Actor James Franco agrees to pay $3m to settle sexual misconduct and fraud lawsuits

James Franco is accused in the lawsuit of subjecting women to personal and professional sexual exploitation in the name of education. PHOTO: JAMES FRANCO/INSTAGRAM

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) - American actor James Franco has agreed to pay more than US$2.2 million ($3 million) to settle a pair of lawsuits, including one from two former students of his acting school who said he had subjected them to sexually exploitative auditions and film shoots.

The proposed settlement, which awaits a judge's approval, would also settle a class-action lawsuit brought by students at the acting school who said they were defrauded.

The proposed settlement was detailed in papers filed last week with the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. The terms were agreed to by the various parties in February, though the details were not released at the time.

The total amount in the proposed settlement is US$2,235,000, according to the court documents, US$894,000 of which would go to settle the sexual exploitation claims; the remaining US$1,341,000 would settle fraud claims from about 1,500 students who paid for classes at the acting school.

As part of the proposed settlement, Franco, 43, did not admit any wrongdoing.

The proposed settlement also includes a joint statement from the plaintiffs and the defendants that said, in part, "While Defendants 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."

Telephone and e-mail messages sent to Franco's lawyer on Wednesday (June 30) were not immediately returned. Lawyers for the plaintiffs referred questions to a spokesman, who declined to comment beyond the joint statement.

Franco's production company, Rabbit Bandini, and his business partners, Vince Jolivette and Jay Davis, were also named in the lawsuits. Email messages sent to their lawyers were not immediately returned on Wednesday.

As part of the proposed settlement, one plaintiff, Ms Sarah Tither-Kaplan, would receive US$670,500, minus US$223,000 that would be paid to her lawyers, according to court records. Another plaintiff, Ms Toni Gaal, would receive US$223,500, minus US$74,500 that would be paid to her lawyers.

Ms Tither-Kaplan and Ms Gaal claimed in a 2019 lawsuit that Franco had intimidated them into performing gratuitous sex scenes while denying them the protections of nudity riders when they were students in a master class on sex scenes at his school, Studio 4, which operated from 2014 to 2017 and had branches in Los Angeles and New York.

Franco, the lawsuit said, "sought to create a pipeline of young women who were subjected to his personal and professional sexual exploitation in the name of education".

The two women said that those who cooperated were led to believe that doing so would land them roles in Franco's films.

A lawyer for Franco, Mr Michael Plonsker, previously called the lawsuit by Ms Tither-Kaplan and Ms Gaal "ill-informed" and said that his client would defend himself and "also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity-seeking lawsuit".

After lawyers' fees and other costs, the other plaintiffs who paid for classes at the school would share in the remaining US$827,045, according to the proposed settlement.

Other non-economic aspects of the settlement have "been presented to the Court under seal for review and approval", the documents say.

This was not the first time that Franco, who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in 127 Hours (2010), had been accused of inappropriate behaviour.

In 2014, messages that he exchanged over Instagram with a 17-year-old girl were shared online, and Franco acknowledged that he had tried to pick up the girl.

In 2018, five women - one of them is Ms Tither-Kaplan - described what they said was Franco's pattern of inappropriate or sexually exploitative behaviour.

In public appearances, Franco has sought to portray himself as an ally of women speaking out against sexual abuse, and has said that he was open to making amends where appropriate.

In a January 2018 interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Franco said: "If there's restitution to be made, I will make it. I'm here to listen and learn and change my perspective where it's off."

In May, comedic actor Seth Rogen cited the allegations against Franco, a longtime friend and collaborator, and said he had no plans to work with him again.

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