Time for an age-old suit

Depositions near in seven-year case

If lawsuits, like fine wine, get better with age, this batch should be a doozy.

About 150 veteran TV writers continue their long slog toward the courtroom, with depositions in a 7-year-old age-discrimination case expected to finally commence this spring. Details of the long-on-the-vine litigation have taken so long to untangle that 10 or more plaintiffs have died since it was filed.

There was a big development in the case recently, when 70,000 mailings went out to former and current WGA members and their beneficiaries. The mailings -- targeting possibly no more than 40,000 individuals, using multiple addresses for many -- relates to a recent request for information on guild members' residual payments and health benefit files.

Case research and documentation have continued since the case was first filed in October 2000 as a civil suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Yet only recently has an actual discovery process commenced, with plaintiff attorneys diverted for years by a thicket of defendants' motions.

First, defendants succeeded in getting the federal suit dismissed, and when 23 related suits were filed in the local Superior Court seeking class-action status, the actions were contested aggressively by defendants' attorneys. Appeals rose to the state Supreme Court, which refused to hear the defendants' appeal, and the suits were reinstated in Superior Court in January 2005.

The suits seek unspecified monetary damages on behalf of the TV writers, who claim that they can't get work in Hollywood because of their ages. It names as defendants the major studios, TV networks and talent agencies.

The proposed class action would cover 150 plaintiff writers, including such veterans of classic television as Burt Prelutsky ("Newhart," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") and Tracy Keenan Wynn ("The Net," "The Quest"). About 60 "lead plaintiffs" are expected to figure most prominently in the imminent deposition process and potentially any trial.

"My experience included the difficulty of getting an agent once I got into my 50s, and of course in this town to get work you have to get an agent," Prelutsky, 67, recalled on Thursday. "They really have been trying to drag things out with the suit, hoping that all of us are going to be dead before we get our day in court.

"But hope springs eternal, and I'm still around. If we don't get around (to a court date) until I'm in my 70s, that's OK. It gives me something to live for. Of course, I did have an agent say he couldn't read my play because I'm suing him -- which seemed reasonable from his perspective."

Michael Lieder, a partner in the plaintiffs' lead law firm of Sprenger & Lang, said it's unclear when the case might finally reach trial but that depositions should begin by May.

Several writers who might have taken part in that process have died, he said. Lieder estimated their number "in the double digits."

"It has taken much longer than we would have liked," he said. "But we still believe firmly in the lawsuit and believe ultimately classes will be certified and we will prevail in the litigation."

Ultimately, a decision in the case could prove landmark, the attorney said.

"More importantly, it will have an impact on the view that older people do not possess certain qualities that are desirable in a youthful culture," Lieder added.

Plaintiff attorneys recently won court permission to seek private files of former and current members of the WGA West and WGA East, and last week's mass mailing was a related move required under state law to alert guild members of their right to deny such access. The WGA files and other data are being sought to ascertain writers' ages and work histories to document patterns of age discrimination.

"California, more than maybe any other state, protects individuals' privacy, (so) it's really a unique situation, and it's taken awhile to work between the parties and to get the judges to agree," Lieder said. "We've finally gotten that, (and) the various databases have been generated. But we, the lawyers, haven't seen these lists yet (because) they are going to a mailing administrator."

About 15,000 e-mails also were sent last week to many of the same WGA members. Data also is being sought through the WGA health fund administrator and payroll companies working on behalf of studios and networks.

WGA general counsel Tony Segall said data was subpoenaed more than a year ago. The WGA never took any position on the requests, but related court clearances took plaintiff attorneys until recently to sort through.

The individuals who were recently notified of their privacy rights in the matter have until April 19 to indicate objections. Individuals can object to any or all of their sought files being released.

"The parties have negotiated the most comprehensive protective order I've ever seen in litigation," Lieder said. "We will be doing everything that can be done to protect the writers' privacy and the privacy of the information."

The attorney said he couldn't estimate how many guild members would deny access to personal files.

"I know that a lot of writers think, 'Why should I give up this information?' " he said. "But it's necessary to the litigation, and we are doing all that we can to make sure that the information is not used beyond the absolute confines of the lawsuit."

Sprenger & Lang has three other law firms as co-counsels in the litigation -- Kator, Scott & Parks; Schwartz, Steinsapir, Dohrmann & Sommers; and Yablonski, Both & Edelman. A legal team from AARP also is assisting.

Phone calls to attorneys at Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, a Los Angeles law firm representing several of the case defendants, were not returned.
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