A third conflict-of-interest suit has been brought against the powerhouse Hollywood law firm of Ziffren, Brittenham & Branca, this time by the former manager of rock star Prince.
Steve Fargnoli, who was represented by the Ziffren firm when he managed Prince, alleges that the lawyers later persuaded the performer to withhold management fees to Fargnoli’s company. The Ziffren firm is also accused of using confidential information, gained while representing Fargnoli, to benefit Prince in the dispute.
The firm started representing Prince after the musician fired Fargnoli in 1988.
Fargnoli’s attorney, Larry A. Sackey of the Herbert Hafif law office, alleges that the three conflict cases reveal a pattern whereby the Ziffren firm, which wields unparalleled influence in television through its representation of top talent, is sacrificing the interests of lesser clients to those of superstar clients.
“The Ziffren firm wields considerable influence in the (entertainment) industry,” Sackey said. “There are a lot of people who have been harmed who are afraid to bring this issue up.”
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks more than $5 million in damages. It names the Ziffren office and three individual partners--Skip Brittenham, John Branca and Gary Stiffelman.
Dennis Perluss, the Ziffren firm’s outside counsel, called the claims unfounded. Perluss said that any lingering disputes between Fargnoli and the Ziffren office should have been resolved as part of the settlement of a lawsuit the manager brought against Prince.
The Ziffren firm has also denied any wrongdoing in two previous conflict cases--one brought by another former client, TV producer Philip DeGuere Jr. (“Simon & Simon”), and the other by a former Ziffren law partner, Gregg Homer. Perluss said the other suits started a “feeding frenzy.”
“People see that the firm has been named in other lawsuits without regard to fact,” Perluss said. “They feel that by piling on they might see some benefit.”
DeGuere has accused the Ziffren firm of conspiring with CBS and Columbia Pictures Television to defraud him of more than $900,000 in connection with the production of a television program called “Triangle.” Homer claims that he was fired for refusing to take positions adverse to his clients’ interests in dealing with other clients of the firm.
Fargnoli’s case turns on a 1983 management agreement between his company--Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli--and Prince.
The suit says the Ziffren firm represented Fargnoli in those dealings, negotiating and drafting the agreement that called for the management company to receive a commission based on the gross sum earned by Prince and his companies.
In 1988, after his career took a dip, the rock star cut his ties to Fargnoli’s company and his attorney, Lee Phillips, and switched to the Ziffren firm.
A year later, Fargnoli received a letter from the Ziffren office stating that they had “serious questions” regarding payments said to be owed to Fargnoli’s company by Prince under the 1983 management contract, according to the suit.
Fargnoli’s suit alleges that the Ziffren firm persuaded Prince that the managers had conspired against him and overcharged him.
During negotiations of a separate Fargnoli suit against Prince last year, the suit says Fargnoli was “shocked and angered” to discover that the Ziffren firm was “reinterpreting the terms and conditions of the very contract they had negotiated and drafted” on Fargnoli’s behalf.
In the lawsuit, Fargnoli also accused the Ziffren firm of providing Prince with confidential documents and communication dating back to the time it represented Fargnoli.
Prince recently signed a lucrative record and music publishing deal with Time Warner’s Warner Bros. Records and Warner Chappel Music. The six-album deal is said to be worth as much as $100 million.
Fargnoli remains in the management business. His clients include controversial Irish singer Sinead O’Connor.