April 27, 2011 6:00am PT by Matthew Belloni
'Desperate Housewives' Insider Backs Nicollette Sheridan's Story as ABC Lawsuit Heats Up (Exclusive)
A former executive producer of Desperate Housewives has come forward with testimony that supports Nicollette Sheridan in the actress's sex discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit against ABC and series creator Marc Cherry.
Lori Kirkland Baker, an Emmy-winning TV producer who worked on Housewives from May 2007 through May 2009, has submitted a sworn declaration in the case that supports Sheridan's timeline of events that led to her firing from the hit dramedy.
As we first reported last April, Sheridan filed a bombshell $20 million lawsuit alleging she was hit in the face by Cherry and wrongfully terminated from the series because, among other reasons, she is a woman. Sheridan later dropped her causes of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress and discrimination based on sexual orientation and age. But the rest of the case is now heating up, with a key summary judgment hearing set for May 3.
In advance of that hearing, both Sheridan and ABC/Cherry have filed extensive court papers outlining their cases and the evidence collected so far (both Sheridan and Cherry, for example, already have sat for depositions.)
To win at this stage, ABC must convince Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Allen White that the undisputed facts show Sheridan's allegations to be without merit.
"Sheridan was obviously unhappy to lose her job as a highly-compensated star of Desperate Housewives," the ABC/Cherry motion for summary judgment argues. "However, she cannot state a legal claim based on the creative decisions and actions challenged in her lawsuit."
A key dispute involves the timeline of events. Both sides agree that Sheridan, who was making $175,000 per episode in Season 5 of the show, was told in February 2009 that her character Edie Britt was being killed off. But ABC and Cherry argue in their motion that the decision to kill Sheridan's character was actually made nine months earlier, in May 2008, when "after discussing the death of Edie with the other staff writers and producers," Cherry got the green light from both producer Touchstone Television and ABC to dump the character.
If true, that would poke a big hole in Sheridan's theory that an alleged September 24, 2008 altercation with Cherry--in which he is said to have slapped her in the face on the set--and her subsequent complaints about it, were major reasons she was given the boot.
But now Kirkland Baker, who was one of those staff writers and producers working on Housewives during the fifth season, has come forward to say she didn't know Sheridan's character would be eliminated until at least September 2008.
"In fall of 2008, Mr. Cherry began talking with the writing staff, myself included, about killing off the Edie Britt character," Kirkland Baker says in her April 9 declaration, a copy of which was obtained by THR. "I have no recollection of any decision to kill off the Edie Britt character prior to fall of 2008."
And around the time of the alleged Sheridan slap, says Kirkland Baker, "Mr. Cherry had expressed to the writers, in my presence, increasing frustration with Ms. Sheridan." That led to a December meeting in which Cherry told the writing staff that he had met with then-ABC president Steve McPherson and had decided to kill off the Sheridan character at the end of Season 5, according to the declaration.
However, after Cherry returned from attending the inauguration party for President Obama in January 2009, "Mr. Cherry advised the writing staff that he'd changed his mind about the timing of Edie Britt's death," Kirkland Baker says. "Rather than waiting for the end of the season, he wanted to change course and, instead, have Edie Britt killed off much sooner." The writer/producer says Cherry then instructed his staff that the character "was going to be killed off in one of the next episodes to be written and filmed."
ABC lead lawyer Adam Levin declined to comment on the case. But the network's counter to that argument is that Kirkland Baker simply wasn't privy to the actual plans for the show until Cherry was prepared to go public. Indeed, in its motion, ABC says the fate of Sheridan's character "was kept highly confidential to prevent leaks to the media and public."
Still, Sheridan's lawyers argue in their court papers that the testimony of such insiders as Kirkland Baker and another writer-producer, Jeffrey Greenstein, "show that Cherry decided to kill off Edie after the September 24, 2008 assault and after she complained to Touchstone." (Sheridan's attorneys at Baute Crochetiere & Maloney were not available for comment.)
Why does the timeline matter? After all, it's only one aspect of the main case--whether Cherry hit Sheridan and whether she was fired due to discrimination.
But ABC is arguing that key parts of the litigation should be thrown out because it isn't possible that Sheridan could have been fired in response to an incident that hadn't happened when the firing decision was made. And Sheridan, in raising the timeline question, is trying to show that there's a real dispute over the facts in the case--a dispute she argues will require a trial, thus preventing the case from being dismissed at this stage.
The stage is set for some courtroom fireworks on May 3. If Sheridan's case survives the hearing, a trial is set for June 8 in downtown Los Angeles.
UPDATE: Lori Kirkland Baker emails us wanting to make sure Hollywood knows she isn't supporting Sheridan's case (or ABC's). Rather, she was contacted by the plaintiff's attorneys and asked for a timeline of events, which she agreed to submit in a sworn declaration. "I have no opinion on the merits of the case and am merely answering what's asked of me as clearly as I can recall," she writes.