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Managers in murky waters

Thesp-rep feud back in court

A correction was made to this article on Dec. 21, 2005.

Thesp Rosa Blasi and her ex-manager Rick Siegel once again squared off in court Tuesday in a half-hour hearing. At first glance, the case seems like another brief, legal skirmish between an actor and a manager. But a dozen managers were in attendance — just one clue that the results of this battle could have a major impact on how talent managers operate.

Key issue revolves around the 1978 Talent Agencies Act, which deregulated managers and prevents them from procuring work. Siegel, like some managers before him, claims that the legal act enables actors to get out of management contracts without paying commissions.

Blasi, through her lawyers, countered that the Talent Act is clear and that Siegel is owed no money, since he violated the 1978 ruling.

Attorneys for Blasi (“Strong Medicine”) and Siegel presented oral arguments before four judges in the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.

Blasi fired Siegel, her manager of four years, in 2001 when she became a regular on the Lifetime cable series. Siegel, via his management shingle Marathon Entertainment, sued her two years later over unpaid commissions. Blasi then went to the state labor commission and accused Siegel of procuring employment on five occasions.

Last year, the state court found in favor of Blasi. Tuesday’s hearing was the result of Siegel’s appeal. While the manager was there, Blasi was not.

Donald V. Smiley, attorney for Siegel, contended Tuesday that the Talent Agencies Act is unconstitutional; that it’s applied in an inconsistent fashion by the state’s labor commission; and that violations by managers are penalized excessively.

“Managers are told one thing one day by the labor commission and something different the next,” Smiley said. “It’s a very arbitrary approach.”

Smiley contended that the Talent Agencies Act is too vague to be enforced. He also cited previous cases showing that a single violation of the act did not necessarily invalidate all other work performed by a manager.

Blasi’s attorney Michael Plonsker countered that a single violation did exactly that, adding, “The purpose of the statute is remedial.”

Plonsker also stressed that current state rules are specific about what managers can and can’t do. He noted that under a “safe harbor” provision, managers can assist in contract negotiations if they’re given specific permission by the agent to do so but that they’re barred from soliciting employment.

Justice Frances Rutherford said she wasn’t interested in discussing the statute’s constitutionality and focused most of her questioning on the issue of “severability” — whether a manager is entitled to any disputed commissions after the labor commission has found a violation.

At the end of the scheduled session, the four judges on the panel asked that Plonsker supply the court with additional briefs by Jan. 6 and said Smiley would have one week to respond.

Siegel has been on a four-year crusade against the Talent Agencies Act, alleging that it serves as a legal loophole for thesps — particularly those whose careers are on the upswing — to get out of contracts since managers aren’t allowed to procure employment.

Siegel settled a similar suit last year with Nia Vardalos over the thesp’s failure to pay the 15% commission on her earnings from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Terms of the settlement were confidential.

The Vardalos suit was settled after the State Labor Commission ruled in favor of Vardalos that the 1997 contract was void because the company had acted as a talent agency without a license. The suit asserted that Vardalos induced Siegel to forgo a producing credit on the film by promising “unconditional payment” for all services.

Several of the managers at Tuesday’s hearing had also taken ex-clients to court after being dismissed and accused of procuring employment, including Brad Waisbren, who lost an appeal against Peppercorn Prods. a decade ago.

“Being in court today brought back a lot of painful memories,” Waisbren said after the hearing. “You invest your blood and sweat in your clients, and when something like this happens, it’s very painful.”

Also outside Tuesday’s hearing, manager Peter Giagni added that the 1978 Talent Act is “like a guillotine over your head.”

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