October 16, 2013 6:25am PT by Eriq Gardner
'Avatar' Idea Theft Plaintiff Challenges Judge's Impartiality
It wasn't looking very promising for Eric Ryder two weeks ago when Los Angeles Judge Susan Bryant-Deason decided to dismiss his allegations that James Cameron ripped off a story called K.R.Z. 2068 to create the blockbuster Avatar. "There is no evidence James Cameron did not create Avatar in 1996,'' said the judge at the time.
The case might not be quite over as Ryder's attorneys are fighting back with what they say is a discovery that the judge's husband has a business relationship with 20th Century Fox, which distributed Avatar and might have played an extensive role in handling the defense.
On Tuesday, Ryder's attorneys submitted an objection to the continued participation of the judge.
The judge's husband is identified as Paul Deason, and the plaintiff attaches a screenshot of his LinkedIn page, where he claims to have worked at Fox for the last six years. Deason's credits also include being a co-producer on Fox's We Bought a Zoo, an executive producer on Fox's Aliens vs. Predator and a production manager on Fox's Wolverine. He's now attached to Freedom Film Partners.
According to Ryder's objection papers, the judge stated in a conference call in the dispute that her husband worked in the entertainment industry, but denied that he was employed by Fox.
Now, the plaintiff's attorneys believe a disqualification is in order because the Fox association raises a question about the court's impartiality, or at least the appearance of one.
Fox isn't a defendant in Ryder's lawsuit, which claims that Ryder visited Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment offices approximately six times in 2001, met with senior executives there, disclosed K.R.Z. and, on the request of one of the company's development executives, worked on numerous story drafts of an "environmentally-themed 3-D epic about a corporation's colonization and plundering of a distant moon's lush and wondrous natural setting."
But the court papers go out of their way to demonstrate Fox's connection to the case.
Among other things, Fox's lawyers are said to have attended depositions and settlement conferences and might have supplied lawyers for the various defendants. In response to an interrogatory, Cameron stated that the defendants may be insured for the breach of implied contract claims under an insurance policy issued to Fox Entertainment Group.
The objection might not change the outcome of a summary judgment that determined that Cameron had independently created Avatar. At the moment, it's still the judge's discretion whether to recuse herself, and working on Fox films might be determined as different than being a Fox employee. The objection, though, might set up some grounds for an appeal.
Jon Landau, a partner at Cameron's Lightstorm, says, "Plaintiff's objection to the court's continued involvement in the case is simply a reaction to the fact that the court ruled he had no claim."
UPDATE: On October 23, the judge came out with an order striking the plaintiff's statement of disqualification. Her reasoning was that Fox wasn't a party, Ryder's statement was untimely and that she had told the parties that her husband was in the entertainment industry. She further stated that her husband was an "independent contractor." The ruling could be examined by an appeals court if Ryder seeks a writ of mandate within 10 days.