Lawyer Battles Unions in Foreign Levies Cases

March 19, 2010

Lawyer Battles Unions in Foreign Levies Cases

By Jean-Luc Renault
Daily Journal Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES – Neville Johnson, the 60-year-old founder of Beverly Hills’ seven-attorney firm Johnson & Johnson, sat hunched over a counsel table during a morning hearing last week at the Central Civil West Courthouse.

Neville L. Johnson
Superior Court Judge Carl West was about to decide if he would give final approval to a settlement in a long-running class action involving $30 million in levies on video rentals and cable retransmissions in foreign countries the Writers Guild of America West failed to disburse to several thousand writers. If West signed off, it would be the second time Johnson, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who spent his career representing individual clients against institutional defendants, prevailed against a powerful Hollywood guild. He already reached a nearly identical settlement over the same issue in 2008 against the Directors Guild of America. With a similar case against the Screen Actors Guild nearing a settlement, Johnson is poised to go three-for-three. But West put the brakes on that momentum temporarily after he directed both sides to tie up a few loose ends in the agreement.

Johnson has an intimidating presence. He’s a big, gruff guy whose gravely voice is punctuated with expletives. He’s got a sense of humor that puts others at ease, and his toothy smile glints with the same impish charm flashing behind his crisp blue eyes. “He’s a funny guy,” said Lincoln Bandlow, a Lathrop & Gage partner who defended several clients in the entertainment industry against plaintiffs Johnson represented. “In one case, I had won a motion after Neville lost an earlier one,” Bandlow said. “He said to the judge ‘If you’re going to give him one, you should give me one, too!'”

That’s how Johnson has been able to aggravate opponents while, at the same time, win them over. “He can be fun to argue against in court, and he can be frustrating to argue against, too,” said Bandlow. “He’s a pit bull with a bone – he’ll grab a hold of it and keep shaking even after you think you’ve prevailed and moved on. But whenever I get a call from somebody who wants to sue a record label or a big company, Neville is the first guy I tell them to call.” Tenacious as he is, peers say Johnson can sometimes get carried away when arguing for something he believes in.

Paul Kiesel, a partner with Kiesel, Boucher & Larson who is co-counsel on the WGA and SAG class actions, said Johnson “can, at times, be unbridled in his passion.” “Neville brought me into these cases to provide a calming influence over a very passionate personality that he brings,” Kiesel said. Johnson, who often describes his cases as David versus Goliath, would be proud of that characterization. “Everyone in this town wants to make a deal with someone we want to sue,” Johnson said. “And that’s what we do.”

Johnson knew he wanted to be a lawyer by the time he was 12. That’s when he was awestruck after watching Marvin Freeman, a lawyer and family friend who later became a Superior Court judge, argue in court. But after studying sociology and journalism at UC Berkeley, the Loyola High grad took a detour on those plans and founded the “Night Times,” a Bay Area newspaper. He said journalism, like law, had always appealed to him as a career. “In both areas, I like that you can take on large adversaries for the benefit of society,” he said. But after a dispute with a business partner a year later, Johnson left the news business and to pursue a law degree. “Law school was the single most important event and turning point in my life,” he said. “It sort of gave me a reason for being on the planet.”

After graduating from Southwestern Law School in 1975, Johnson had stints in private practice and as a public defender. He went solo in 1978, and his big break came three years later when he started representing Yoko Ono and the estate of John Lennon. In 1984, he sued Earth, Wind & Fire‘s publishing company in a separate case and won. Johnson represented Mark Sanders, a telephone psychic service employee, in a lawsuit filed against ABC in 1993. A reporter from the network had used a hidden camera and microphone to record conversations with Sanders at the service’s office as part of an investigative report. The 5-year case, which Johnson eventually won before the state Supreme Court, redefined news-gathering laws.

The win also kick-started Johnson‘s invasion-of-privacy and defamation practices – strange pursuits for a former newsman. “I do find it somewhat ironic that I became one of the lawyers who had significant success suing the media for right of privacy and defamation,” Johnson said. “But media has its problems like any other industry. I did a valid public service by keeping them on the straight and narrow.”

