The WGA’s lawsuit against the Big 4 talent agencies is headed to a new court and a new judge – the fourth judge in case since it was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on April 17. The change of venue – from the Santa Monica courthouse to the downtown courthouse that deals with complex civil litigation, comes just as ICM Partners was set to file its answer to the guild’s suit today. The new judge in the case is Judge William F. Highberger, who has presided over the Complex Civil Litigation Program since 2008.
CAA, which had previously answered the guild’s suit — calling the individual named plaintiffs’ allegations “preposterous,” had asked that the case be moved to a new court and designated as a “complex case,” which the California Rules of Court defines as one requiring “exceptional judicial management to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on the court or the litigants and to expedite the case, keep costs reasonable, and promote effective decision making by the court, the parties, and counsel.”
The Complex Litigation Division agreed, and assigned it to Highberger, who was appointed to the bench in 1998 by former Governor Pete Wilson. Judge Highberger received his B.A. from Princeton University in 1972. He went on to earn his J.D. from Columbia Law School in 1975. After graduating from law school, Highberger joined the law firm Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher LLP as an associate in 1976. He was made a partner in 1982. Highberger practiced labor and employment litigation at the firm’s Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. offices. He remained with the firm until his appointment to the bench in 1998. Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher is not involved with any of the parties in the WGA’s lawsuit against the agencies.
In a minute order, the Court ruled that “This case is hereby determined to be complex within the meaning of Rule 3.400 of the California Rules of Court.”
Highberger is the fourth judge assigned to the case. The WGA used its preemptory challenge to remove Judge Marc Gross, the first judge in the case, because the guild said he was “prejudiced” because his wife once worked for Endeavor before its 2009 merger with the William Morris Agency. That merger created WME, which is a defendant in the suit along with CAA, UTA and ICM Partners. The guild also noted that Gross’ wife previously had worked at two production companies – Turner Network Television and GK-tv – that might have paid packaging fees to talent agencies.
Gross was replaced by Judge Craig Karlan, who subsequently recused himself after both sides requested that he do so on grounds that he had once talked to a CAA employee about one of his writing projects. He, in turn, was replaced by Judge Elaine Mandel, who in turn was replaced by Highberger.
The legal wrangling comes against the backdrop of the WGA’s 10-week standoff with the Association of Talent Agents over a new franchise agreement. Those talks broke off on April 12, after which the guild ordered its members to fire all their agents who refuse to sign its new Agency Code of Conduct, which bans packaging fees and agency affiliations with corporately related production entities. At last count, the guild said that more than 7,000 of its members have terminated their agents.
The ATA and the WGA last met on June 7, when the agencies offered to share 2% of their backend profits with writers on shows the agencies package – up from 0.8% in its initial offer.
The guild told its members that the ATA’s proposal was “wide ranging and complex,” and that “We have asked for contract language on their proposals in order to formulate the appropriate response. As we’ve stated, whatever solution we find, it will have to address conflicts of interest and realign agency incentives with those of their writer clients.”
Still waiting for a response to its proposals, the ATA said yesterday that “it has become clear as more days pass that the guild is not interested in making a deal.” Just after the ATA released its statement, however, the guild said that it “plans to respond to the ATA proposal this week.”
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