Adding yet another twist to the long-running Winnie the Pooh case, Bert Fields has ankled as lead attorney to the Slesinger family, the plaintiffs in a bitter court fight with Disney over royalty payments they claim they are owed for licensing Pooh.
Fields confirmed that he is leaving the case but would not give a reason for the exit. “I will not discuss the reasons for the withdrawal,” said Fields. “I believe there is enormous merit to the Slesingers’ case and I believe they will prevail at trial, but this is not a case I can try.”
Fields notified the court earlier in the week that he intended to withdraw as part of a motion filed by Mattel to disqualify him as counsel. Mattel, which was subpoenaed by the Slesingers in the Pooh case, claimed that Fields had a conflict of interest because he had previously represented the toy company.
People familiar with the case said, however, that Mattel’s motion did not prompt the withdrawal. Some speculated that friction with Pati Slesinger, one of the main plaintiffs, was the more likely cause for withdrawing.
Stephen Slesinger originally obtained the North American rights to Pooh from author A.A. Milne in the 1930s. Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, his wife, licensed Pooh to Disney in the 1960s. Lasswell — now in her 80s — and her daughter Pati sued Disney in 1991 after they became convinced that Disney was cheating them on royalties. Damage estimates run as high as $1 billion.
Since the case was filed, at least seven law firms have represented the Slesingers. Fields was brought in shortly after he settled Jeffrey Katzenberg’s breach-of-contract suit with Disney for $250 million. Well-known litigator Browne Greene is expected to take Fields’ place. A call to Greene was not returned.
During Fields’ tenure on the case, the Pooh litigation assumed a much higher public profile. On appeal, he successfully defended an earlier ruling by L.A. Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige finding that Disney had destroyed important documents and that a jury could be told the company had willfully suppressed evidence. More recently, Disney failed in an attempt to move the case to federal court and to terminate the Slesingers’ license by making a new deal with the heirs of Pooh author A.A. Milne and Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard.
Currently pending in state court is the so-called trash motion. The motion, filed by Disney in February, alleges illegal activity by the Slesingers, including charges that they hired an unlicensed private detective to steal thousands of files from Disney’s trash, including privileged documents.
The Slesingers responded that it is not illegal to take trash when it is on a public site and that Disney had known about the documents for at least eight years and never objected.