy has backfired since leading plaintiffs’ law firms have been falling all over themselves to represent Barbie on a contingency-fee basis. In any event, Mattel dismissed the conspiracy theories, observing that two of Teen Talk Barbie’s phrases were “Law school is easy” and “A lawyer who represents herself has a fool for a client.”
Follow this link for more on Barbie’s perspective
on this case.
So what’s your take on this courtroom brawl? Will Barbie lose her Dream House, or will this scuffle cause Mattel’s stock price to plummet?