Caitlin Sanchez is only 14, but she just filed a very grown-up multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Nickelodeon, MTV Networks and Viacom.
Sanchez was 12 when she was hired as the voice of Nickelodeon's hit animated series "Dora the Explorer." She was paid $5,115 per episode and allegedly promised a cut of Dora's lucrative merchandising revenue. Now, after being dismissed from her role because she reached puberty and could no longer provide the correct-sounding voice, Sanchez has some observers questioning the network's practices in hiring minors.
The teen says that she signed an "unconscionable" contract without the advice of an attorney. Instead, Sanchez, her parents and her agent (who is now said to have been inexperienced) were given 22 minutes to sign the deal or lose the "Dora" gig.
The 35-page complaint goes into intricate detail about what allegedly happened. Representatives for the network are said to have made promises that Sanchez would reap substantial compensation from merchandising and residuals on the billion-dollar brand. Instead, Nickelodeon allegedly "used convoluted payment deduction clauses and additional free services provisions to underpay Caitlin for her acting and recordings, force her to work hundreds of hours marketing the Dora Brand for free ... and withhold her residual payments and merchandise percentages, all contrary to what she was originally promised."
The damages add up to "many million dollars," according to the lawsuit.
Actors without much leverage sign bad deals all the time, so what might make this lawsuit something to be taken seriously?
According to the girl's attorney, Balestriere Fariello, the contract was never submitted to a court for approval, as are most Hollywood deals involving minors.
Joel Hecker, an attorney at Russo & Burke in New York, says it is standard procedure for companies in New York to submit contracts with minors to a court for approval. Should a dispute ever arise over its validity, the contract is usually given the benefit of the doubt.
While Hecker said he would need to know all the facts, he labels Nickelodeon's possible failure to submit a contract with a minor to a court as "unprofessional."
A spokesperson for the network wouldn't comment on this aspect of the case or its protocol in handling contracts with minors. Instead, Nickelodeon issued this statement:
"The claims being made are baseless. Unfortunately, Caitlin's voice changed and she was no longer able to portray the Dora character, as happened with the actress who originated the role. Caitlin's contract was extensively negotiated through her agent and in compliance with her union. She was well compensated for her work and for personal appearances. We have enjoyed working with Caitlin on 'Dora the Explorer' these past three years, and we did in fact offer her a contract for other work with us."