A UCR Alumna is suing the Regents of the University of California for emotional distress and negligence, alleging that her former professor used her songs, stories and likeness for her own personal and capital gain.
In Spring 2013, 29-year-old Ashanti McMillon was enrolled in professor Setsu Shigetmatsu’s MCS 190 Special Studies course where she assisted in the development of the Guardian Princess Alliance, an educational media company whose mission was to transform the cultural meaning of the female hero. The Guardian Princess Alliance has released several books depicting stories of racially and culturally diverse super heroines, the first two of which McMillon is listed as a primary author. In the lawsuit, however, McMillon claims that she was shut out from the business in 2015 and has failed to receive proper compensation for her work on the project.
McMillon’s attorneys filed the initial lawsuit on her behalf on Aug. 13, seeking punitive damages, paid medical and professional expenses and compensation for loss of earnings and opportunity. The UC Regents, Professor Shigematsu, her husband and colleague Dylan Rodriguez, and Shigematsu’s non-profit organization, S.T.R.O.N.G. Edutainment — previously renamed from Guardian Princess Alliance — are all defendants named in the case.
A hearing is scheduled to take place on Dec. 4 before Judge John W. Holcomb to review the dismissals issued by the UC Regents and the defendants.
The lawsuit details McMillon’s two-year-long contribution to the Guardian Princess Alliance that began during Shigematsu’s special studies course, MCS 190. In the class, according to the lawsuit, students were promised they would receive royalties, future compensation for their work and have the opportunity to reach top level, lucrative positions within the company. “Shigematsu used this course to obtain free student labor to jumpstart capital resources and content for her own company,” the lawsuit states. McMillon contends that her copyrighted stories and songs she wrote for the series were grossly misused by Shigematsu and in turn caused her extreme anxiety and depression that required treatment and counseling.
McMillon alleged that Shigematsu promised her a full stake in Guardian Princess Alliance but never delivered on those claims. “This professor took advantage of my trust,” McMillon said in an Oct. 20 phone interview with the Atlanta Black Star. In a Nov. 17 email with The Highlander, McMillon declined to comment further on the details surrounding the case.
The two books authored by McMillon, “Princess Vinnea and the Gulavores” and “Princess Mariana and Lixo Island,” are still currently being sold on Amazon; the music video for the song “My True Heart,” written by McMillon, was also recently removed from the Guardian Princesses YouTube channel.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, attorneys from UC Regents and Shigematsu filed motions to dismiss McMillon’s claims, stating that most are barred by a statute of limitations and “devoid of facts sufficient to state a claim against defendants.”
Representatives from the UC Regents and Professor Shigematsu declined The Highlander’s request for comment. However, Brian T. Hafter, the attorney representing the Regents of the UC stated in his Oct. 20 motion that the case was the epitome of “too little, too late.”
Wallenius and Banos, the attorneys representing McMillon, filed an opposition to the dismissals laid out by both the UC Regents and Shigematsu. According to the opposition, McMillon’s case surpasses the statute of limitations because her claims include all necessary elements against the defendants but also, “states the conduct, motive and the intent of the defendants,” according to the requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 8.
Both parties will argue their respective dismissals and oppositions during the Dec. 4 hearing.
On Nov. 16, the attorneys representing Shigematsu, Rodriguez and S.T.R.O.N.G. Edutainment addressed a letter to the Atlanta Black Star requesting to retract the title of an article written about the lawsuit, claiming it was defamatory and causing Professor Shigematsu “considerable harm.” The article was previously titled “‘To be treated like a slave is wrong’: Black California woman accuses former professor of using ‘free student labor’ to steal, profit off her work; files lawsuit” and was changed soon after to “Black California woman files lawsuit against former professor for allegedly stealing her work.” The letter stated, “Professor Shigematsu has not engaged in any activity that bears any resemblance to slavery,” and then detailed the long standing work Shigematsu and Rodriguez have done to promote social movements such as Black liberation. Shigematsu also shared details of her previous experience working with the Los Angeles chapter of Critical Resistance. Founded by Angela Davis, Critical Resistance aims to end the Prison Industrial Complex and policing.
The opposition from McMillon’s attorneys also states that the university is vicariously liable for the acts of Shigematsu and Rodgriguez, claiming that UCR was made aware of Professor Shigematsu turning her MCS 190 course into an “intellectual property sweatshop.” The opposition refers to a whistleblower complaint submitted by McMillon on March 15, 2018 against Shigematsu, Rodriguez and other UCR faculty.
“Since 2012, self-proclaimed activist Professor Shigematsu has exploited students on and off-campus to develop her for-profit private company, Guardian Princess Alliance, LLC.,” the complaint stated. According to McMillon, Shigematsu’s actions were purposely overlooked and undisclosed by the university. “I am now stepping forward to prevent her from devastating the lives of other students, the way she has devastated my life,” she said.
This is not the first time complaints have been filed against Shigematsu. One student, who chose to remain anonymous at the time of writing, spoke to The Highlander about the alleged abuse she faced from Shigematsu during their time in her class and agreed with Ashanti’s claims. “There are so many people who know this situation very well and they are just … making a run for it,” they said.
This story is ongoing and The Highlander will continue to provide updates as the story unfolds.
Editors note: A previous version of this article was edited to clarify that the prior complaints against Professor Shigematsu are allegations and to include links to the lawsuit, dismissals and oppositions. The article has also been edited to clarify that Rodriguez is not affiliated with S.T.R.O.N.G Edutainment.