While promoting his latest book, When Your Back’s Against the Wall, former NFL star Michael Oher leveled some shocking news about the fairy-tale life depicted in the Academy Award–winning movie The Blind Side.
In court papers filed on August 14, Oher states that he was not adopted as a teenager by Tennessee family Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, portrayed by Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw in the 2009 film. Instead, he says, he was placed in a conservatorship, unbeknownst to him. He claims that the conservatorship gave away his rights to sign contracts and to make education and medical decisions, potentially costing him millions. Oher is demanding a Tennessee judge immediately terminate the conservatorship that has been in place for almost 20 years.
But in court papers filed September 14 in Shelby County, Tennessee, the Tuohys “vehemently deny” they ever told Oher that they planned to legally adopt him. The Tuohys maintained in the papers that they have always felt that Oher was “like a son” but just “not in the legal sense.” They said the conservatorship only came about because the NCAA made it clear that the only way Oher could attend the University of Mississippi and play football was “if he was part of the Tuohy family in some fashion.”
“Conservatorship was the tool chosen to accomplish this goal,” the Tuohys stated in the court papers. “The conservatorship was formed for the sole purpose of giving [Oher] an opportunity to choose to go to the school of his choice including Ole Miss.”
Oher claimed that the conservatorship gave away his rights to sign contracts and to make education and medical decisions, potentially costing him millions. Oher is demanding a Tennessee judge immediately terminate the conservatorship, which has been in place for almost 20 years. The Tuohys said now that they won’t oppose his request.
“[The Tuohys] stand ready, willing and able to terminate the conservatorship by consent at any time,” according to court documents. Here’s everything to know about the ongoing legal case.
How did Michael Oher end up in a conservatorship?
Oher, now 37, said that despite having “no known physical or psychological disabilities,” the Tuohys presented him with conservatorship papers to sign when he was 18, after he had been living with them at their Memphis house for more than a year, according to his court papers. The Tuohys filed for the conservatorship over Oher in 2004 and the judge granted them “all powers of attorney to act on his behalf.” The conservatorship gave the Tuohys full and complete authority over Oher’s medical and educational decisions, and Oher was not allowed to enter into any contracts without their direct approval.
Throughout Oher’s football career, where he played primarily for the Baltimore Ravens, did he believe he was adopted by the Tuohys?
Oher said he believed up until February 2023 that the papers he signed were the equivalent of adoption papers. When he entered the Tuohy family household, Oher said he was told that they intended to legally adopt him and instructed him to call them “Mom” and “Dad.” Up until that point, Oher’s life had been far from stable. He was placed in foster care when he was 11 years old, attended 11 schools in nine years, and eventually ended up homeless for a time. He was introduced to the Tuohys through a family acquaintance; they took him into their “large, beautiful home” and went out with him on shopping trips. Shortly after Oher moved in, he said they presented him with the conservatorship papers but told him that because he was over the age of 18, “the legal action to adopt Michael would have to be called a ‘conservatorship,’ but that it was, for all intents and purposes, an adoption.”
The Tuohys, he said, saw him as “a gullible young man whose athletic talent could be exploited for their own benefit,” according to Oher’s court papers filed in Shelby County Tennessee Probate court. “Michael did not understand that if the conservatorship was granted, he was signing away his right to contract for himself.”
Oher is demanding that the court immediately terminate his conservatorship and order the Tuohys to stop using his name and likeness to promote their foundation. He is also demanding an accounting to be conducted, saying that Tuohy family, including their children Sean and Collins, negotiated the rights to the movie with 20th Century Fox, each receiving $225,000 plus 2.5 percent of all future profits of the movie, which went on to gross more than $330 million. He accused the family of reaping millions while he received nothing for his story.
How have the Tuohys responded?
Martin Singer, attorney for Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, released a scathing statement denying any wrongdoing on behalf of the family. The statement, in which the Tuohys still refer to Oher as their “son,” said the family made hundreds of millions in the restaurant business and that the claims that they would disgorge money from Oher were “hurtful and absurd.”
