A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit that accused the Hollywood Foreign Press Association of using its clout to control the market for overseas entertainment coverage.
In a ruling issued on Friday, Judge Stanley Blumenfeld tossed the lawsuit brought by Kjersti Flaa, a Norwegian reporter who alleged that she had been repeatedly denied membership because she posed a competitive threat to other Scandinavian members.
The HFPA has 85 members from around the world who are best known for voting on the Golden Globe Awards. According to the lawsuit, filed in August, the members are treated to exclusive access to stars and press junkets, and wield their power to freeze out non-members, effectively operating as an illegal cartel.
Flaa’s attorney, David Quinto, sought to force the HFPA to accept her and to rewrite its membership rules to remove all “non-objective” criteria. Quinto argued that the HFPA is a “quasi-public” organization, akin to a professional credentialing body, and therefore must adhere to a fair admissions procedure.
But Blumenfeld rejected that argument, finding that a club for foreign reporters is not akin to a trade union or a medical licensing body.
“In short, the right to fair procedure is a limited one that applies to an organization that operates in the public interest — and not one that engages in activity of some interest to the public,” Blumenfeld wrote. “It has not been applied in the field of entertainment. When California courts speak of a public interest ‘of special importance in society,’ they are not talking about public diversion.”
In effect, the judge ruled that the HFPA can set whatever admissions criteria it chooses.
The lawsuit also alleged that the HFPA violated state and federal antitrust law by inhibited competition among foreign journalists. Flaa alleged that existing members monopolize coverage in their designated territories, and are reluctant to admit anyone from their territory who might compete for freelance assignments. By denying her membership, she argued that the HFPA was also making it harder for her to get celebrity interviews and do her job.
The judge, however, ruled that those claims did not quite add up to a coherent antitrust complaint. Blumenfeld wrote that she had failed to properly define a “market” for entertainment journalism that HFPA could be said to monopolize. He also noted that Flaa has achieved a fair amount of success without HFPA membership.
Blumenfeld allowed her to try again, though, dismissing the antitrust claim with leave to amend.
“The complaint makes analysis of the antitrust claims challenging, and the Court is not willing to deny leave to amend — especially in light of the liberal standard — when Plaintiff’s antitrust theory is difficult to comprehend,” he wrote in a footnote. “If Plaintiff elects to amend, she should take seriously the questions of market power and antitrust harm in asserting a facially plausible claim.”
In a statement, Quinto said he would keep up the fight.
“We’re obviously disappointed that the Court did not allow Kjersti Flaa to seek relief under the California right of fair procedure claim because it stood to benefit all foreign entertainment reporters unfairly excluded from membership in the HFPA but will appeal the Court’s ruling when we can,” he said. “In the meantime, Kjersti will pursue her declaratory relief claim in another court and will amend her existing complaint to address the Court’s criticism of the antitrust claims as pleaded.”
Update, Nov. 27: The HFPA’s attorney, Marvin Putnam of Latham & Watkins, says the case was about “jealousy, not merit.”
“We are gratified by the Court’s unequivocal rejection of Ms Flaa’s claims against the HFPA and members Meher Tatna, Tina Jøhnk Christensen, Aniko Navai and Aud Morisse,” Putnam said in a statement. “Her lawyers’ and her attempts to spin this as a crusade for fairness were dismissed as nothing more than they are – a transparent attempt to shake down the HFPA based on jealousy, not merit. We will continue to defend the HFPA should her lawyers continue in this folly, but sincerely hope they will cease wasting judicial and involved-party resources that can be better spent elsewhere in these difficult times.”