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Ruling may aid talent managers

They could be entitled to pay for procuring work for clients, the state high court says.

January 29, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

In a closely watched entertainment case, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that personal managers could be entitled to compensation from their clients even if they procured work for them in violation of the state's Talent Agencies Act.

The court said the state's labor commissioner could void manager-talent contracts in their entirety over unlicensed procurement -- or decide to sever unlawful acts and partially enforce the deals.

Talent managers are integral to guiding the careers of their clients, but they are barred from procuring employment for them. That task is the purview of licensed talent agents. But the differing roles aren't always sharply defined, and the work that managers and agents perform on behalf of their clients can overlap.

As a result of the ruling, however, it will be harder for performers to sue managers using the Talent Agencies Act to invalidate their contracts if the manager procured employment.

The decision involves a long-running dispute between actress Rosa Blasi of the Lifetime TV series "Strong Medicine" and her former manager, Rick Siegel of Marathon Entertainment.

Siegel said Monday that lawyers had been making "a cottage industry" out of using the act to get their artist clients out of paying millions of dollars to their former managers.

"This is a huge step forward in correcting an abuse," he said. "On a scale of zero to 100, we were at zero until today, but now we're at 90."

Attorney Michael J. Plonsker, whose Santa Monica firm Dreier Stein Kahan Browne Woods George represents Blasi, said he was "disheartened that the court has seen fit to strip the act of the deterrent mechanism -- namely, automatic voiding of the illegal talent agency contract in its entirety -- that has stood for 40 years."

But Plonsker said he was pleased that the court, at the same time, rejected Siegel's contention that managers were exempt from the Talent Agencies Act, which states that only licensed agents can secure employment for their clients. If Siegel had prevailed on that point, it could have led to managers competing head-to-head with agents in finding work for entertainers, the attorney said.

Plonsker said he hoped that the Legislature would amend the act to establish a "bright-line and harsh deterrent." In its ruling, the court suggested that lawmakers might want to clarify or revise the act.

The law, which took effect in 1979, is designed to protect performers from unscrupulous advisors.

"In the last 10 years there has been a growing concern about how to keep the fly-by-night types out while recognizing that bona fide managers perform a proper function and should be compensated for it," said Bill Grantham, an entertainment lawyer at Greenberg Traurig in Santa Monica.

The Blasi dispute began in 2003 when Marathon sued the actress over unpaid commissions, and she responded by alleging that the manager had acted as an unlicensed talent agent by illegally procuring work for her. Blasi had fired Marathon two years after she became a regular on the show.

The Supreme Court determined that the underlying cases contained a "genuine dispute of material facts over whether severability might apply to allow partial enforcement" of the contract.

The decision upheld a 2006 appellate court ruling in the case, which found that the court and labor commissioner could sever illegal acts from contracts between a manager and talent. The case will be sent back to the labor commissioner and a lower court for further proceedings.


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