Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green dismissed Ablene Cooper's lawsuit against The Help author Katie Stockett this morning. Judge Green ruled the statute of limitations for intentional infliction of emotional distress expired and Ms. Cooper had no recourse, even if the tort did occur. Kathryn Stockett did not attend the hearing in the spacious courtroom. Reporter Emeritus Jerry Mitchell even attended the hearing, lending an air of solemnity to the proceedings although the reporters from WJTV did their best to imitate two kids at McDonald's playland with their unprofessional behavior.
Ablene Cooper filed suit against Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, for $75,000 in damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, in Hinds County Circuit Court on February 11, 2011. Ms. Cooper worked as a maid in the home of Ms. Stockett's brother and also "served as a babysitter" for his child.
Ms. Cooper alleges she asked Ms. Stockett not to use her "name and likeness" in the novel and Ms. Stockett refused. Ms. Cooper claims "It has been emotionally upsetting and highly offensive to Ablene to be falsely portrayed in 'The Help' as an African-American maid in Jackson, Mississippi who uses this kind of language and compares her skin color to a cockroach" and that her "portrayal of Ablene in such a false light is highly offensive to a reasonable person." Ms. Cooper also states Ms. Stockett still refuses to acknowledge her misappropriation of Ms. Cooper's identity and treatment of her as well.
Ms. Stockett filed a motion for summary judgment on April 14, 2011. Ms. Stockett argued most, if not all, of Ms. Cooper's claims are barred by the statute of limitations. Ms. Cooper filed her lawsuit two years after publication of The Help. Ms. Stockett argues the torts of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress are subject to a statute of limitations period of one year. Ms. Stockett also claims the novel is not about Ms. Cooper but "is about a matter of public concern", race relations. Ms. Stockett opines to the court there is no way anyone could mistake the Abilene character for the real-life Ablene. She states "the first names are spelled differently", "the last names are different", and the character would be 102 years old today and thus no one would mistake a 102 year old lady for a middle-aged woman. Ms. Stockett also trots out the expected free speech arguments, again arguing the book is about a matter of "public concern" and is entitled to "special protection" under the first amendment. Ms. Stockett is represented by Fred Banks, a highly-esteemed lawyer who was the second black Justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Ms. Cooper responded with an answer to Ms. Stockett's motion filed on April 27. She claimed Ms. Stockett "fraudulently induced" her to "believe The Help was no big deal and the book was rejected no less than sixty times. The response includes a quotes from an 2009 interview (last page of documents posted below) with the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
"When I was writing this book I never thought anyone else would read it, so I didn't get real creative with the names. I just used people I knew. Some of them aren't talking to me right now, but I feel like they'll come around...."
"I was terrified when I realized it was going to be published."
Needless to say, Ms. Cooper used this statements to argue Ms. Stockett was terrified because she allegedly misappropriated identities and would be found out after publication. The rest of the response merely restates the alleged injuries and damages outlined in the complaint and Ms. Cooper's affidavit (The two documents are included in the linked posts below.).
The war of the motions continued in Ms. Stockett's reply to Ms. Cooper's reply to her reply to Ms. Cooper's lawsuit (sorry, could not resist). It argued Ms. Cooper "does not dispute the material facts" - one of them being the book was published before February 10, 2009. Ms. Stockett uses that date to argue the statute of limitations of one year had expired, thus depriving Ms. Cooper of her ability to sue. Ms. Stockett claims Ms. Cooper was put on notice when the author sent her a free copy of the book and said she told Ms. Cooper "her favorite character in the book was an African-American child-carer names Abileen who was born in 1911" and the character was based on Demetrie McLorn. Ms. Stockett states no concealment occurred and there was no "plan" to keep the plaintiff in the "dark about the contents of the novel." Indeed, Ms. Stockett calls Aibileen the heroine of the novel and one who is not demeaned in anyway by her portrayal.
Judge Green appeared in the courtroom without a copy of Leaves of Grass in her hand. She spoke in regular voice, avoiding the use of rhyme or iambic pentameter. Green immediately brought up the issue of whether the statute of limitations had expired. The jurist made a big deal out of the fact the author sent Ms. Cooper a copy of the book after the plaintiff's lawyer admitted she received a copy of the book in January 2009 from the author but then argued she was misled by Ms. Stockett's words and actions. He argued Ms. Stockett did not tell her the book was set in Jackson, did not mention the cockroach reference, and said the character was based on her favorite maid, Demetri.
The counsel for Ms. Cooper argued under a discovery rule a jury should determine whether the statute of limitations had expired. Judge Green replied "she does not have to be told and the issue was "when she should have known, not when she actually found out." "She may very well be the character" but that there was no "concealment" and "she could have read it". Judge Green ended her remarks by stating "your client had the information she needed to file" and dismissed the case.
Reaction of Ms. Cooper to decision:
Note: Here is