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Hollywood writers' age-discrimination case settled

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A decade-old legal battle comes to an end as 17 major networks and production studios, along with seven talent agencies, agree to pay $70 million to thousands of writers.

January 23, 2010|By Richard Verrier

A long and winding legal battle that raised uncomfortable questions about Hollywood's treatment of middle-aged and older TV writers was settled Friday, a decade after a class-action lawsuit alleged they were the victims of widespread age discrimination.

Under the settlement, 17 major networks and production studios, along with seven talent agencies, agreed to pay $70 million to thousands of writers to resolve 19 claims.

A group of 165 writers alleged that the networks, studios and talent agencies unfairly squeezed out writers older than 40 in their efforts to capture younger audiences, denying them employment on dramas and situation comedies.

About $2.5 million of the settlement will be used to establish a "Fund for the Future" that will issue grants and loans to older writers to aid their careers and study ways to supplement their pensions.

In a jointly issued statement, attorneys for the producers, studios and agencies denied any wrongdoing.

"We were fully prepared to oppose class certification and would have prevailed at trial if necessary," said Seth E. Pierce, an attorney for the defendants. "But with years of disruptive litigation remaining . . . it made sense to bring these protracted cases to a close."

Defendants included most of the major Hollywood studios and broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, as well as big talent agencies including William Morris, Endeavor and UTA. A related claim against talent agency International Creative Management was previously settled.

A claim against Creative Artists Agency remains pending. A spokesman for the talent agency declined to comment.

Lead counsel for the plaintiffs Paul Sprenger -- who represented female mine workers in a Minnesota sexual-harassment case made famous in the 2005 film "North Country" -- said he urged class members to approve the settlement.

The case captured widespread attention because it highlighted what has long been a delicate subject in Hollywood, where complaints about ageism have dogged the industry for years, even inspiring a documentary called "Power and Fear: The Hollywood Graylist." Although many writers privately complain about discrimination, few have been willing to take the issue to court for fear of losing their jobs, making the lawsuit highly unusual.

"It's a mixed blessing," said Craig Buck, 57, who wrote for such shows as "Magnum, P.I." and "The Incredible Hulk" and now earns a living writing novels. "It's nice we'll get a little cash to soothe the pain, but that doesn't really reconstruct a career that has been dive-bombed by discrimination."

The case won a crucial boost from the Writers Guild of America. Although the union was not a party to the case, it provided some of the key demographic research that helped buttress the age-discrimination claims. The guild's periodic diversity reports have found evidence that older workers are underrepresented on writing staffs, particularly at the major networks.

"It's an important settlement in its scope," said Tony Segall, general counsel for the WGA, West. "We're happy to see the litigation resolved because it's going to benefit a lot of people."

Segall estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 guild members would be eligible to apply for the money, along with several thousand more whose work was registered with the guild.

The plaintiffs included some high-profile guild members, among them former "MASH" and "Frasier" writer Elias Davis, the union's former secretary-treasurer who ran unsuccessfully for president last year. Davis said Friday that he didn't know enough about the settlement to comment.

Some observers questioned whether the case would change Hollywood's attitude toward older writers.

"I'm a little more skeptical as to whether this will give Hollywood an incentive to change its practices," said Russell Robinson, a law professor at UCLA who specializes in entertainment and employment law.

He said that for Hollywood, $70 million "is a relative drop in the bucket. At the end of the day, studios believe they need to tap into younger minds to get the best scripts and the best ideas, and that's not likely to change."

The defendants will not have to reach deeply into their own pockets, however. About two-thirds of the $70 million will be paid by insurance carriers.

The settlement, subject to approval by the state court in Los Angeles, establishes a process for class members to apply for a cash distribution from a settlement fund.

First filed in federal court, the case shifted to Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2002 after a judge said the plaintiffs couldn't pursue some of their claims in federal court.

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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