The Winnie the Pooh case sprang back to life Friday when the Slesinger family moved to disqualify the judge who dismissed their case because they discovered that former Disney general counsel Lou Meisinger was not only a lawyer at the judge’s former law firm but is still actively involved in the Pooh case.
Last month, L.A. Superior Court judge Charles McCoy stunned observers by granting Disney’s motion to terminate the 14-year-old royalty dispute on the grounds that the Slesingers’ conduct in hiring a private detective to steal documents from Disney’s trash and altering them to remove confidentiality notices was so egregious that dismissing the case was the only remedy.
The Slesinger family holds North American merchandising rights to Pooh and has licensed them to Disney since the 1960s. The family sued in 1991, claiming it was cheated out of royalties. Given Pooh’s status as Disney’s most lucrative character, damage estimates have run as high as $1 billion, and Disney’s victory last month was seen as unexpected good news.
Before the case was transferred to McCoy last year, L.A. Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige sanctioned Disney for destroying documents, including a file labeled “Pooh legal problems.” Hiroshige ruled that a jury would be told Disney suppressed evidence and that Disney could not dispute a key claim in the case — that a deceased Disney executive promised the family would be paid royalties on videocassette sales.
While motions to disqualify a judge for conflict of interest are common, it is unusual for them to be brought after a judge has ruled. In their motion, the plaintiffs say they did not discover that Meisinger was actively involved in the case until after McCoy had ruled, and if they had known, they would have asked the judge to step down.
According to the motion, McCoy was a partner at Sheppard Mullin for 17 years until he joined the bench in 1992. He maintained close friendships with Sheppard Mullin partners while on the bench and recused himself from three cases in which Sheppard Mullin was involved.
At Disney, Meisinger oversaw the Pooh litigation. According to the motion, when Meisinger left Disney in 2003 and joined Sheppard Mullin, he also entered into a personal services contract with Disney. He continued to work on the Pooh case and attended the hearing, during which he consulted with Disney’s attorney, Dan Petrocelli.
Despite an order by McCoy when he took over the case that both parties disclose all counsel, Disney did not disclose that Meisinger was working on the case.