“The notion that a couple worth hundreds of millions of dollars would connive to withhold a few thousand dollars in profit participation payments from anyone — let alone from someone they loved as a son — defies belief,” Singer said in a statement provided to Vulture. “In reality, the Tuohys opened their home to Mr. Oher, offered him structure, support, and, most of all, unconditional love. They have consistently treated him like a son and one of their three children. His response was to threaten them, including saying that he would plant a negative story about them in the press unless they paid him $15 million.”
Singer said that over the years, the Tuohys have given Oher “an equal cut of every penny received from The Blind Side” and were upfront with Oher about the conservatorship being needed to help him get health insurance, obtain a driver’s license, and apply for college. They accuse Oher of leveling these allegations and filing “his ludicrous lawsuit” to drum up attention during his latest book tour.
“Mr. Tuohy sold his company for $220 million; he didn’t need Mr. Oher’s money,” Steve Farese, another lawyer for the Tuohy family, stated in a press conference on August 16. ”We are not going to be strong-armed. We haven’t done anything. We are not going to be extorted.”
Author Michael Lewis, whose 2007 book The Blind Side inspired the film, told the Washington Post in a recent interview that, while Oher maintains that the Tuohys each received $250,000 plus 2.5 percent of the film’s “defined net profits,” no one saw money from the film but the studios. Lewis told the Post that 20th Century Fox paid him $250,000 for the option to make the movie, which he said he split 50-50 with the Tuohy family. Lewis said after taxes and agent fees, he received only $70,000.
What do legal experts think about the Tuohys putting Oher in a conservatorship versus adopting him?
First, you can adopt someone over the age of 18 in Tennessee. While many states do not permit adoptions of a person over the age of 18, Tennessee does allow adult adoptions regardless of a person’s age. Adoption attorney Marissa Moses Russ said adult adoptions are typically symbolic and for personal reasons, but they grant the adoptee full rights to inherit directly from the estate.
So why was a conservatorship over Oher granted in the first place?
According to Tennessee state law, there needs to be some sort of disability that leads to an incapacity whereby that person cannot make decisions for themselves for a conservatorship to be granted, according to Amy Willoughby Bryant, director of the office of conservatorship and management for the Metropolitan Government of Nashville. Conservatorships also are legally required in the state to file annual status reports, which Oher said never took place. Conservatorship attorney Susan Mee, who practices in Tennessee, said having a conservatorship over a person is a pretty serious step, as it takes away the person’s fundamental rights. The conservatee must demonstrate they have a disability and a real need for care and supervision by the court.
“It’s got to be based on a lack of capacity,” Mee said.
For Mee, Oher’s conservatorship is so strange because it specifically states in the petition that he doesn’t suffer from any physical or psychological disability.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Mee said. “I don’t understand why a conservatorship would’ve been granted based on no finding of disability.”
Sarah Wentz at Fox Rothschild said the Tuohys could have chosen something less restrictive, such as getting a power of attorney over Oher if he wanted them to help him look over contracts or sign on his behalf.
“It just seems like under Tennessee law, there’s no reason this should have ever been in place,” Wentz said. “I think there’s no question that they’ll terminate it, but the real question will be what were the damages over the course of the conservatorship?”
Oher has dispatched subpoenas demanding that the Memphis Shelby County Schools, Creative Artist Agency (CAA), 20th Century Studios, and Alcon Entertainment hand over any documents, texts, and emails related to the Tuohy family, The Blind Side, and the Tuohys’ Make It Happen Foundation. He has demanded a jury trial be held.
In their recent filing, the Tuohys said they won’t oppose Oher’s request to terminate the conservatorship. As for the money received from the hit movie The Blind Side, the Tuohys maintain they received something less than $225,000, a portion of the money paid to author Michael Lewis, who wrote the book. Each member of the Tuohy family, including Oher, received 20 percent of any proceeds paid from the movie. The Tuohys also claim they even paid Oher’s taxes on his portion of the proceeds so it would amount to the full 20 percent. Vulture reached out for comment.
The family have said that they are “heartbroken” and have no intention of opposing Oher in his bid to end the conservatorship. Meanwhile, Oher has been traveling around the country promoting his new book.
“They desperately hope that he comes to regret his recent decisions, makes different choices in the future, and that someday they can be reconciled with him. In the meantime, however, they will not hesitate to defend their good names, stand up to this shakedown, and defeat this offensive lawsuit,” Singer stated on behalf of the Tuohys.