EXCLUSIVE: Sony probably didn’t need any more bad news after last week’s brutal hacking that made the studio work like it was 1954, but it got some today. While not altogether unexpected, the three class-action suits over alleged anti-poaching and wage-fixing deals by Sony, Disney, DreamWorks Animation and other animation studios have been consolidated into one big complaint. This amended filing in federal court by lawyers for digital artists David Wentworth, Robert Nitsch Jr. and Georgia Cano now delivers a potential powerhouse legal punch to the toonsters.
“The conspiracy deprived Plaintiffs and other class members of millions of dollars in compensation while the films they produced generated billions of dollars in revenues for Defendants,” says the trio’s filing (read it here), which seeks a jury trial. Like the previous suits, this one seeks reclassification to a class action that could grow to thousands of members who worked at the companies from 2004 onward.
While now adding Fox subsidiary Blue Sky Studios, this filing is similar in many respects to the original complaint by Nitsch back in early September. However, unlike past paperwork on this issue, this new consolidated and amended complaint not only names DWA CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney-Pixar’s Ed Catmull, among others, but points some very specific new fingers to make its points about the illegal agreement among the animation studios.
“Despite his concern that it was ‘taboo’ to do so, DreamWorks’ Head of Production Technology emailed the heads of human resources at Pixar, ILM, Sony Pictures Animation, and Disney in January 2009 to learn how they handled overtime — an issue that was competitively sensitive in an industry where workers are regularly asked to work dozens of hours of overtime a week,” claims the new 34-page filing. “He sought to see if the other companies were ‘as generous’ — an answer that could allow him to reduce compensation without fear of losing a competitive advantage. A Sony executive called him after emailing him the subject was not ‘taboo’ for her.”
Adds the new complaint: “No studio acting in its own independent self-interest in the absence of a conspiracy to suppress compensation would share this kind of compensation information, let alone with such a large group of competitors. Such behavior only makes sense in the context of a conspiracy to suppress compensation.”
Add that to the animation studios’ concerns that the case is under the watch of Judge Lucy Koh. Back in late September, Koh agreed to the request from former DWA effects artist Nitsch that the Northern District of California federal judge be reassigned his class action. Nitsch’s gist was that his September 8-filed antitrust class-action complaint was “related” to the High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation case that Koh had been presiding over for the past several years. Coming out of a DOJ investigation, that case was where details of the toon studios’ anti-poaching deal came to light.
While Lucasfilm and a few others settled with a $9 million payment in the High-Tech case, Koh rejected Apple and other tech companies’ $325 million settlement attempt to end the case – something the tech giants now are fighting in the courts. In October, Koh assigned herself the Cano case, which was filed on September 17, and the Wentworth case, filed on October 2.
Interestingly late last month, the plaintiffs sought to file their amended complaint under seal because it had “documents defendants have designated as ‘Confidential’ or ‘Confidential – Attorneys’ Eyes Only.’” However, with the toon studios saying that they would not “maintain the CAC under seal,” Koh today ordered Nitsch, Cano and Wentworth to have their attorneys in the public record.
All of which makes this case even more of one to watch, wild cards and all.
The consolidated amended class-action complaint was submitted by Daniel A. Small of Washington DC’s Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC. Small was on Nitsch’s legal team in the first ‘toon class action complaint filing. Other lawyers from the firm and over 10 others representing the trio join him now in this one.