James Franco is being sued by two former acting students who claim he sexually exploited them

By Alexia Fernandez
October 03, 2019 05:20 PM

James Franco is being sued by two women who claim they were sexually exploited by his now-defunct acting school.

Sarah Tither-Kaplan and Toni Gaal have filed a lawsuit against the actor, 41, claiming he and his business partners “engaged in widespread inappropriate and sexually charged behavior towards female students by sexualizing their power as a teacher and an employer by dangling the opportunity for roles in their projects,” according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE.

The two allege the circumstances “led to an environment of harassment and sexual exploitation both in and out of the class.” They’re suing Franco for sex discrimination, sexual harassment and fraud, among other allegations.

Franco’s attorney, Michael Plonsker, released a statement obtained by PEOPLE denying the allegations on behalf of the actor.

“This is not the first time that these claims have been made and they have already been debunked,” the statement read. “We have not had an opportunity to review the ill-informed Complaint in-depth since it was leaked to the press before it was filed and our client has yet to even be served.  James will not only fully defend himself, but will also seek damages from the plaintiffs and their attorneys for filing this scurrilous publicity-seeking lawsuit.”

James Franco
Kevin Winter/Getty

The Oscar nominee opened his acting school, Playhouse West Studio 4, in 2014 before it closed in 2017.

Tither-Kaplan accused Franco of sexually exploiting her in January 2018 alongside four other women in an article published by The Los Angeles Times

She claimed to the newspaper that Franco removed safety guards while filming an oral sex scene on the set of the 2015 film The Long Home.

“I got it in my head pretty quickly that, OK, you don’t say ‘no’ to this guy,” she said. “I feel there was an abuse of power, and there was a culture of exploiting non-celebrity women and a culture of women being replaceable.”

RELATED: Two James Franco Accusers Call for Actor to ‘Apologize’ in New Interview

That same month, Tither-Kaplan told Good Morning America Franco “abused his power by exploiting the non-celebrity women that he worked with under the guise of giving them opportunities.”

“Being an actor and a filmmaker and working in the industry has been my dream since I was, like, maybe five or six and I knew that by coming forward I was risking my career,” she said.

Two other former students claimed the actor would become angry onset if they refused to film scenes topless.

Plonsker previously denied each of the women’s allegations at the time and cited Franco’s comments on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on January 2018 as his formal denial.

“Look, in my life I pride myself on taking responsibility for things that I have done,” he told Colbert. “I have to do that to maintain my well-being. The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long. So I don’t want to shut them down in any way.”

He added, “If I have done something wrong. I will fix it — I have to.”

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