Hollywood Foreign Press Suffers Setback in Publicist Lawsuit

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Lawsuits against the Hollywood Foreign Press Association by former publicist Michael Russell and by the group Stars For A Cause can both go forward after a judge on Wednesday denied a motion to dismiss portions of the lawsuits.

This means that the discovery period in which depositions are taken and information must be provided by both sides will now move forward, and that the possibility this case could reach a trial remains very much alive.

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The HFPA had filed a demurrer (a request to dismiss)  to the charge of wrongful termination in an amended version of a suit filed by Russell, his associate Steve LoCascio and his company, The Russell Group.

In overruling the demurrer, L.A. Superior Court Judge Kevin Brazile ruled that Russell’s complaint contained sufficient facts to support a possible ruling of wrongful termination.

The judge pointedly made reference to an allegation in the lawsuit that members of the HFPA had engaged in an illegal payola scheme, which if proven could threaten the group’s tax exempt status. Russell had alleged he and his firm were fired after many years doing PR for the HFPA when he brought the possible violations to the attention of Phillip Berk, then president of the group that puts on the Golden Globes.

Russell had brought in another of his clients, the charitable group Stars For A Cause, which for a time became involved with the Golden Globes, and were part of a deal with Chrysler that included sponsorships, commercials and more with NBC and the HFPA. When that relationship soured, the charity felt that the HFPA had used its influence to interfere with their business relationship with Chrysler and filed a suit as well.

The HFPA had filed a demurrer to the complaint by Stars and its president George Braunstein, challenging its right to claim interference with its “prospective economic advantage.”

The judge overruled the demurrer. He said in his ruling that “the Defendants (HFPA) knew of the relationship between Plaintiffs (Stars) and corporate sponsors and that Defendants undertook an active effort to undermine these efforts.”

The HFPA also asked the judge to remove from the suit Stars' request for attorney’s fees and restitution under the unfair competition law. The judge denied the motion to strike out any possible payment of Stars legal fees but did agree to strike out the request for restitution.

James Ramsey, an attorney for MRG and Stars, said in a statement on Friday: “By rejecting the efforts of the HFPA and Philip Berk to avoid answering the charges in these lawsuits, the judge’s ruling effectively closes the door on  the first stage of the cases and rings in the discovery round, which will  begin in earnest. More importantly, the judge has recognized once again that MRG and the other plaintiffs have legal grounds to proceed with  these lawsuits.”

A spokesperson for the HFPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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