Friday, April 30, 2010
Judge Issues Tentative Ruling in Crosby Estate Dispute
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The estate of Bing Crosby’s first wife, Dixie, may have a community property interest in Crosby’s right of publicity under a 2008 law retroactively making such interests transferable, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael I. Levanas ruled yesterday.
Tentatively rejecting a motion by the actor/singer’s estate for judgment on the pleadings in an action to determine ownership, Levanas concluded the interest should be considered newly-discovered property for probate purposes.
However, he said Crosby’s estate can brief whether a 1999 settlement in litigation between the two estates barred heirs of Crosby’s children with his first wife from pursuing a new, retroactive right created by statute.
Born Wilma Wyatt, actress and singer Dixie Crosby married Bing Crosby in 1930. She died of cancer in 1952 at age 40, predeceasing her husband, who died in 1977.
The pair had four sons: Gary, twins Dennis and Phillip, and Lindsay. Bing Crosby, who was born Harry Lillis Crosby, also had three children with actress Kathryn Grant after they married in 1957.
At the time of Dixie Crosby’s death, California law provided that a celebrity’s spouse’s community property interest in the right of publicity was not transferable.
But in 2008, following a dispute over Marilyn Monroe’s estate, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law expanding Civil Code Sec. 3344.1’s statutory right of publicity to be retroactive and transferable, even if the celebrity died before the law was first enacted in 1985.
Probate proceedings of Dixie Crosby’s estate were revived shortly thereafter, and her grandson, Philip Crosby’s son Bing, in May 2009 petitioned for ownership. He argued that Dixie Crosby’s community property interest in her husband’s publicity rights was now the property of her heirs.
Bing Crosby’s estate opposed the request, pointing to the settlement and moving for judgment on the pleadings earlier this month.
Susan Cooley of Oldman Cooley Leighton Sallus in Encino argued for HLC Properties, Ltd.—a trust created to manage Crosby’s interests after his death—that the settlement applied to all community property rights, including the right to publicity.
She said it constituted a detailed agreement between Bing and Dixie Crosby’s estates whereby Dixie Crosby’s estate received $1.5 million in exchange for warranting that all community property rights had been transferred and waiving any other obligations pre-dating the agreement or that the estate “might have.”
Cooley also said that a possible community property interest in publicity rights was “well known in the industry,” and contended that the parties to the settlement agreement contemplated its potential application by including the right in the agreement, albeit valued at only $1.
Pointing to the continual emergence of new media, she asked Levanas to imagine “10, 20, 50 years down the road,” commenting that heirs of celebrity spouses “will just keep coming back if the court doesn’t cut it off now.”
Henry Workman, of counsel to Sullivan, Workman & Dee, represented the administrator of Dixie Crosby’s estate. He told Levanas that Cooley lacked the expertise necessary to give what he said amounted to testimony on industry standards, and contended that she mischaracterized the issues underlying the settlement.
Workman said the 1999 settlement merely resolved issues of money owed, and did not contemplate any question of ownership of publicity rights.
He also said the agreement was not as all-embracing as Cooley claimed, pointing to an exception allowing claims for newly discovered property. He further said Levanas should favor his client’s interpretation, as the non-moving party.
Levanas appeared inclined to make his tentative ruling final, asking Cooley how a community property interest in the right to publicity could be distinguished from newly-discovered property in light of the 2008 law.
However, he also inquired whether either attorney had caselaw addressing, under similar circumstances, the degree to which a settlement agreement controls in the face of a subsequent retroactive change in rights by statute, and he said he would accept briefing on the matter.
Levanas indicated he would issue a final ruling on the motion for judgment on the pleadings after May 28.
The case is In re Crosby, P334700.
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