Sony, DreamWorks Animation & Disney Slammed With New Antitrust Class Action

EXCLUSIVE: With one now-consolidated lawsuit already before the courts, it looks like the burgeoning legal battle over alleged secret wage-fixing and anti-poaching deals among animation studios has another front on which to fight. On November 20, former DreamWorks Animation layout artist Van Phan filed a class action complaint of his own against Disney, DWA, Sony Pictures Animation, Digital Domain, Imageworks, Pixar and Lucasfilm in federal court in Northern California. Like the other complaints, he is naming names (hello again Ed Catmull, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Dick Cook) and pointing to a conspiracy of systematic behavior on the part of the ‘toon studios to hurt the people in their own companies in the wallet.

“As a result of Defendants’ unlawful conduct, Plaintiff and Class Members were injured in that their compensation was lowered and they were deprived of free and fair competition in the market for their services, which allowed Defendants to unlawfully retain money that otherwise would have been paid to Plaintiff and other Class Members,” says the complaint, which cites violates of the California’s Unfair Competition Law, the Sherman Act and the Cartwright Act as past ongoing suits on the topic have (read it here). Besides seeking classification to include all those who worked at the studios since 2004, the complaint filed late last month wants an injunction to stop the behavior, damages to be determined at trial and tripled and an “incentive award to compensate Plaintiff Van Phan for his efforts in pursuit of this litigation,” among its requests. If the past three lawsuits and rumblings this summer on the matter from the Animation Guild are any precedent, Phan’s action won’t be the last we’ll see on this sprawling matter — though his claims have a some new details worth distinctly noting.

“The non-solicitation and compensation-suppressing agreements were kept secret from Defendants’ employees and other industry players,” claims the 25-page jury trial seeking filing, for instance. “Only Defendants’ top executives and recruiting and human resources personnel were involved in the conspiracy. These top executives and personnel only communicated about the conspiracy orally or in emails among themselves and stressed that the agreements not be put into writing.”

Like the class actions filed by individually by digital artists Robert Nitsch Jr. David Wentworth, and Georgia Cano earlier this year, this one by the Madagascar and Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs animator cites that these agreements were started in the 1980s by Pixar and Lucasfilm and then grew to actively include the others over the last decade. The now not-so-secret deals among the animation studios were first revealed during the discovery process of a Department of Justice investigation of similar actions among technology companies like Apple, Google and Intel that later turn into a class action suit of its own.

“At least once a year, Defendants met to set the guidelines and criterion of a compensation survey called the Croner Animation and Visual Effects Survey,” notes the filing by a team of attorneys from Bay Area firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy and Minneapolis firms Gustafson Gluek PLLC and Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP. “This survey reflected wage and salary ranges for the Defendants’ artistic and technical employees, which was further delineated by position and experience level. Defendant Digital Domain referred to this assembly as the “salary council,” because it was attended by executives and senior human resources and recruiting personnel from DreamWorks, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Disney, Digital Domain, ImageMovers Digital, and Sony Defendants. Defendants met outside of the official Croner Survey meetings to exchange information regarding employee compensation and to fix the salary ranges of their employees.”

A proposed $325 million settlement of theHigh-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation case was rejected earlier this year by presiding Judge Lucy Koh as too little and is being appealed by the tech giants. As that continues, Judge Koh has taken over the previous lawsuits in this ‘toon matter and the now consolidated amended complaint filed earlier this week. Phan’s case has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Nathanael M. Cousins, whose chambers are in the same San Jose courthouse as Koh’s. If past cases in this matter are any indication, Phan’s filing could end up in front of her too.

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