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Plaintiff calls for judge's disqualification in 'Avatar' case

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Director James Cameron and his Lightstorm Entertainment Inc. appeared to have prevailed earlier this month in a legal case brought by a man who alleged that his ideas were stolen by the filmmaker for use in the 20th Century Fox blockbuster "Avatar." But the matter may not be entirely laid to rest.

On Oct. 3, Judge Susan Bryant-Deason granted Cameron's motion for summary judgment in the Los Angeles County Superior Court case, ruling that the 2009 science-fiction film was independently created by the director.

But on Tuesday, plaintiff Eric Ryder filed a objection to Bryant-Deason's involvement in the case, alleging that her husband has a "current, ongoing relationship with 20th Century Fox," which financed and distributed "Avatar."

According to the filing, the judge's husband, Paul Deason, has an association with Fox as an executive producer and unit production manager on films. 

Deason served as unit production manager on Fox's 2011 movie "We Bought A Zoo" and the studio's 2007 picture "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," according to IMDb Pro. Ryder's objection includes a copy of Deason's LinkedIn profile, which references Fox, his executive producer and unit production manager roles, and the studio's summer hit "The Wolverine." 

A search of state of California public records indicates that Deason and Bryant-Deason were married in 1976. 

Ryder's Tuesday filing alleges that his counsel asked the judge in July whether her husband was "employed by Fox." Bryant-Deason said "absolutely not," though she said her husband worked in the entertainment industry and had "projects with various production companies," according to the filing.

The filing calls Deason's relationship with Fox "of great and legitimate concern" to Ryder, arguing that it is cause for the judge's disqualification under the state's Code of Civil Procedure. The code states that a judge may be disqualified from a case if the judge or the judge's spouse has a financial interest in the matter at hand. 

“Under the law, it doesn’t matter whether there is actual prejudice -- the relationship alone is sufficient for disqualification of the court," said attorney Nicholas A. Boylan of King Cheng & Miller LLP, who is representing Ryder, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

A source close to 20th Century Fox who was not authorized to comment publicly said that Deason is not an employee of the studio, but has worked on films released by Fox.

In the film business, workers such as unit production managers are not typically employees of movie studios and instead are hired on a freelance basis. Unit production managers are responsible for overseeing production units on a movie set, coordinating personnel, schedules and off-set logistics, among other duties.

But Boylan said it shouldn't matter whether Deason is an employee of Fox.

“I don’t think it matters if it is 1099 or a W-2," Boylan said, referring to Internal Revenue Service tax forms. "What matters is the economics of the relationship.”

Fox declined to comment. Bryant-Deason did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

In the objection, Ryder's counsel cited a legal precedent whereby the disqualification of a judge nullifies a summary judgment.

In December 2011, Ryder filed a lawsuit alleging that Cameron's "Avatar" stole plot elements, settings and other details from a story called "K.R.Z. 2068" that Ryder gave to Lightstorm executives.

"Avatar," released in December 2009, is the top-grossing movie of all time, and took in $2.78 billion in global box office receipts, according to Box Office Mojo.

"Plaintiff's objection to the court's continued involvement in the case is simply a reaction to the fact that the court ruled he had no claim," "Avatar" producer Jon Landau, who gave a deposition in the case, said in a statement.

Ryder alleged in his lawsuit breach of implied contract, fraud and other matters, claiming that Lightstorm had him work for nearly two years on developing his science-fiction story into a 3-D epic film about a "corporation's colonization and plundering of a distant moon's lush and wondrous natural setting" and a spy's interaction with the "anthropomorphic" beings that reside there.

Ryder alleged that Lightstorm told him that it decided not to move forward with the project because "no one would be interested in an environmentally themed science-fiction feature film."

According to "The Futurist," a 2009 Cameron biography written by L.A. Times staff writer Rebecca Keegan, Cameron wrote "Avatar" in 1996.  

"As I have previously stated, 'Avatar' was my most personal film, drawing upon themes and concepts that I had been exploring for decades," Cameron said in a statement earlier this month, after Bryant-Deason granted his motion for summary judgment. "I am very appreciative that the court rejected the specious claim by Mr. Ryder that I used any of his ideas in my film."

Although Fox is not named as a party in the lawsuit, Ryder's Tuesday filing describes the studio as an investor in Lightstorm. The filing also alleges that attorneys for Fox have actively participated in the litigation by interviewing and representing former Lightstorm executives.

The filing argues that there "is no principled way to distinguish between having a financial interest in the named defendants and having a financial interest in Fox when the question is whether the judge or her spouse has a financial interest that raises a legitimate question respecting the risk to the court's impartiality."

Lightstorm did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. 

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