Reality show staffers settle two lawsuits

Class-action cases involved unlawful working conditions

Reality show staffers have won a rare victory against TV networks and production companies, settling two long-running cases alleging unlawful working conditions for more than $4 million.

The settlement is another salvo in the WGA's ongoing battle to unionize story editors and other creatives in the nonscripted TV arena.

The dual class-action lawsuits were filed in 2005 by several hundred employees who worked in various capacities, including story editors, editors and segment producers, on such shows as "The Bachelor," "Trading Spouses," "Are You Hot?" and "The Real Gilligan's Island." They alleged that Fox, ABC, CBS and various production entities told them to forge time cards and work 18-hour days with few meal breaks.

A Los Angeles judge this week gave preliminary approval to a $2.57 million settlement with Fox Broadcasting and Rocket Science Laboratories and a $1.54 million settlement with ABC, CBS, Mike Fleiss' Next Entertainment and about six other production companies.

"I hope this settlement provides a disincentive to engage in any future employment law violations," said Emma Leheny, lead counsel for the employees. "It sends a message that this section of the television industry can't make up its own rules."

Fox, ABC and CBS would not comment on the settlement.

For years, workers in the reality genre have complained that production companies overwork them to keep costs low and that as story editors, they help create the plot and narrative of the shows. The WGA initially helped to organize those who filed the lawsuit as part of its campaign to get reality story editors recognized as writers, an effort that has not succeeded despite being a major issue last year during the WGA strike.

"This is an example of a union using the wage-and-hours laws to impose costs on employers in order to gain organizational objectives," said Scott Witlin, senior counsel at Akin Gump, which represents producers and studios but was not involved in this case. "The unions would much rather have these people in their membership, so they're trying to use this case as a kind of bludgeon to intimidate employers."

During litigation, the producers attempted to disqualify some plaintiffs and their lawyers in part because the WGA's general counsel, Anthony Segall, also serves as a partner at the plaintiffs' law firm. That effort was rejected by the California Court of Appeal.

Settlement negotiations had continued on and off since a March 2007 mediation, with the final details hammered out in December.

If the settlement is approved by a judge, about 400 class plaintiffs will split the settlement purse based on how many hours they worked, with about 20 name plaintiffs receiving an additional $8,250 each. Leheny and Segall's law firm is set to receive up to $1.1 million in fees and costs, according to settlement documents.
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