Ex-manager pursues legal battle against Calif. statute

Rick Siegel has moved on from talent management to a new career where, he notes with bemusement, he doesn’t have to deal with such things as whether a client has Dish TV or DirecTV in their trailers.

But he has not given up on an issue that has bedeviled the management business for decades: finding work for their clients.

Officially, it is a no-no for managers to formally negotiate deals on behalf of their clients. Unofficially, it goes on anyway, in what the California Supreme Court called “standard operating procedure,” particularly for managers trying to boost new talent who otherwise wouldn’t have a shot with a licensed agent.

Siegel has challenged the Talent Agencies Act, the state law that holds that only licensed talent agents can “procure” employment. It’s the state’s attempt to strike a division between licensed talent agents and other, unlicensed representatives.

Siegel’s Marathon Entertainment represented actress Rosa Blasi, a star of the Lifetime drama “Strong Medicine,” and after she stopped paying him commissions, the dispute went to the state Labor Commissioner, who voided her contract with Siegel on the grounds that he had performed the work of a talent agent without a license.

The case made its way to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the Talent Agencies Act as well as the authority of the Labor Commissioner to void contracts for unlawful procurement. It did say that the commissioner had discretion to partially enforce the contracts for management services legally rendered.

‘No criminal activity’

Siegel is again asking the state High Court to take his case, but with a twist: He claims that the Labor Commissioner’s enforcement of the Talent Agencies Act is “legally unsupportable,” because in 1982 state lawmakers took out criminal penalties for violating the act.

“The 13th Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to compensation unless duly convicted of a crime,” his brief states. “With no criminal activity associated with the TAA, disrupting one’s contractual rights to compensation, let alone voiding such rights, has no proper legal foundation.”

After years of challenging the Talent Agencies Act, Siegel is now representing himself, having sued his previous legal team at Fox & Spillane for failing to bring up the “no penalty” argument. An arbitrator sided with Fox & Spillance, rejecting his malpractice claims, and lower courts declined to reverse that ruling. Siegel is also asking the state Supreme Court to weigh in on procedural questions of whether arbitrators exceeded their power.

In this latest challenge to the Talent Agencies Act, Siegel has rounded up 143 management companies to write letters urging the state Supreme Court to take up the issue. It’s not hard to stir their passion on the issue.

Managers have long argued that the law has been abused, used by clients to get out of paying commissions when they move on to new representation. And they get some sympathy from legal scholars. In its decision, the state Supreme Court even cited a 2003 law review article, which found that “the current regulatory scheme is ineffective.” (It also found that the increasing number of managers getting into production was raising troubling questions of conflict of interest.)

The state Supreme Court will rule by late January if it will hear Siegel’s appeal, but it is a big “if.” Its 2008 decision noted that while the act “provides no remedy for its violation,” it does not “repudiate the generally applicable and long-standing rule of severability.” They cited the Civil Code adopted in 1872: “Where a contract has several distinct objects, of which one at least is lawful, and one at least is unlawful, in whole or in part, the contract is void as to the latter and valid as to the rest.”

The high court was sympathetic to managers’ complaints, acknowledging that the current system has been used as a “blunt and unwieldy instrument,” but they concluded that they had “no authority to rewrite the regulatory scheme.”

Siegel argues that the court has not ruled on the approach he has now presented — that an administrative agency can’t create a remedy to a law. While he hasn’t given up, he’s carved out a new career in the green movement. He’s partner in Green Garmento, which sells reusable bags for the dry cleaning business.

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