That’s how Johnson views the majority of his cases: public services benefiting the little guys. The guild cases are a prime example. The money, known as foreign levies, came from European and South American countries that began collecting taxes in the 1980s on video rentals and cable retransmissions of movies and TV shows to compensate copyright holders. In 1991, the countries started sending the funds to the three guilds, which were supposed to disburse the money to union and non-union directors, writers and actors. But the guilds said some recipients were impossible to locate, and after nearly 15 years the unions were sitting on tens of millions of dollars in undistributed funds.

Johnson learned about the money from Eric Hughes, a candidate for WGA president in 2003 and 2004. Hughes had gained access to the union’s financial records from a board member and, through his research, learned that the directors’ and actors’ unions were also holding large amounts of undistributed levies in trust. He passed along that information to Johnson, after which the lawyer asked current clients who fit the mold to serve as lead plaintiffs in each of the suits against the guilds.

“He was a mastermind behind all these,” said law partner Doug Johnson, who is not related, and who also worked on the cases. The DGA case was the first to reach a settlement, the terms of which required the guild to do a full accounting of its foreign levy program and keep a database on its Web site where directors can claim their portion of the more than $10 million in undistributed funds. The 2008 settlement netted $399,538 in attorney awards and fees for Johnson‘s firm, just short of the $400,000 the lawyers had requested for their 436 hours of work. Lead plaintiff William Webb was awarded a $15,000 incentive fee for his involvement in the case. West, also the judge from the DGA case, approved a similar settlement agreement with the WGA in September. Although the sum of the WGA‘s undistributed levies was larger, the settlement arrangement involving a Web database was essentially the same as the DGA‘s. Pending West’s approval, requested attorney fees in the WGA settlement range between $500,000 and $1.75 million.

Johnson is also requesting that William Richert, a non-union screenwriter and one of the lead plaintiffs on the case, receive an incentive payment of $20,000. The other two lead plaintiffs, Maude Feil and Ann Jamison, would receive $3,500 each if approved. Johnson is also representing Ken Osmond, who played Eddie Haskell in “Leave it to Beaver,” in another class action against SAG involving $8 million in undistributed levy funds, which is set to follow the same path as the other two lawsuits. “I’m not going to say it was cookie cutter, but our work did become somewhat easier as each case developed,” said Johnson, adding that the lawsuits were necessary to dislodge the funds being held by the guilds. “The Number 1 goal in all these cases is to provide accountability and transparency, and I think we’ve gone a long way in achieving that end,” he said. “It was the only way.”

On the weekends, Johnson pursues eclectic hobbies. Fifteen years ago, the opposite was true. Johnson was all work, all the time, and it was taking its toll on the wearied lawyer. That changed when a priest friend pulled the busy lawyer aside one day. “He told me to respect the Sabbath,” said Johnson, who was raised Catholic. “Hey, I’m down with that! One does not have to spend their entire life working.” Johnson‘s most recent side project is recording and releasing albums under the stage name Trevor McShane, which was, until recently, a secret identity. As McShane, Johnson‘s deep, twang-inflected vocals are laid over a bed of bluesy rock n’ roll – the kind one would expect to see married baby boomers dancing to after having three too many beers at their local bar and grill. But during the week, he insists that he’s all Johnson.

“First and foremost, I practice law,” he said. “I don’t want to be perceived as someone not serious about being a lawyer – by clients, judges and opposing counsel. But I’m serious about getting my music out to the public.” With big plans this year – he’s releasing one new song for each week of 2010 – he said it would have been hard trying to keep his identities separate to fans and music critics. Besides, it probably would have been even more difficult to sell some of the dubious claims in McShane’s biography, which tells about the reclusive musician’s stints as a Tibetan monk-in-training, a merchant seaman, a graduate student in Bulgaria and a science professor at a small Midwestern university. It sounds a bit kooky, but McShane’s sort of an inside joke for Johnson, who laughs when talking about pursuing his other passion in life. “We’re only on this planet for a limited amount of time,” said Johnson. “I don’t want to be one of those people at the end of my life saying, I should have done this.”