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Another Law Firm Dismissed in Pooh Case

The family suing Disney over royalties says it can't afford the mounting legal costs.

October 11, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

The family suing Walt Disney Co. over Winnie the Pooh royalties has dismissed another prominent law firm, saying Friday that it can't afford to pay mounting legal bills that top $500,000 a month.

The firm's removal marks the latest wrinkle in the long-running Pooh case, which has already seen its share of turmoil. In July, entertainment lawyer Bert Fields and his partners suddenly withdrew from the case for undisclosed reasons. At the time, sources said contentiousness over legal fees contributed to Fields' departure.

Then last month, the Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who had been handling the case for nearly a decade stepped down, without providing a reason. A new judge that has since taken over had planned a hearing for later this month. But on Thursday, an attorney with the firm hired to replace Fields, Jones Day, asked for a postponement.

The reason: The new firm also was exiting the case.

"It's mind-boggling," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor. "We're changing lawyers in this case faster than some people change socks."

Alan E. Friedman, an attorney with Jones Day, which took the case in August, did not return calls for comment. In a letter to court officials, Friedman wrote that "cost considerations have led [the family] to conclude it cannot afford to have Jones Day continue as its counsel."

Patricia Slesinger and her mother, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, sued Disney in 1991, alleging breach of contract. The family claims that Disney has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties for Pooh merchandise, videocassettes, DVDs and computer software.

The Slesinger family inherited the rights to Pooh and his forest friends from Stephen Slesinger, a New York literary agent who helped pioneer the business of marketing cartoon characters. Slesinger obtained the merchandising rights in 1930 from Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne.

Disney acquired the merchandising rights from the Slesinger family in 1961.

Since then, the Burbank entertainment giant has paid the family more than $66 million in royalties. Most of that amount was paid during the last decade as Disney's marketing machine roared into gear, turning the befuddled bear into a $1-billion-a-year business.

At the peak of the Pooh merchandising craze in 1998, the family received about $10 million in royalties. But more recently, as Pooh's popularity softened, the Slesingers received less, sources said.

The family says its legal bills now exceed the annual royalties paid by Disney. In one recent month, the legal bills totaled $700,000, a source said.

The family alleges that Disney's legal strategy is to "make this case as expensive for us as possible."

"We are not a giant corporation like Disney," the Slesingers said in a statement. "During the last couple of months, Jones Day's fees for handling this matter were much higher than either we or the firm expected."

Jones Day is the eighth firm hired by the family since the case was filed. It's not clear when a new firm might take over.

Levenson, the Loyola professor, said the staggering legal bills could be more than exasperating for a family that has been in court for more than a decade -- with a trial still months, if not years, away.

Disney's lead attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, suggested a different motivation for the attorney shuffle. He contends that the Slesinger camp has been in disarray since he filed a motion in February, saying the family hired private investigators who allegedly broke into Disney buildings to steal legal documents relating to the case, a charge the clan denies.

Petrocelli has asked that the case be dismissed. A hearing on his request also has been delayed.

"Enough is enough," Petrocelli said. "This is a stalling tactic, and we hope the court will soon put an end to this.... We would like to have our day in court."

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