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Writers Guild lawsuit against talent agencies gets a fourth judge in latest twist

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28, 2019 Building at 7000 West 3rd Street in the Fairfax area of Los Angel
The Writers Guild of America is suing Hollywood’s four largest talent agencies over the decades-old practice of packaging fees.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The lawsuit brought by the Writers Guild of America against Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies has changed judges for a third time, potentially adding further delay to a dispute that has left the TV industry in a state of uncertainty.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Highberger is now the fourth judge to oversee the case, taking over from Judge Elaine Mandel. The case has also moved venues from Santa Monica to the Spring Street courthouse in downtown L.A.

Whereas the first two judges in the suite stepped aside due to personal connections to the entertainment industry, Highberger has taken over because the dispute now qualifies as a complex case — a legal designation indicating the size of the suit and level of judicial oversight required.

Highberger has presided over L.A. Superior Court’s complex civil litigation program for more than a decade. Prior to that, he was a partner at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher.

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A case status conference will be held to set new dates. One person close to the case said the new judge could theoretically accelerate matters, though it is unlikely since the summer months are typically slow as attorneys and court officials go on vacation.

The WGA is suing four of the biggest Hollywood talent agencies over packaging fees — a lucrative and decades-old practice where an agency receives money through the life of a TV show for lining up the talent from its own client roster.

The guild is battling CAA, WME, UTA and ICM in the lawsuit, alleging that the agencies have neglected their fiduciary responsibilities by prioritizing packaging fees over client representation. The complaint also alleges that packaging fees violate state and federal law.

Attorneys for CAA recently moved to designate the suit as a complex case, which the guild opposed. The court eventually sided with CAA.

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CAA has so far been the only agency to file a response to the guild’s lawsuit in court. The agency filed a demurrer to remove the WGA from the suit, claiming that the dispute relates only to individual guild members and shouldn’t be treated as a class-action-type suit.

The other plaintiffs in the suit are a handful of WGA members, including TV writers David Simon, Meredith Stiehm and Barbara Hall.

david.ng@latimes.com

@DavidNgLAT


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