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Pooh Suit Imperiled, Lawyer for Disney Says

He suggests plaintiffs' attorney is quitting because of a client's changing testimony. The other side denies it.

June 14, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Attorney Bertram Fields won't discuss why he wants to withdraw from a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over Winnie the Pooh royalties, but his legal adversary Friday suggested a reason that he said threatens to derail the case.

Walt Disney Co.'s lead counsel, Daniel Petrocelli, said Fields' motive may be related to a motion recently filed by Petrocelli alleging that the heirs to the Pooh royalties may have engaged in unethical, if not criminal, conduct.

He alleges that a private investigator working on behalf of the family broke into Disney offices in 1994 to steal documents relating to Pooh and that the family covered up the incident until earlier this year.

As a result, Petrocelli is seeking to have the entire case dismissed.

He contends that Fields' firm is now in an uncomfortable ethical position because one of his clients, Patricia Slesinger, recently changed her testimony about her knowledge of the investigator's activities. A year ago, Slesinger said she didn't know what the investigator was doing, but gave a more detailed account in a recent deposition, Petrocelli said.

"I don't think it takes rocket science to put all of the pieces together," he said.

Fields dismissed Petrocelli's theory, saying, "Disney is just spinning this to try to divert attention from the fact that they've been losing badly."

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige held a closed-door session Friday to discuss Fields' motion to withdraw from the case. According to lawyers in attendance, the judge set a July 2 deadline for the Slesingers to hire new lawyers.

It's the latest twist in the 12-year-old lawsuit, which is one of the longest-running cases in Los Angeles County.

Fields' clients, Slesinger and her mother, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, accuse Disney of cheating them out of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties for Pooh-related products including computer software, videocassettes, DVDs and theme park rides.

Disney, which acquired the Pooh rights in 1961 in exchange for paying royalties, says it has properly paid the family of Stephen Slesinger, a New York literary agent who, in 1930, acquired merchandising rights to the beloved bear and his forest friends from author A.A. Milne.

The sudden retreat by Fields is a mystery. The prominent attorney filed his motion under seal and refused Friday to publicly discuss his reasons.

The Slesingers say there was no wrongdoing. They say the private investigator retrieved the Pooh papers from publicly accessible trash bins, which is not illegal.

Slesinger also denied Petrocelli's allegation that she has changed her testimony. She said she simply misunderstood a question that he asked during a deposition last year.

"All of this has nothing to do with the merits of our case," she said. "Disney is just trying to shift the focus away from the merits. Why don't they just pay what they owe us?"

Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law and political science professor, said it was uncommon -- but not unheard of -- for a lawyer to file a motion to withdraw under seal.

A lawyer might want to step aside for a number of reasons, he said, including if a lawyer knew a client had done something illegal, if a client asked a lawyer to do something unethical, or even if a client failed to pay the lawyer's fees.

"But in this case, we don't know why because the motion is under seal," he said.

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