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'What You Need to Know' About Morality Clauses

By Steven Ellison, Esq. | Last updated on

You'd have to be living under a rock not to have heard of the recent scandal at ABC's “GMA3: What You Need to Know," the third hour of its popular morning show, “Good Morning America." ABC News recently took co-anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach off the air after photos came out of the two of them demonstrating a little too much PDA around New York City. Turns out they have been having an affair.

Holmes and Robach have since lawyered up and are preparing for a fight. The Disney-owned ABC News hasn't announced its plans for the pair's future with the network. But chances are even that ABC News will let the co-hosts go based on company policy and the “morality clauses" in their contracts.

We haven't seen the contracts, so we can only speculate about the terms. But the multitude of press reports may have you wondering, “What's a 'morality clause'?" And what happens if it's violated?

For those who have in fact been living under a rock, let's fill you in.

T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach: Do We Really Need to Know?

Holmes and Robach, along with Jennifer Ashton, have hosted “GMA3: What You Need to Know" for a couple of years. At the time they joined the show, Holmes was married to Atlanta-based attorney Marilee Fiebig, and Robach was married to former “Melrose Place" star Andrew Shue. Holmes and Robach developed a relationship that evolved into an extramarital affair.

They didn't really try to hide it, and the tabloids and social media went nuts. Photos of the pair holding hands and smooching in public were plastered all over the internet. After first saying that there would be no disciplinary action, ABC News head Kim Godwin responded to the outcry in early December by benching her two stars pending an internal investigation. Robach and Holmes have remained off air ever since.

If Robach and Holmes are fired, they won't go quietly. Holmes retained Hollywood civil litigator Andrew Brettler, and Robach retained Eric George, himself no stranger to celebrity lawsuits, to represent them. So far there has been no news about the status of ABC News' internal investigation or any negotiations amongst the lawyers.

Morality Clauses

As we said, we haven't seen Robach's and Holmes' contracts. But any lawyer representing ABC News would have made sure that those contracts contained language defining what could result in termination “for cause." One clause we'd expect to see would be a morality, also called a morals, clause.

Morality clauses have been a contractual staple in the entertainment industry for more than a century. Designed to curb immoral behavior by a star that might reflect poorly on an employer, a morality clause identifies conduct that would justify firing someone “for cause." They typically require good behavior on and off the set.

The U.S. Sun, which claims to have seen the contracts, reports (take this with a huge grain of salt, of course) that the contracts required Holmes and Robach to “act at all times with due regard to public morals and conventions." The language specified that they shall not do anything that brings either them or the network “into public disrepute, contempt, scandal, or ridicule" or harms the success of “GMA3." The alleged morality clauses allowed ABC News to terminate the contracts within 30 days of the bad conduct.

Did Robach and Holmes Violate the Morality Clause?

Let's say that the U.S. Sun got the language of the morality clause right. Robach and Holmes have to behave themselves in a way that won't reflect poorly on ABC News.

So did they?

That's a tough call, but our money is on the two co-stars. While some may strongly disagree, two consenting adults of equal power sleeping with each other doesn't reflect poorly on virtually anyone anymore (except Holmes' and Robach's spouses). Affairs happen all the time. According to the University of Utah's Department of Family and Consumer Studies, between 20 and 25% of married men cheat, and 10 to 15% of married women cheat. And those percentages may be higher with celebrities. Holmes and Robach could thus reasonably say that they didn't violate “public morals and conventions" and therefore cannot be fired “for cause."

That's not to say they can't be fired “without cause." Although most employment contracts are “at-will" (which means you can be fired for no reason at all), any lawyer worth their salt would have included language in Robach's and Holmes' contracts that defined what “termination without cause" means and what happens when one of the parties exercises this right.

Typically, this means money. The parties probably negotiated an amount that would be paid upon termination without cause. Given that they both retained lawyers, Robach and Holmes will likely try to renegotiate this amount should ABC News decide to let them go. The bottom line is that ABC News can fire Holmes and Robach — it will just have to pay them to do it.

It Always Comes Down to Money

ABC News has a business decision to make. It needs to figure out whether Robach and Holmes are worth more to it if they remain on air than if it lets them go. And if the U.S. Sun's report on the 30-day notice period is true, ABC News has to make this decision pretty quickly.

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