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Supreme Court roughs up TV judge over arbitration

January 15, 2008|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Television's "Judge Alex" and his former manager may be headed to arbitration after all.

The Supreme Court gave a rough hearing Monday to a lawyer for Alex E. Ferrer, a former judge in Florida who rules on petty disputes in a syndicated television show, "Judge Alex," where his decisions are final.

In 2002, Ferrer signed a contract with Arnold M. Preston, a Los Angeles lawyer who said he could help the judge find work in television. The contract said disputes would be handled through arbitration.

But in 2005, after "Judge Alex" went on the air, Ferrer refused to pay Preston the 12% commission called for in the contract, and he went to court in Los Angeles to block arbitration.

Ferrer contended that the contract was not valid under California's Talent Agencies Act, which was designed to protect performers from unscrupulous agents, because Preston was not a licensed talent agent. The law sends contract disputes to the state's labor commissioner before they are considered in court or before a private arbitrator.

On Monday, the justices said Ferrer had no choice but to go to arbitration, and they appeared ready to rule that the Federal Arbitration Act trumped California's Talent Agencies Act.

"I used to teach contract law, and I am sure that when you say you'll arbitrate, it means you won't litigate," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "And even if I didn't ever teach contract law, it would still be the law."

The same sentiment was shared by all of the justices who spoke during the hourlong argument.

Ferrer's lawyer, G. Eric Brunstad Jr. of Hartford, Conn., said California's law "merely postpones arbitration" until the state's labor commissioner can review the fairness of the contract.

The labor commissioner "is an expert. She gets to decide the controversy initially," Brunstad said.

But the justices questioned why such a detour was necessary.

This "virtually destroys the value of arbitration," Justice David H. Souter said. "The expeditiousness of arbitration is gone once you start down the California procedural road."

Beverly Hills lawyer Joseph D. Schleimer, who represented Preston, agreed that the dispute had gone on for too long.

"We had a multiplication of litigation because Judge Ferrer filed a Labor Commission petition and then a Superior Court lawsuit," he said.

Until Monday, Ferrer had been winning. A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled that Ferrer had a right to take his case to the labor commissioner. In a 2-1 decision last year, a state appeals court agreed.

Preston took the case to the California Supreme Court, which refused to order arbitration.

Several times in recent years, the Supreme Court has said that the Federal Arbitration Act means that contracts that call for arbitration must be honored, even if state laws might allow for people to go to court instead.

On TV, "Judge Alex" hands down immediate rulings. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, will take several weeks to issue its decision in Preston vs. Ferrer.


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