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Lawyer Withdraws From Pooh Lawsuit

Bertram Fields' firm pulls out of escalating fight with Disney over merchandising royalties.

June 12, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Bertram Fields is withdrawing from the case he made famous: the multimillion-dollar battle over Winnie the Pooh royalties.

For nearly three years, the Los Angeles entertainment attorney has been a thorn in the side of Walt Disney Co. as he fought on behalf of a mother and daughter who hold the merchandising rights to the honey-loving bear and his forest friends. They contend that Disney has cheated them out of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalty payments.

Fields declined Wednesday to say why his firm was quitting.

"It would not be proper for me to discuss the reasons," he said. "I still have great confidence in the merits of the case.... It's just not a case that I can try."

Fields' clients recently grew frustrated over a series of delays and complications that had driven up the cost of litigation. Patricia Slesinger -- who with her mother, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, is suing Disney -- cited an unsuccessful attempt by Disney to move the Pooh case into federal court. She also pointed to a separate motion filed by toy maker Mattel Inc. that was threatening to oust Fields' firm for an alleged breach of legal ethics.

"Disney is making this case as expensive as they can," Patricia Slesinger said. "Bert Fields is an extraordinary and brilliant attorney. But we needed to have a firm that has the ability to focus on taking this case to trial."

Disney lead counsel Daniel Petrocelli declined to comment.

Disney has much at stake, saying that losing the case could cost it several hundred million dollars.

Several recent court decisions in the Winnie the Pooh case have gone against the Burbank-based media company, but some legal observers said Wednesday that Fields' exit could help Disney. Even the most accomplished legal team would have its work cut out for it trying to absorb the details of a case that has spanned 12 years and produced countless volumes of documents.

The case is one of the longest-running in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Over the years, a dozen law firms have been involved on all sides, and the case's legal referee died last month. As the case has crawled on, the antagonism has grown, with both sides accusing the other of unethical -- or outright illegal -- tactics.

The saga dates to 1930, when Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne granted merchandising rights to the characters to a New York literary agent, Stephen Slesinger.

In 1961, several years after Stephen Slesinger's death, his widow, Shirley, signed an agreement giving Disney the rights to the characters in exchange for merchandising royalties.

Winnie the Pooh has proved immensely lucrative for Disney. At the peak of its popularity in the late 1990s, the franchise brought in more than $1 billion in revenue annually to Disney and companies it licensed to produce Pooh products.

Over the years, Disney has paid the Slesinger family more than $65 million in royalties -- recently as much as $10 million a year.

The Slesinger family filed suit in 1991, contending that Disney has breached its contract, cheating the family out of royalties for Pooh videocassettes, DVDs and computer software as well as proceeds from theme park rides and merchandise sales.

Disney denies those allegations.

The case dragged on in obscurity until Fields' firm -- Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman, Machtinger & Kinsella -- signed on in October 2000, becoming the fifth firm to handle the case for the Slesinger family.

Fields, a media savvy entertainment lawyer who has specialized in taking Disney to court, soon catapulted the case into the headlines around the world.

The last year has been particularly grueling, marked by a flood of allegations and legal motions that have further delayed the case. Disney tried unsuccessfully to move the matter to federal court. And the Slesingers have been fighting allegations by Disney that they hired a private investigator and an ex-convict to break into Disney buildings and steal documents related to Pooh.

The withdrawal of Fields' firm comes less than two weeks before a hearing to determine whether it had a conflict of interest in the Pooh case and therefore should be disqualified.

Mattel has accused the firm of a breach of ethics stemming from an unrelated case that also involved license agreements with Disney. Mattel had hired Fields' firm to defend it against allegations of accounting improprieties lodged by a former employee. That case was ultimately settled and sealed as part of a confidential agreement.

Last year, however, Fields' firm demanded that Mattel turn over some of the same documents in a bid to bolster the Slesingers' lawsuit.

Mattel chaffed at the demand, saying the move betrayed their interests. Fields' law firm "has chosen to jettison one client, Mattel, in favor of another -- undoubtedly more lucrative -- client," Mattel wrote in a December motion. The toy maker asked the judge to remove Fields' firm from the Pooh case. The judge had scheduled a June 20 hearing on the matter.

Fields has denied that there was a conflict. Still, the issue required the hiring of additional attorneys to represent the firm, throwing a new wrinkle into the case.

"Obviously, the conflict was a significant issue," Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson said. "Lawyers have an ethical obligation to protect the interest of their clients."

Fields' decision to withdraw is expected to render moot Mattel's motion, as well as the hearing and any subsequent ruling.

Although the case had been scheduled to go to trial in September, it is expected to be postponed again. Slesinger declined to identify the new legal team that will be taking over the case.

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