A former DreamWorks Animation effects artist is taking on the ‘toon studios with a class action lawsuit over the anti-poaching agreements they allegedly had. DWA, Disney, Pixar, Sony Pictures Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Lucasfilm are all called out and named as defendants in the jury seeking legal move from Robert Nitsch. “The conspiracy deprived Plaintiff and other class members of millions of dollars which Defendants instead put to their bottom lines,” says the filing in federal court here in California today. “It did so at the same time that the films produced by these workers achieved world renown and generated billions of dollars in revenues in the United States and abroad.” With a classification motion certain to follow, this suit could conceivably grow to thousands of claimants.
“The Defendants themselves have explained the purpose of the conspiracy and in doing so, articulated the harm and injury caused by it to their workers. George Lucas explained under oath that the purpose of the non-solicitation agreement was to suppress wages and keep the visual effects industry out of “a normal industrial competitive situation,’” says the highly detailed 27-page filing (read it here). “The agreement was explicitly intended to avoid ‘a bidding war with other companies because we don’t have the margins for that sort of thing.’”
The studios involvement in this illicit behavior came to light in a Department of Justice investigation into tech companies Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe and Intuit over their agreement to not snag each others employees and to keep wages at a certain level. That now settled 2010 investigation by the DoJ lead to a 2011 class action suit by 64,000 tech employees against the companies. Lucasfilm and Pixar paid out $9 million in that action this spring but a greater $325 million settlement was rejected by a federal district judge as no enough. Apple and the other tech companies are appealing the ruling by Judge Lucy Koh.
Not long after the involvement of the studios and seemingly damning emails from execs like Disney’s Ed Catmull and then studio chairman Dick Cook were revealed in the discovery process, the Animation Guild started making noises among its membership for a potential legal action of their own. At the Guild’s recent membership meeting in late July, lawyer Dean Harvey spoke to the gathering about seeking more info for a possible suit. Regardless of if the Guild makes a move on the legal front, you can be damn sure that this will come up in next year’s negotiations for a new 3-year contract with the studios.
Brent Johnson, Daniel Small and Jeffrey Dubner of the D.C. offices of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC are representing Nitsch, who worked at DWA from 2007 to 2011 and at Sony Imageworks in 2004.