She’s a gavel-wielding phenomenon who rules her TV courtroom with a no-nonsense style. But on Friday, Judge Judy occupied another seat in court: the witness stand.
Her Honor, also known as Judith Sheindlin, was called to testify in a civil dispute involving producers Sandi Spreckman and Kaye Switzer, the professed creators of “The Judge Judy Show.”
The two have no argument with Sheindlin, but rather with their lawyer, Fred Fenster. Had it not been for Fenster’s legal malpractice, they allege, Judge Judy wouldn’t have been swiped out from under them and they wouldn’t have lost millions of dollars in royalties from the hit show.
At issue is a verbal contract Sheindlin made with the two when they approached her in 1993 with the idea of appearing on television in a format similar to “People’s Court.” Sheindlin had recently been profiled on “60 Minutes,” and Spreckman and Switzer thought the New York family law judge would make for interesting television.
Sheindlin was interested in the idea, but did not want to sign any contracts binding her to the pair, because she said, she had “negative experiences” with such arrangements in the past. But should a producer come knocking, Spreckman and Switzer had her word that they would not be left out of any deals, they allege.
“We’re in it together,” Sheindlin promised, according to her testimony in Los Angeles Superior Court. “I will not go unless we all go together.”
Big Ticket Productions, a unit of Spelling Entertainment, did come knocking. And Sheindlin, through her own attorney, negotiated a complex deal. But Fenster, according to the plaintiffs, failed to do the same for his clients, the producers of the pilot, and neglected to bind the pair to Sheindlin on the basis of their original verbal contract.
He also failed to tell his clients that he was working on deals to represent Spelling and Big Ticket on other projects, a potential conflict of interest, they claim.
After the pilot, the show grew in popularity. But Spreckman and Switzer still had not signed a deal that secured their creative credits and royalties.
“It’s as if they created the world’s greatest race car and someone drove off in it,” said Allan A. Sigel, who represents Spreckman and Switzer.
“This project was their baby,” Sheindlin said. “‘I planned to leave the party with the people I came with.” Fenster testified Friday that he is not an entertainment lawyer, but that he got the best deal he could for Spreckman and Switzer. His lawyer, Timothy Graves, said his client provided “competent” counsel for them.
Spreckman and Switzer have since settled with Spelling and Big Ticket for an undisclosed amount.
Sigel said his clients have not shared in the profits the show has generated.
“All that have been associated with the creative end of the show have become millionaires, where my clients have not received one red penny.”