WGAW aids law firm looking at possible class action

HOLLYWOOD — A law firm specializing in employment discrimination class-action suits has begun investigating age-discrimination allegations by Writers Guild of America West members over 40.

WGAW members have recently received written requests from Washington D.C.-based Sprenger & Lang for information to determine whether a class-action suit is viable, with the firm emphasizing it has made no decision yet. “We underscore the preliminary character of the investigation,” the letter said.

The investigation, according to attorney Maia Caplan, resulted from a “considerable” number of writers contacting the firm following the 1998 publication of a WGA-commissioned report showing sharply decreased employment opportunities for writers over 40 compared with younger writers. “The report showed that this might be something requiring some attention,” Caplan said.

The letter asks for information about discrimination in hiring for writers over 40 during the last five years, adding that the forms chiefly under examination are rejected and deterred applications for employment by networks, studios and production companies, as well as rejected and deterred requests for representation by talent agencies.

Sprenger & Lang said it would take the case on a contingency basis if it decides to move ahead. The firm won settlements worth nearly $100 million in 1997 in age-discrimination class-action suits against First Union Corp. and Ceridian Corp.

The WGAW is not involved in the investigation beyond assisting the firm in obtaining anecdotal information, according to Larry DiTillio, chairman of the guild’s age awareness committee. “They need to get as many stories as they can because they’re looking for a pattern of discrimination,” he said.

DeTillio said networks, studios and production companies may be shifting some of their focus from TV shows aimed at the 18-34 demographic due to poor performance by many of those shows, but he added that discrimination against hiring older writers has not abated. “In my opinion, they don’t want to work with someone who looks like their father,” he added.

WGAW’s board approved use of its membership list for the mailing but stressed that it has not been asked to participate in or fund the effort to gather evidence and added that it had not given the firm names and addresses. “The only way that Sprenger & Lang can learn your name or address as a result of this mailing is for you to contact the firm,” the guild said in an introduction to the letter.

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