The iconic figure whose name is almost synonymous with Marvel Entertainment — perhaps the biggest name today in cinema — needs help. Stan Lee is the subject of three separate lawsuits that allege he is the victim of fraud and elder abuse. And these court filings may simply be the beginning of a much larger battle over his estate and the right to profit from Stan Lee’s name, image, likeness and more.
Throughout the lawsuits and surrounding controversy, there is one point that is certain. Stan Lee, now age 95, is susceptible to undue influence. His memory is poor – so bad that a detective’s report noted how he would often forget the name of his closest adviser. He has macular degeneration, leaving him with vision so faulty that he cannot read or drive. On top of that, Lee’s vision is impaired. Clearly, he cannot manage his affairs without help from others. In fact, he recently used social media to ask for help because his Facebook and Instagram accounts had been hacked.
Reality presents a much different image of Stan Lee than the comedic appearances he continues to make in Marvel blockbusters, including Infinity War, Black Panther and the latest movie, Ant Man & The Wasp.
Initially, Lee signed a power of attorney appointing a former publicist, Jerardo Olivarez, to make decisions for him. Olivarez acted as Lee’s caregiver and gatekeeper, helping to broker a deal that culminated in Lee’s business being sold and him signing over exclusive rights to his name, likeness, and image (to the extent not already assigned to Disney through the Marvel Entertainment). As widely reported in the media, a lawsuit was filed on Stan Lee’s behalf challenging the deal and accusing Olivarez and others of committing fraud. The lawsuit claims that Stan never would have knowingly signed over his exclusive rights, always wanting to keep the ability to manage his own publicity rights.
A separate lawsuit filed in Lee’s name also accuses Olivarez of fraud for other transactions. Olivarez received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Lee. Olivarez says they were gifts. Olivarez has also been accused of stealing the Marvel icon’s blood, to mix with ink to sell to fans.
Olivarez was replaced as Stan’s primary advisor by a collector named Keya Morgan. On June 10th, Stan described Morgan in a post on Twitter, which included Stan Lee speaking on video, as his partner, only representative, and business manager. But Morgan himself is the subject of a recent elder abuse prevention court proceeding. This new case, filed in Stan Lee’s name, resulted in a temporary restraining order requiring Morgan to stay away from Lee.
Morgan was recently arrested for filing a false police report after he called 911 to report an armed man threatening Stan Lee at his home. Reportedly, Morgan had a dispute with a security guard who refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement, prompting the 911 call. According to the New York Times, eight police units and a helicopter responded, but the security guard was released after police found no evidence of a crime. The elder abuse case was filed shortly afterwards.
J.C. Lee, Stan Lee’s only child and believed to be his sole heir, has also been in the picture. Former caregivers and staff have accused her of verbal and physical altercations with Stan and Joan, as well as being a big-spender, who Stan Lee worries will one day be penniless. She is said to have first worked with Morgan to oust Olivarez, and then turned on and ousted Morgan as well. She has not yet been directly involved in the various court cases filed.
As of now, Stan Lee is represented by an attorney who has recently been appointed to serve as Stan’s guardian ad litem. This means that the attorney can act on Stan’s behalf in the lawsuit he was appointed in, which so far appears only to be in the most-recent court case, filed against Morgan. A guardian ad litem would not normally have the broader ability to protect a vulnerable adult from others and help the person manage his or her affairs. However, according to the LA Times, the attorney appointed to fill that role released a statement saying he will work to protect Stan Lee and his assets, including from undue influence.
This appears to be a temporary measure, at best. The only way to truly protect Stan Lee would be through a conservatorship court proceeding (called guardianship in many states). While many people misunderstand and often malign the importance of guardianship and conservatorship court cases, they can be critically important to protect an elderly adult with physical and/or mental limitations from abuse, neglect, undue influence, or other harm. They have been used successfully in many celebrity cases, including Britney Spears, Mickey Rooney, Etta James, Brooke Astor, Casey Kasem and Groucho Marx.
While each of the three lawsuits has different sides to the story, Keya Morgan is a central figure in each one. He helped Stan Lee file the first two lawsuits for fraud, but then himself is accused of similar wrongdoing involving Lee in the third case. Regardless of whom is telling the truth – or whether the truth lies somewhere in the middle – it is beyond dispute that Lee needs help. Only with court involvement to appoint someone to act on his behalf in more than a temporary capacity, at least in financial and business matters, can Lee truly be saved.
A conservator – which could be an independent attorney, other professional, or someone that Stan Lee himself picks – would have full legal authority to make decisions for the legendary comic superhero inventor. The conservator would have to report to the court, giving a level of oversight that would help guard against undue influence. And it could be accomplished on a flexible basis. Important decisions, such as entering into contracts, could be restricted to requiring court approval. On the other hand, to the extent that Stan Lee can still make day-to-day decisions himself, he could still be permitted to do so. In other words, a conservatorship is not “all or nothing.” It can, and should, be limited to the extent that the help is truly needed, with more oversight required for important matters.
Without a conservatorship, Stan Lee can still be approached by those asking him for business deals, gifts of money, or other transactions. A guardian ad litem can try to keep them away, but has no legal authority to stop Stan Lee from signing documents or making gifts. Once a conservator is appointed, however, Stan Lee would not legally be able to enter into transactions without the conservator’s consent.
Stan Lee may be the father of modern-day superheroes (at least in the all-powerful Marvel universe), but at 95 years old, he needs the type of help that only a conservator can provide.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, television hosts and keynote speakers. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Be sure to check out their new TV show, Fortune Fights, on the REELZ channel.
For legal help in Michigan or elsewhere, or to learn more about their law practice, visit Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras.
[photo credit: Wikipedia]