The Writers Guild of America West has been hit with a whistle-blower suit by a nine-year employee, who alleges she was fired in retaliation for questioning the legality of the guild’s distribution of foreign levies to writers and testifying to federal investigators.
Teri Madrid Mial, who filed the suit Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, accused the WGA West of wrongful termination in her July 7 dismissal from her post as a trusts and estates manager at the guild.
“Plaintiff’s termination violated the state of California’s fundamental public policies in favor of the right to raise meritorious complaints as well as the right to object to and refuse requests by defendants to violate California and federal law,” Mial’s suit said.
A rep for the WGA West said the guild had no comment. The WGA West has never publicly acknowledged the existence of the probe, and general counsel Anthony Segall told Daily Variety in June, “We are aware of no federal investigation.”
Mial’s lawsuit, however, accuses the guild of firing her after discovering she had participated in the investigation. And it alleges she was dismissed on a trumped-up charge of making a death threat against another guild employee.
“Ms. Mial repeatedly objected to the WGA West’s illegal and deliberate failure to disburse foreign levies collected by the WGA West,” the suit said. “Prior to Ms. Mial’s wrongful termination, the U.S. Dept. of Labor launched an investigation into the guild’s collection and distribution of foreign levies. Guild leadership has not disclosed an accurate accounting of the foreign levies collected on behalf of its members, nor has it distributed all foreign levies that have been collected.”
The suit asserted five causes of action and asks for compensatory and punitive damages along with seeking triple damages due to the fact that Mial is a senior citizen.
It’s the second suit filed against the WGA West over the issue of foreign levies, which are funds collected in more than a dozen countries on behalf of the WGA. Those nations typically impose a fee on blank videocassettes and VCRs as a sort of copyright use tax for films and TV programs aired in those markets.
The WGA West was sued in September 2005 by William Richert (“The Man in the Iron Mask”) over collection of foreign levies for non-members. Richert — who has since asked to withdraw from the suit — alleged the WGA has no authority to collect the funds for nonmembers, hasn’t communicated that information to the affected writers and hasn’t paid them. The DGA was hit with a similar suit last May.
The WGA and DGA have agreements to handle those funds for U.S. writers and directors — both members and nonmembers — in Argentina, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Slovakia and Switzerland.
Mial’s suit alleges that when she was fired, she was not given the opportunity to respond in the presence of a neutral individual and not allowed to explain the circumstances surrounding the alleged threat, nor was she given the opportunity to explain the content of the statements she made to the Dept. of Labor. She also asserted that the attorney present for the guild, Ellen Greenstone, refused to listen to her explanations in addition to having a conflict of interest as a result of her firm’s work in the Richert suit.
The guild’s only substantive response on the foreign levies issue came a year ago, after Richert’s suit was filed, when it admitted it had $23 million in foreign levies to be distributed.
Daniel Petrie Jr., who was in the final days of his presidency, sent a letter to all 8,000 WGA West members to complain about the accusations against the guild, focusing on complaints that the guild had collected but not yet disbursed foreign levies to writers such as Tom Clancy and to the estates of Vladimir Nabokov, Preston Sturges and Alan Pakula in amounts ranging from $2.38 to $205.
But former presidential candidate Eric Hughes has asserted the foreign levy amounts due to writers are much larger, noting quarterly payments from Germany for the Sturges estate during a single quarter of 1999 exceeded $5,000. He also confirmed the Dept. of Labor’s investigation earlier this year.
“Ms. Mial’s courage and decency in standing on the side of writers has made her a heroine to those of us now pursuing the truth that comes with justice,” Hughes said Thursday. “And soon, her heroism will be known to thousands of other writers, as well as the heirs of thousands of others.”
The Dept. of Labor does not comment on ongoing investigations.
Former WGA West board member J.F. Lawton told Daily Variety he believes the federal government’s investigation into foreign levies has been ongoing for several years. Lawton, who served on the board between 2003 and 2005, spoke with Dept. of Labor investigators as part of the feds’ probe into the 2003 presidential election.
“It was clear to me that the Dept. of Labor knew that there were serious problems at the WGA West at that point,” he added.
The Dept. of Labor found the WGA West had failed to properly qualify Victoria Riskin as a candidate in the 2003 contest; she was allowed to run despite not having written enough to be an active member. That led to the feds’ supervising the 2004 contest.