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Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the 47-year-old Danish actor who plays Ser Jaime Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones, must head to arbitration in his dispute with ex-manager Jill Littman over commissions she alleges are owed after being fired. That’s thanks to a ruling from a Los Angeles Superior Court last week. But what might be even more notable is what this case suggests about possible fraud in immigration applications by foreign actors working in Hollywood.
Last July, Coster-Waldau filed a lawsuit against Littman and Impression Entertainment to escape having to continually pay 10 percent of his compensation for Game of Thrones and other work. The actor alleged operating under an oral agreement with Littman, and he says the deal provided for no commissions after Littman was terminated by email in 2015.
Fights over post-termination commissions have become common in the entertainment industry, but this particular dispute has a quirk that has surfaced an issue that hasn’t ever drawn much attention.
Littman has come forward with a written agreement that spelled out how she would be paid by the Game of Thrones actor. Her agency sponsored Coster-Waldau’s O-1 visa, and as part of what needed to be given to U.S. immigration authorities, she delivered to the government a signed agreement between Impression and Coster-Waldau. This agreement had an arbitration provision, and so Littman has been relying upon it to have the case adjudicated in a private forum.
Coster-Waldau resisted arbitration, and here’s where the alleged fraud comes up.
Michael Plonsker, the actor’s attorney, has been insisting that the contract that Coster-Waldau signed with Impression in 2011 was really a “sham” and that the actor was told the agreement was purely for the visa application.
In court papers, Littman’s attorney Howard King has suggested if that’s true, Coster-Waldau committed immigration fraud under the theory that it is a felony to submit false documents for a visa application. Plonsker responded by arguing that if anyone committed a crime, it’s Littman.
Interestingly, Coster-Waldau’s agent Brandon Liebman at William Morris Endeavor submitted his own declaration in the case and spoke of how WME was once willing to sponsor the actor for a visa. Liebman recalls his office’s 2011 discussion with Littman requesting help in drafting an agency agreement to be used for that application.
“It would only have been used for the purpose of the visa application and would not have been considered by WME to have been a ‘real’ agreement because Coster-Waldau has told me that he did not want to enter into a written agreement with WME,” stated Liebman.
This perhaps raises some fodder for discussion whether this is a common practice, but as L.A. Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney told the parties at a hearing on Jan. 4, “There’s all this extraneous argument about whether someone is trying to defraud the immigration services, and, if they were, who was doing it? You know, I don’t think that’s necessarily an issue for this court.”
Instead, Mooney focused on whether Coster-Waldau’s money dispute had to first be tackled in arbitration, which turned on some esoterica: Was Coster-Waldau’s allegation of fraud (over that contract submitted to immigration authorities) a case of fraud in the inducement or a case of fraud in the execution? Inducement means trickery was employed to get someone to sign something to his disadvantage. Execution means someone was deceived into believing that the document signed was different than it actually was. Why the difference matters is legal precedent. Some past cases have determined that if it’s fraud in the execution, then it’s a judge rather than an arbitrator who should decide in the first instance whether the arbitration provision is enforceable.
At the hearing, Plonsker insisted that it was the kind of fraud allegation where a judge should decide, but Mooney disagreed.
“As much as I would love to have this case here — I think it would be an interesting case — I have to follow the law,” said the judge.
Before ruling that an arbitrator should tackle the question of whether the arbitration provision is enforceable, or whether fraud renders the actor’s written management contract void, Mooney led the parties through a discussion of the relationship between Coster-Waldau and Littman and the alleged differences between the supposed oral and written deals. The judge pointed out that royalties and commissions were paid out just like under the written agreement. Plonsker emphasized, however, that the written contract had a set term while under the oral agreement, Coster-Waldau could terminate Littman at any time and she would not commission on contracts entered into after she was terminated.
“Yeah,” said Mooney. “And, then, what about his email in 2015 where he, essentially, acknowledges his obligation to pay her royalties on Game of Thrones up through Season 7?”
Plonsker, referring to Coster-Waldau’s deal with Game of Thrones producers, responded, “The contract that was in existence as of the time of the termination had him being paid through season 7, if they didn’t kill him, which could happen.”
“In that show, it could happen at any time,” retorted Mooney about the potential death of Ser Jaime Lannister.
“Right,” answered Plonsker.
“And he could still come back after that,” added the judge, demonstrating his knowledge of some of the more fantastic elements from Game of Thrones.
Responded Plonsker, “Well, that’s a good point.”
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