A Toast to 50 Cent’s New Series: Power

The rap artist 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, is producing a new series on STARZ called Power. Famed for his entrepreneurial skills in hip-hop and business, not to be overlooked is his important contribution to contract law and knowledge.  Thanks to an intense dispute with his girlfriend a decade ago, students and lawyers have been treated to a saga 50 Cent endured that illuminates the nature of contracts—of legally enforceable bargains. In a tribute to his latest venture, herewith an account of this case from my book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter (Cambridge University Press 2012).

Jackson secured his first recording contract in October 2003. It came with a $300,000 advance.  To boost his professional image as a rapper, he bought a Hummer and a Connecticut mansion once owned by boxer Mike Tyson. The mansion boasted a state-of-the-art recording studio and the rapper hired a full-time caretaker and professional cleaning crew to maintain it.    In 2004 Jackson bought another house in Valley Stream, the small village in New York’s Nassau County where his grandmother lived; in December 2006, he added to his real estate holdings a $2 million house at 2 Sandra Lane, Dix Hills, on Long Island, New York. By then, he had sold tens of millions of recordings, toured the world, and amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in net worth, as chronicled in his 2005 autobiographical film, “Get Rich, or Die Tryin.”  

This success came after hard knocks. Jackson had dealt crack cocaine as a teenager. In 1995, at age 20, he was released from jail and became involved with Shaniqua Tompkins in his hometown of Jamaica in Queens, New York. The two had a son, Marquise, out of wedlock in 1996. Jackson and Tompkins had no money and no real home—living with his grandmother or hers.     In May 2000, Jackson nearly died when he was shot nine times during a gangland ambush. He was in the hospital for weeks, followed by months of rehab spent at his mother’s house, near the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Though before the shooting Jackson had been negotiating with Columbia Records, the record company stopped returning his calls.

Jackson, however, persevered. In November 2001, he launched a recording company, Rotten Apple Records. The rising rap star Eminem brought Jackson’s 2002 self-produced record to the industry’s attention.  As a result, Interscope Records offered Jackson the 2003 deal that propelled him to fame and fortune. With money flowing in and Jackson leading the high life, Tompkins asserted her right to a share. But Jackson’s relationship with Tompkins was tumultuous. They did not always live together and fought often, sometimes physically.

When Jackson bought the Dix Hills house in 2006, both agreed it was the best place to raise Marquise, then almost 10-years-old, and Tompkins pled with Jackson to put it in her name. Though Jackson promised to do so, he never did. After the relationship soured, Jackson tried to evict Tompkins from the Dix Hills house.  During that battle, the house burned to the ground under circumstances that authorities considered suspicious. The house had been insured against fire, but the policy lapsed for non-payment of the premium a few weeks before. In response to Jackson’s eviction lawsuit, Tompkins asserted a claim of her own: that the two had a contract entitling her to $50 million.

Tompkins claimed that in September 1996, one month before Marquise was born, she and Jackson made a deal. She claimed that Jackson promised her, in exchange for putting up with him and helping him through tough times, that when he “makes it big” he would take care of her for the “rest of her life,” sharing everything he ever owns equally. They were “down for life,” Tompkins recalls Jackson saying. In exchange, Tompkins said, she agreed to support him until he “got it together.” Tompkins alleged that formed a binding contract. She elaborated:

            I agreed to continue to live with him, maintain his home, perform homemaking and domestic services for him as well as support him mentally, emotionally and financially to the best of my abilities. I also agreed to accompany him to social and other events . . . . Jackson agreed that he would vigorously pursue a professional recording career with the understanding that our combined efforts could result in the accumulation of substantial wealth and assets that we would divide and share equally.

Tompkins said they were in love at that time. She explained:

             He was a corner crack dealer parolee. He did not have anything. . . . So I was going to be with him whether he was 50 Cent, with a hundred million dollars, or Curtis Jackson, working for sanitation, making $50,000 a year. I would have been with him, because I loved him. It was not about him saying that he would give me everything he had. It is when you love a person, you don’t—it is not about the monetary. If you’re a prostitute, then it is a monetary thing. We were two people in love with each other.

