Judge Settles Fee Dispute

July 2, 2010
Judge Settles Fee Dispute

By Jean-Luc Renault


LOS ANGELES – A settlement in a class action that screenwriters filed against the Writers Guild of America West over unpaid foreign distribution levies gave rise to another dispute, this time over attorney fees.

The judge overseeing the case resolved the fee issue at a hearing on Thursday, bringing the long-running lawsuit to an end but giving the plaintiffs’ lawyers little time to rest as they work on another settlement in a similar case against the Screen Actors’ Guild.

Writer William Richert, represented by Neville Johnson of Johnson & Johnson and Paul Kiesel of Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, filed the lawsuit against the WGAW in 2005 on behalf of 17,000 guild and non-guild writers.

A number of European and South American countries began to impose taxes in the 1980s on distribution of copyrighted American works in television broadcasts and video rentals. Starting in 1991, those funds were paid to WGAW, which placed them into a trust.

The guild is supposed to disburse the money, whether the recipients are union members or not, but according to a report released last year, the WGAW amassed a backlog of $30 million in levy funds for writers it couldn’t locate.

The settlement, which Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carl West approved last month, required the WGAW to account for all the undistributed funds and to do everything possible to disburse the money to its recipients.

wgalogo.jpg (1964 bytes)
Writers Guild of America – www.wga.org
But a controversy arose after two attorneys for objectors who took issue with a draft version of the settlement requested $193,800 in fees after spending about six months working with the class counsel on a revised agreement.

Johnson and Kiesel, who requested that their $1.03 million in fees be enhanced by a multiplier to $1.75 million, filed opposition to the objectors’ request last month, as did Anthony Segall, a partner with Rothner, Segall, Greenstone & Leheny and general counsel for the WGAW.

Solo practitioners Jeffrey Winikow and Steven Kaplan responded with their own filing, stating that “the attorneys’ fees were not only reasonable, but the inevitable consequence of an original settlement proposal that had gaping holes and shortcomings.”

West said during a hearing Thursday that Winikow, who reported 77 hours on the case, and Kaplan, who reported 246 hours, did provide beneficial input to the final agreement, but that their request “seemed to me to be excessive.”

He granted $50,000 for Winikow and Kaplan, $15,000 for another lawyer who represented separate objectors from an Australian animation union, and $1.6 million for Johnson and Kiesel.

West also granted a $20,000 incentive fee for Reichert and $3,500 each for Maude Feil and Anne Jamison, the two other co-lead plaintiffs on the case.
Johnson and Kiesel now can turn their focus to a similar dispute with SAG over about $8 million in undistributed foreign levies, filed in 2007 by Ken Osmond, the actor who played Eddie Haskell on “Leave it To Beaver.”

Latham & Watkins partners Dan Schecter and Ernest Getto are representing SAG in the lawsuit, over which West is presiding.

Both Kiesel and Johnson declined to comment on whether they expected a similar settlement in the SAG case, but Kiesel said that talks with the union are ongoing and that the plaintiffs expect to make a new filing with the court in the next two weeks.

jean-luc_renault @ dailyjournal.com