Guild settlement hearing hits a snag

The WGA’s efforts to settle a tangled 2005 lawsuit over millions of dollars in foreign levies collected on behalf of writers have hit another roadblock. The result is that scribes are unlikely to see any money from the class-action suit anytime soon.

The outlook for the suit became murkier Monday at a state court hearing that had originally been set to approve a preliminary settlement agreement and to dismiss William Richert as lead plaintiff at his request. Richert has now decided that he wants to remain at the forefront of the case.

“We’ve got a mess here,” said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carl West during the hearing. “I’ve never seen any documentation of the settlement, and I have serious concerns about how this has been done. It has a bad look to it.”

West also expressed displeasure that there’s been no formal notice to the court that Pearl Retchin, one of the co-plaintiffs, passed away last year and that her daughter had replaced her as representative.

“How could this have possibly gone forward?” West asked. “There’s less transparency than might have been appropriate.”

West told Richert — who’s been designated as the class representative for writers — that he needs to hire another attorney to represent him. The judge instructed the attorneys and Richert to meet with another state court judge in coming weeks to work out a settlement and then return to his court for a status conference May 6.

At stake in the suit are millions in foreign funds due to copyright holders as compensation for reuse — such as taxes on video rentals, cable retransmissions and purchases of blank videocassettes and DVDs. Unlike in the U.S., writers, actors and directors in most other nations cannot surrender the copyright on their works.

Settlement talks began last summer. Richert’s suit alleges 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; WGA officials said at the time of the filing that the suit was without merit.

Richert had appeared before the court in January asking to be removed as plaintiff but changed his mind recently, asserting in court that he had discovered evidence detailing alleged embezzlement in how the WGA has handled the foreign funds.

Richert’s attorney, Neville Johnson, told West that he was “flabbergasted” at Richert’s latest decision and added that work on the settlement is not done. “We still have not dotted all the i’s,” he said.

Emma Leheny, representing the WGA, refused to comment after the hearing beyond saying, “We’re in mediation.”

The DGA settled a similar suit last year, asserting it had distributed $48 million in levies to DGA members and $4.9 million to nonmembers. SAG’s facing a similar suit from Ken Osmond.

Several other potential legal problems also have emerged for the WGA over how it’s handled the Richert case. A former WGA West employee who handled foreign levies plans to file suit for a second time against the guild; and the widow of Philip Yordan, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “Broken Lance,” is filing a criminal complaint against the guild.

In addition, a complaint was filed last week with the state’s Office of the Trial Counsel alleging misconduct by Richert’s attorneys, Johnson and Paul Kiesel. That action, filed by Eric Hughes in his role as consultant on the suit, alleges the attorneys have failed to disclose to the court that Richert is not a WGA member.

In response, Johnson said, “My firm and co-counsel are proud of our record over the past three years exposing the wrong deeds of the Writers Guild of America, and fighting for all union and non-union writers to receive just compensation from the union on monies they are owed. Mr. Hughes is neither our client nor an attorney, but is at odds with us and Mr. Richert because we do not take direction from him and we do not agree with his legal strategy. For this reason, he makes unfounded, scurrilous attacks on us and many others.”

The complaint also alleges the attorneys haven’t stopped Richert from harassing Terri Mial, a former WGA employee who filed a wrongful termination suit accusing the guild of firing her in retaliation for speaking with federal investigators about foreign levies. The complaint also said Mial, who reached a settlement two years ago on the suit, has filed a crime report with the LAPD about the harassment and plans to file suit against Richert, Johnson, Kiesel, the WGA and her former attorney, Douglas Silverstein.

In addition, the complaint also discloses that Faith Yordan plans to file a criminal complaint this week against the WGA West for its alleged failure to provide her with information about her husband’s residuals.

“Johnson and Kiesel have deliberately withheld information from the court and have allowed counsel for the defendants to submit filings and testimony which Johnson and Kiesel know to be false,” said Hughes in the complaint. “They have allowed counsel for the defendants to deceive judges in both federal and state court.”

The complaint alleges the two attorneys have withheld information from the court about the foreign levy agreements signed by the guilds.

“The unions are not holding these monies as any consequence of the so-called Foreign Levy Agreement, but instead by falsely claiming in foreign countries to foreign collecting societies that they are legally authorized to collect monies generated by copyright,” it said.

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