Michael Russell's complaint for wrongful termination and defamation will proceed

A Los Angeles judge refused to throw out key parts of a suit brought against the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and president Philip Berk by its former publicist, Michael Russell.

Russell sued the HFPA in January for a variety of claims including wrongful termination and defamation. He alleged that the HFPA failed to pay his full wages as well as that of his partner, Stephen LoCascio. The HFPA filed a countersuit.

The suit has drawn attention because Russell included in his complaint charges that HFPA members engaged in a kind of payola — acceptance of perks in exchange for votes. The HFPA denied the claims, and said that Russell failed to produce “one iota of documentation” for the allegations.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin C. Brazile ruled that Russell’s claims of breach of implied-in-fact contract and promissory estoppel “are sufficient at this stage.” He also declined to throw out claims of intentional interference with contract, intentional interference with prospective business advantage, failure to pay wages and unfair business practices. He gave Russell 20 days to amend fraud and wrongful termination claims.

HFPA, the org of journos behind the Golden Globes, had been challenging the legal sufficiency of Russell’s charges, in a legal maneuver called a demurrer.

In May, Brazile threw out Russell’s claims of defamation involving a charitable endeavor he had helped set up for the show called Stars for a Cause, as well as a defamation claim against Berk. But in a Tuesday ruling in a separate suit, Brazile allowed a defamation claim brought by Stars for a Cause and its co-founder, George Braunstein, to go forward.

Braunstein claims he was defamed when Berk sent an e-mail saying that Stars was “being sued in California Superior Court for fraud by Cunard.” Brazile wrote in his ruling that the “statement itself is not true,” as Stars was not sued by Cunard but another party, and that the suit was dismissed with prejudice in 2008, almost two years before Berk made it. Brazile did throw out other parts of the Braunstein and Stars suit.

Joe Campo, an attorney for HFPA, said in a statement, “While we did not expect the Court to dismiss either Complaint in its entirety at this early stage, we were satisfied with Judge Brazile’s rejection of several theories against the HFPA and Mr. Berk and look forward to addressing the weaknesses of the remaining claims by motion for summary judgment after all the evidence is assembled through discovery and depositions.”

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