Jackson denied making any lifetime promise and argued that, even if he had, it was unenforceable. Instead, Jackson argued, these were expressions of support by unmarried lovers. Their commitments sprung from mutual regard and affection—not money—and even if done for money, they resembled arrangements law historically frowned upon.   Jackson could cite many precedents, from decades earlier, that refused to enforce as contracts agreements between paramours (unmarried cohabitants). Tompkins countered that the deal went beyond ordinary domestic management and could cite other, more modern cases recognizing the enforceability of contracts between unmarried cohabitants. The Jackson-Tompkins dispute was thus wedged between these lines of authority.

Before the 1960’s, courts were disinclined to enforce contracts like this, for the two reasons Jackson urged. Well into the twentieth century, a social stigma attached to unmarried cohabitation and law reflected that distaste by refusing to recognize bargains made in those settings as valid contracts.    The law’s discomfort around these types of bargains stemmed from concerns about whether the deal was disguised prostitution. Early cases called such consideration—money for sex—meretricious, referring to a harlot’s traits. Because prostitution was and remains illegal by statute throughout the United States, courts refuse to enforce these contracts; this repugnance extended to include deals made among unmarried cohabitants.   Social norms have, of course, evolved. Pejoratives such as meretricious and the association of such living arrangements with prostitution are outdated. Even so, resulting legal change is halting and varies among states. The most hospitable stance appears in a famous, trailblazing and controversial California case from 1966.

Actor Lee Marvin had lived for seven years with a paramour, Michelle Triola, while the two shared duties and wealth. After they split, Lee refused to pay more and Michelle sued. Though Michelle could not identify any express contract or promise between the two, the California Supreme Court recognized an implied obligation of mutual support—treating the arrangement akin to how law traditionally treats married couples when divorcing.      Though not all states follow that approach, most, like New York, where Jackson and Tompkins disputed, have reversed the historical hostility toward unmarried cohabitation so that such contracts are not automatically invalid. Most states now regard express contracts in these settings as they do others, enforcing those supported by consideration and manifest mutual assent to be bound.  But relics of the past persist. Courts struggle in paramour cases to determine whether the evidence shows a bargain. They must discern whether promises were made with or without expectation of payment and whether primarily out of love and affection or with an intention to make a deal.

Jackson argued that the arrangement Tompkins asserted was all about love and personal affection and not any sort of exchange transaction intended as an enforceable bargain. The promises Tompkins made addressed daily attention, support, companionship and household chores; in exchange, Jackson promised to take care of her for life. Those are the things couples do for each other in day-to-day living without intending, expecting, or manifesting a bargain.    Tompkins contended the deal was not only about love but also amounted to a bargain, noting that Jackson’s promise did not depend on whether the two were living together or involved romantically. Though originating in love, the promises were a bargained-for-exchange, she argued.  The court ultimately sided with Jackson, drawing on this writing from the leading New York case, Marone v. Marone, 413 N.E.2d 1154 (N.Y. 1980):

            As a matter of human experience personal services will frequently be rendered by two people . . . because they value each other’s company, or because they find it a convenient or rewarding thing to do. For courts to attempt through hindsight to sort out the intentions of the parties and affix [legal] significance to conduct carried out within an essentially private and generally non-contractual relationship runs too great a risk of error. . . . There is, therefore, substantially greater risk of emotion-laden afterthought, not to mention fraud, in attempting to ascertain by implication what services, if any, were rendered gratuitously and what compensation, if any, the parties intended to be paid.

Applying those insights to the dispute between Tompkins and Jackson, the court concluded:

 Providing loving care and assistance to her boyfriend and the father of their son before and after he was shot and seriously injured, does not transform her relationship to one founded upon contract. To conclude otherwise would transform the parties’ personal, yet informal relationship to that of a marriage.

Though the Lee Marvin case in California approved exactly that result, it is not followed in New York or most states, which treat the cases like other contract cases, not like typical divorce cases. And that meant there was yet another reason that Tompkins’ claim failed: Jackson’s asserted promise, speaking only of “care for life,” lacked definiteness, an essential element of a contract. The vagueness signals that the parties were expressing wishes, hopes, and feelings, not forming expectations of remuneration for services rendered. As the judge put it, this was an “unfortunate tale of a love relationship gone sour.”

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