Settlement reached in TV discrimination cases

Plaintiffs alleged bias against writers over age 40

A slew of television talent agencies, networks and production studios are making it clear that they do not discriminate against older writers. Nevertheless, they're paying $70 million to settle an age-discrimination lawsuit.

It remains to be seen how much money will flow to the 165 plaintiffs who participated in the class-action suit, and attorneys for both parties involved in the 10-year battle say they are not allowed to talk about Friday's settlement, which is subject to final approval by California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles.

Sources close to the situation calculate that those who joined the class action early are eligible for amounts ranging from $70,000-$140,000, and in some cases more. Those who joined later could get about 40% less, and a minimum amount has been set at $250.

The proposed formula for determining how much each plaintiff gets already is drawing heat, though the details of that formula are still being ironed out. One issue involves how much the latecomers -- those who might have joined the lawsuit just a year ago -- will receive.

"When we were first told about the newbies, we were told they'd get chump change. But 60% of what I will get isn't chump change," said Burt Prelutsky, one of the earliest to sign on as a plaintiff.

Prelutsky recalls being approached a dozen years ago by attorney Daniel Wolf, now of the Law Office of Daniel Wolf -- one of the several firms, along with Sprenger & Lang, representing the plaintiffs.

When Wolf asked Prelutsky, in his late 50s at the time, if he had any reason to sue television companies for age discrimination, his reaction was: "It's not like CBS ever told me I was too old or that I should get a toupee or a younger partner. But I had heard those suggestions from agencies. So I told Wolf that if he ever went after the agencies, you can count me in."

Prelutsky actually bowed out of the lawsuit while writing for "Diagnosis Murder" for two years but rejoined after that job ended.

Of the $70 million, $43 million will be used to pay the class members and taxes on their awards, to fund required reserves and to "activities beneficial to the settlement class members." Two-thirds of the settlement will be paid by insurance companies.

Attorneys get about $25 million and $2.5 million will be used to create a Fund for the Future, which will issue grants and loans to class members to help their careers. That money also will be used to figure out ways to supplement pensions and health insurance.

The formula for determining who gets what will take into account several factors, including income derived from TV writing, attempts at obtaining representation, writing qualifications and anecdotal evidence of discrimination. Even "aspiring" TV writers with no professional experience could qualify under certain circumstances.

Plaintiffs, all of whom were at least age 40, began litigating against a host of companies 10 years ago. Seventeen companies -- including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Spelling Television, Carsey-Werner -- announced a settlement Friday, though they deny allegations of age discrimination. ICM and Broder Kurland Webb settled earlier; the only company yet to settle is CAA.

According to an amended complaint, CAA is accused of having "decided to not represent or refer older writers."

The complaint lists examples of writers who have "been deterred from seeking representation from CAA" because of "its well-deserved reputation for ageism."

The complaint includes statements from writers on such TV shows as "Star Trek: Voyager," "Deep Space Nine," "Magnum P.I.," "Hart to Hart," "Knot's Landing," "Ryan's Hope," "Bewitched," "Green Acres," "My Three Sons" and several more. Despite writing for those hit shows and others, the writers claim CAA would not seriously consider representing them.

CAA had no comment.
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