Friday, May 30, 2008
Guild Lawyers Can Represent Writers in ‘Reality’ TV Suits—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Pasadena law firm does not have a disqualifying conflict in representing non-union television writers who are suing for labor law violations, while also representing the union that is trying to organize those writers, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Three Wednesday affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Conrad R. Aragon’s denial of a motion to disqualify the firm of Rothner, Segall & Greenstone from representing 21 writers who have brought a class action against producers of “reality” television shows. The plaintiffs claim that producers failed to pay wages and overtime, and to provide meal and rest breaks, among other things.
The plaintiffs’ lead counsel is Emma Leheny of the Rothner firm. A name partner in the firm, Anthony Segall, also serves as general counsel for the Writers Guild of America.
In 2005, Segall and Leheny began discussions with writers about the possibility of wage-and-hour suits against producers and networks, which the guild would finance. Each of the writers who agreed to become class action plaintiffs acknowledged in writing that the guild would be paying their legal costs and that the attorneys representing them also represented the guild.
Motion to Disqualify
In moving to disqualify the Rothner firm, the defendants argued that they had an irreconcilable conflict because the writers, in particular those who were not named as plaintiffs, had an interest in resolving their differences with the defendants that was incompatible with the guild’s interest in unionizing them.
The firm responded that all plaintiffs had signed waivers; that the guild had acknowledged that the plaintiffs controlled the litigation and that for purposes of suit, the plaintiffs and not the guild were the firm’s clients; that Segall was not involved in the litigation and had not discussed it with the attorneys handling it; and that independent co-counsel, who would not be paid by the guild, had been associated.
In addition, all counsel working on the suits declared in writing that they would not do guild work while the litigation was pending.
Aragon ruled that as long as ethical walls were maintained, the firm could continue to work on the case. He also denied the defendants’ related motion to disqualify the plaintiffs from representing the class.
Justice Richard Aldrich, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Aragon was correct as a matter of law.
Consistent With Rule
The measures taken to avoid conflicts were consistent with Rule 3-310 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and the waivers signed by the plaintiffs were sufficient, Aldrich said.
“The motion to disqualify here is not brought by one of the parties who may suffer because of a purported conflict, but by opposition parties who are not directly touched by the purported conflict. Disqualification of the Rothner firm may impose a significant hardship on plaintiffs, who will bear the burden on finding replacement counsel with the skills and knowledge of the Rothner firm, a firm that already has expended more than 1,000 hours on the case, including the review of more than 8,000 pages of documents over seven months...As such, we must be skeptical of the impetus and purpose of defendants’ motion to disqualify the Rothner firm because it poses the very threat to the integrity of the judicial process that it purports to prevent.”
As for whether the named plaintiffs can effectively represent the absent class members, the justice went on to say, that issue must be resolved in connection with a motion for class certification, not by a preemptive motion to disqualify.
The case is Sharp v. Next Entertainment, Inc., B194374.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company