An attorney for rapper T.I. and his wife, Tiny Harris, greeted an Orange County federal jury this week with the proclamation: “It’s high time you meet the OMG Girlz.”
Trial lawyer David Scheper showed up to court ready to deliver. Over the next 40 minutes, he told the eight jurors how Tiny and her daughter, Zonnique Pullins, built the girls’ music group “from literally a mom and daughter shop in 2009 into a national sensation just a few years later,” only to have their likeness stolen by corporate toy designers who profited tremendously.
Scheper displayed photos of Zonnique and her friends, Bahja Rodriguez and Breeuna Womack, as the OMG Girlz, alongside dolls with matching hair and outfits and played music videos on courtroom TV screens and described a 2017 reunion he said clearly inspired MGA Entertainment to start the line of dolls. The company’s toy, called the OMG Dolls, debuted less than two years later.
“Two things will not be disputed: Isaac Larian and MGA have sold a lot of OMG dolls,” Scheper said, as MGA’s billionaire CEO, sat nearby. “And the OMG Girlz and their family have never asked for permission, never given permission and never made a penny from all those sales.”
Scheper hasn’t told jurors how much money he’ll ask them to award; however, MGA’s lawyer made it abundantly clear to the court that the company feels any amount is undeserved.
“This case is about greed. That’s what it’s about. It’s a shakedown,” said attorney Jennifer Keller.
Referring to them as “the Hustle parties,” Keller said T.I. and Tiny’s companies Grand Hustle LLC and Pre Hustle LLC want tens of millions of dollars “for doing absolutely nothing. And I mean nothing.” Keller told the jury that they had merely copied a look that had originated years earlier when MGA released its popular Bratz dolls.
“We’re going to show that the OMG Girlz actually copied us, and now complain we look like them. They were trend followers, not trendsetters,” Keller told the jury in the courtroom of Senior U.S. District Judge James V. Selna.
The expected three-week trial will give the jury of eight a detailed look at how MGA designed 31 dolls from its blockbuster LOL Surprise OMG Dolls they will also be introduced to one of the hip-hop industry’s power couples.
Harris’s daughter, Zonnique Pullins, took the stand Wednesday as the first witness, describing how the OMG Girlz became wildly popular on social media and in person. “We were surprised how our fans acted, crying and passing you,” she told the court.
Harris, who rose to fame in the 1990s as a member of the R&B group Xscape, took the stand Thursday afternoon. T.I., a three-time Grammy winner and 19-time nominee, will also testify during the trial. But jurors have already briefly heard from the star, as Keller played a portion of his deposition in her opening statement after asserting that the plaintiffs do not appear to be taking the case seriously.
In the video, a confident and relaxed T.I. is asked if OMG Girlz has released music since 2015. “I don’t know,” the rapper replies, in what sounds like the organic beginnings of a new song. Asked when they last recorded new music, T.I. again raps, “I. Don’t. Know.” Judge Selna allowed his answers to be played for the jury but decided another section in which he seems to mock the questioning with a song should not be viewed in court.
The jury, older and mostly white, will be asked to award punitive damages along with a portion of MGA’s doll profits.
T.I. ‘s legal team has said that a key moment in the controversy occurred on New Year’s Eve 2017 when OMG Girlz united with Xscape on stage in Atlanta To huge audience adoration. Someone in MGA had to have been watching, their attorneys say, because the OMG Girls toy was released less than two years later, with hair colors and outfits similar to those worn that night. Scheper described the “audacious” behavior from the company as, when confronted, it denied any resemblance between the group and the dolls, then released another line after T.I.’s lawyers sent the company a letter requesting they stop selling the dolls or agree to share the profits.
He and his co-counsel also have emphasized that MGA initiated the case when it filed a lawsuit seeking a judge’s order that it doesn’t owe anything to T.I. and Tiny or their companies
But MGA’s lawyers have emphasized the company was responding to the couple’s cease-and-desist letter that included a demand for money, and worked to portray T.I., Tiny and Zonnique as self-absorbed and somewhat delusional about the influence the OMG Girlz had on popular culture. Keller questioned Zonnique for hours on Wednesday and Thursday about her music, social media postings and their appropriateness for children, including her use of the word “bitch” and the n-word in songs.
Zonnique, 26, emphasized that her music now is aimed at an older audience. Her time on the witness stand included extensive questioning about other musicians that Keller said have characteristics similar to the dolls, such as Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and TLC.
Keller questioned Zonnique about specific OMG dolls she says are modeled after her, including one named Bahd Gurl and one that comes with bits of police tape. Another doll named Punk Girl has blue hair that Zonnique said was inspired by her OMG Girlz look, and it’s packaged with a long-haired male doll named Rocker Boy; believes this is modeled off her former boyfriend, she testified.Selna wouldn’t allow questions to Zonnique about T.I.’s lyrics, nor would he allow MGA’s lawyers to play clips from T.I. and Tiny: Friends & Family Hustle mentioning his ear in federal prison for a gun conviction. The judge also won’t allow questions about T.I. taking his daughter to a gynecologist for a yearly virginity examination, which sparked public controversy
T.I. is expected to take the stand on Jan. 27.