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WGA Lawsuit Put on Slow Track in Blow to Union

A judge on Wednesday ruled that the Writers Guild of America lawsuit against the major talent agencies is a “complex” case, likely postponing the day when it would get to trial.

CAA and WME asked the court last week to make the designation, arguing that it will involve unusual legal theories and a review of thousands of writers’ contracts. The WGA opposed the move. The designation means the case will be reassigned to a new judge and put on a slower track. Under court rules, civil cases are supposed to reach a disposition within two years, but complex cases are expected to take up to three years.

The WGA filed the lawsuit in April, seeking a ruling that would invalidate the agencies’ decades-old practice of taking packaging fees. The guild argues that the arrangement constitutes a breach of fiduciary duty. The guild has adopted a new code of conduct which bars packaging, and directed its members to fire their agents when the major agencies refused to sign it. The agencies have accused the guild of fostering chaos and refusing to negotiate in good faith.

The legal maneuver suggests that the agencies believe they can outlast the guild in court. The agencies are still hoping to knock out the case early in the process, but appear to believe they can weaken the guild’s position by driving up the cost of litigating the case to trial.

Judge Kenneth R. Freeman granted the agencies’ request on Wednesday, and reassigned the case to Judge William F. Highberger of the L.A. Superior Court’s complex civil litigation program.

Highberger will be the fourth judge to oversee the case. The case was initially assigned to Judge Marc Gross in the Santa Monica Superior Court. The WGA used a peremptory challenge to remove him because his wife used to work for the Endeavor Talent Agency. The case then went to Judge Craig Karlan, who agreed to step aside when both sides noted that he had once been a writer and had discussed a project with CAA. Judge Elaine Mandel was the next to get the case, and did not appear to have any conflicts.

Highberger was appointed to the bench by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1998. Prior to that, he worked at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher for 22 years, handling labor and employment cases. He has presided over complex cases, including wage and hour class action suits, since 2008.

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