In 2004, when Michael Oher was a coveted college football recruit, the 18-year-old high schooler agreed in court to allow the Memphis couple he lived with to make decisions for him about signing contracts and any medical issues.
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy had taken in Oher, who had been in the Tennessee foster care system and at one point lived on the streets. The judge-approved agreement, called a conservatorship, was made with the permission of Oher’s biological mother and inked about two months before Oher signed to play offensive line for Ole Miss, where Sean Tuohy had been a standout basketball player.
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Nineteen years later, Oher has asked for the agreement to end in a probate court filing accusing the Tuohys of enriching themselves at his expense and lying to him by having him sign papers making them his conservators rather than his adoptive parents. Oher, who played eight NFL seasons, claims the Tuohys never took legal action to assume custody before he turned 18, though he was told to call them “Mom” and “Dad.”
The demand by Oher, whose life story was turned into the Oscar-nominated film “The Blind Side,” has led to scrutiny of the Tuohys and of the agreement itself, with one expert questioning how a judge approved it.
“There are a lot of not just unusual, but shocking and maybe never before seen things, for even attorneys experienced in this area,” said Victoria Haneman, a professor of trusts and estates at the Creighton University School of Law.
Now 37, Oher seeks a full accounting of assets, considering his life story produced millions of dollars, though he says he received nothing from the movie. He accuses the Tuohys of falsely representing themselves as his adoptive parents, saying he only discovered in February that the conservatorship provided him no familial relationship to them.
The Tuohys said they loved Oher like a son and supported him when he lived with them and when he was in college. They are devastated by accusations by Oher, who has been estranged from them for about a decade, their lawyers say.
In Tennessee, a conservatorship removes power from a person to make decisions for themselves, and it is often used in the case of a medical condition or disability. But Oher’s conservatorship was approved “despite the fact that he was over 18 years old and had no diagnosed physical or psychological disabilities,” his petition said.
The Tuohys said they set up the conservatorship to help Oher with health insurance, a driver’s license and being admitted to college. Their lawyers said in a news conference Wednesday that the Tuohys never received money from Oher’s NFL contracts or shoe deals and they split money from “The Blind Side,” which earned the couple, their two children and Oher an estimated $100,000 apiece.
The Tuohys didn’t instead adopt Oher because the conservatorship was the fastest way to satisfy the NCAA’s concerns that the Tuohys weren’t simply steering a talented athlete to Ole Miss, lawyer Randall Fishman said.
“There was one thing to accomplish, and that was to make him part of the family, so that the NCAA would be satisfied because Sean would have been a booster of the university,” Fishman said.
The Tuohys’ lawyers said they intend to end the conservatorship and that the accounting Oher asked for would not be difficult.
Still, how the agreement was reached raised concerns for Haneman, the Creighton professor.
“I am frankly floored that any judge allowed them to use the conservatorship in this way, you know, with the purpose of circumventing NCAA rules,” she said.
Haneman also questioned why the conservatorship didn’t include a medical affidavit showing disability, or the appointment of a guardian ad litem who would protect Oher and provide an “independent set of eyes.” Both are typically part of conservatorships, she said.
Haneman said there were other legal options available, such as power of attorney, that would not have stripped Oher of his “legal capacity.”
“At the end of the day, you do not put an adult in a conservatorship because they need help with a driver’s license or college applications,” Haneman said.
Fishman said the medical affidavit wasn’t needed because Oher didn’t have mental or physical disabilities. Also, Oher had no assets to be accounted for, and the Tuohys were only made “conservator of the person.”
“People have been saying, ‘Well, you’ve got to have some kind of issue to be a ward in a conservatorship,’” Fishman said Thursday. “That’s just not true. He just needed some guidance and that’s why the court did it.”
Fishman said the guardian issue was waived because Oher was 18 and his mother consented.
Another Tuohy attorney, Martin Singer, said in a statement that profit participation checks and studio accounting statements support the assertions that Oher received money from the film.
When Oher refused to cash the checks, the statement said, the Tuohys deposited Oher’s share into a trust account for his son.
The couple said agents negotiated the advance for the Tuohys and Oher from the production company for “The Blind Side,” based on a book written by Sean Tuohy’s friend Michael Lewis.
Lewis told The Washington Post that no one involved in the book received millions of dollars. Regarding money made off the profits from the film, which raked in hundreds of millions of dollars, Lewis said that he and the Tuohy family each received around $350,000 after taxes and agent fees.
“It’s outrageous how Hollywood accounting works, but the money is not in the Tuohys’ pockets,” Lewis told the newspaper in an interview published Wednesday.
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People depicted in biopics typically do not make a lot of money because they have little bearing on a movie’s success, said Julie Shapiro, director of the Entertainment and Media Law Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“Most often, it’s the actors, director and screenwriters who determine the financial success of a project,” Shapiro said. Studios do not need to acquire someone’s “life rights” to tell a story. But they often do it to prevent lawsuits, she said.
The petition by Oher, who has never been a fan of the movie about his life, asks that the Tuohys be sanctioned and pay damages.
Some have questioned why the Tuohys didn’t simply adopt Oher as an adult.
“There’s no really clear answer as to what the legal obstacle was for them to complete the adoption,” Haneman said. “They did say (Wednesday) that it was a timing issue, but that timing issue would not have prevented them from completing the adoption while he was at Ole Miss.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.