Three digital animation workers have filed a new, consolidated wage-fixing complaint against The Walt Disney Co., DreamWorks Animation, Sony ImageWorks and other companies, claiming a more widespread effort to conspire to suppress salaries via “non-poaching” agreements between the companies.
The workers contend that the roots of the anti-poaching agreements go back to the mid-1980s, when George Lucas and Ed Catmull, the president of Steve Jobs’ newly formed company Pixar, agreed to not raid each other’s employees.
Other companies then joined the conspiracy, the suit contends, with agreements on such things as cold calling and notifying each other when making an offer to an employee of another company. The lawsuit cites emails between Catmull and human resources personnel, and it also claims that Jobs and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, “personally discussed DreamWorks joining the conspiracy.”
Also named as defendants in the suit are ImageMovers, Blue Sky Studios, Lucasfilm and Pixar.
The plaintiffs in the antitrust case are former DreamWorks senior character effects artist Robert Nitsch; former ImageMovers Digital production engineer David Wentworth and digital artist Georgia Cano, who held jobs at Rhythm & Hues, Walt Disney Feature Animation and ImageMovers Digital. They are seeking class action status.
The plaintiffs in the case filed a consolidated claim on Tuesday, after filing individual claims earlier this year.
Their lawsuit claims that The Walt Disney Co.’s involvement deepened when it bought Pixar in 2006 and appointed Catmull to run Walt Disney Animation.
The suit contends that “Disney Chairman Dick Cook explicitly approved Pixar’s and Disney’s participation in the anti-solicitation scheme when informed of the scheme. Catmull explained to Cook that ‘all of the companies up here — Pixar, ILM, Dreamworks and couple of smaller places [sic] — have conscientiously avoided raiding each other’ and explained that the concern was that companies offering employees ‘a substantial salary increase’ will ‘seriously mess up the pay structure.’ Cook responded succinctly: ‘I agree.’ He promised to ‘reaffirm our position again’ with ImageMovers Digital, a joint venture Disney was about to launch with ImageMovers.”
Lucasfilm and Pixar already were targets of a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit in 2010, along with Apple, Google, Adobe Systems, Intel Corp. and Intuit, in which the government contended that their “no solicitation” agreements prevented highly skilled employees from commanding better wages and job opportunities. The companies settled the litigation by agreeing to end such practices for a period of five years.
But a class-action civil suit was filed in 2011, and during the litigation emails were disclosed which appeared to link other companies to the “no poaching” agreements, including Disney and DreamWorks Animation, who were not named defendants in either that lawsuit or the Justice Department action. In a settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in May, Lucasfilm and Pixar agreed to pay $9 million, and Intuit agreed to pay $11 million. But Koh refused to approve a $325 million settlement with a class action group and other companies including Apple and Google.
Koh also is presiding in the latest case.
A spokesman for for DreamWorks said that they had no comment. A spokesman for The Walt Disney Co. did not immediately return a request for comment, but when Nitsch filed his lawsuit in September, the studio said, “We believe this complaint is utterly without merit and intend to defend against it vigorously.”
In a joint court filing in October, the defendants in the case indicated that they anticipate challenging whether the former employees have stated any claim and whether they have standing to prosecute any claim. They also indicate that they plan to challenge class certification.
The animation studios also argue that the claims were “belated attempts to spin off fresh litigation from a DOJ investigation that began more than five years ago, is now well over, and resulted in no proceedings being instituted against the majority of the defendants in this case; and from civil litigation that followed shortly thereafter and is now nearing resolution.”
They added, “The complaints allege no facts in support of plaintiffs’ conclusory allegations that the supposed animation studio conspiracy was active at any time in the past four years, which is the relevant limitations period.”
The lawsuit also claims that since the mid-1990s, human resource and recruiting personnel met yearly to discuss an industry compensation survey.
“Senior human resources personnel met annually after the survey for an ‘opportunity for an intimate group of us to get together,’ which they termed ‘Directors meeting.’ At least at one studio, the meetings were called the annual ‘salary council.'”
The suit claims that in late 2006, the head of human resources at Pixar sent an email to the heads of H.R. at DreamWorks, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Lucasfilm/ILM, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Blue Sky Studios and others to provide Pixas’s budget for future salary increases in 2007, and to ask for the other studios salary increase budgets in return.