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Older TV Writers Press Case

Class-action lawsuit alleges that in youth-obsessed Hollywood, they're 'graylisted' after age 40. It's a potential legal bombshell that could have far-reaching ramifications.

November 12, 2000|LISA GIRION | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They color over the gray, fudge birthdates, drop shows prior to 1997 from their resumes and buy trendy outfits for meetings with producers.

One sitcom veteran said that, before she attends a meeting, she goes to a salon to have her eyebrows plucked, her make-up applied and her hair blown out. That's nothing, she said, compared with her friends who try to vanquish wrinkles with collagen injections.

Aging actors trying to win parts written for ingenues?

Nope. They are writers trying to win jobs scripting lines for TV shows aimed at under-35 viewers.

In an increasingly youth-obsessed Hollywood, many writers say job offers and incomes plunge after 40. The ageism complaint has dogged the industry, particularly television, for years.

Yet in the decade or so since a documentary, "Power and Fear: The Hollywood Grey List," put the bleak outlook for older writers in the spotlight, few writers have been bold enough to go public with ageism complaints and none has taken a case to court, perhaps out of fear that whistle-blowing would extinguish any hope of working in this town again.

Until now.

In a novel and far-reaching class-action lawsuit, 28 television writers have put their names to ageism charges against more than 50 TV networks, studios, production companies and talent agencies.

"It's breathtaking in its ambition, all the people they are suing," said David Kadue, an employment lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw's Los Angeles office who represents management against discrimination claims. "This is very ambitious in alleging an industrywide practice."

The writers, including some with Emmys and credits ranging from "The Brady Bunch" to "Miami Vice," allege that the industry engages in a "graylisting" conspiracy that has intensified since the 1980s when advertisers began demanding shows for the sought-after 18-to-34 age group, whose buying habits are more susceptible to commercial influence than those of older viewers.

The 81-page complaint, filed in federal court in Los Angeles on behalf of as many as 7,000 writers, is a potential legal bombshell that attacks not just one employer, as hiring discrimination cases usually do, but an entire industry--an almost unheard-of tactic that is expected to draw the attention of lawyers and employers inside and outside the entertainment community.

Because of the high profile of the industry, the writers' case against Hollywood could affect the way employers in television and elsewhere make hiring decisions even before it is resolved, said Larry J. Shapiro, publisher of the California Employer Adviser Newsletter.

And, he said, it is expected to raise workers' awareness of age bias, an area of litigation that lawyers already expect to intensify in the next few years because most baby boomers are over 40 and now may avail themselves of the protections of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

"I think it's going to make the people . . . be much more careful about documenting their hiring decisions," Shapiro said.

In addition to unspecified damages, the suit seeks a remedy that could roil the industry even more than a big payout: Court supervision of network and studio hiring for five years or longer, as long as it would take to wipe out the alleged ageist exclusion of writers 40 and older.

Court supervision is not uncommon in class-action discrimination cases. The same week they filed suit on behalf of the writers, the lead law firm, Sprenger & Lang, won an $8-million settlement from CBS Inc. That lawsuit was on behalf of more than 200 women technicians working at TV stations across the country who claimed they were victims of sexual discrimination in pay and promotions. The settlement, pending court approval, also would place CBS under court supervision for four years, force operational changes and require reports on the status of women technicians.

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Christine A. Littleton, a UCLA professor who teaches employment-discrimination law, said the scope of the writers' case is unusual and potentially groundbreaking.

"This could be amazing. It's a very interesting use of the class-action technique," Littleton said. "It's a real interesting case for how useful the age discrimination act is in large-scale cases as opposed to individual lawsuits where it has mostly been used. And it's also really interesting from the standpoint of the employment practices of the entertainment industry."

Some of the defendants believe the suit paints with too broad a brush.

Hugh Dodson, chief operating officer of Gersh Agency, said he was baffled that the firm was named as a defendant because it has no record of representing or being approached by any of the plaintiffs.

"We kind of feel like there is a wide net being cast here and we're being thrown into it, and we're clearly not culpable," he said.

Martin Shapiro, whose talent agency also was named, was similarly surprised that the suit targeted agents at all.

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