the pulse

Small step for a man, leap for manager-kind

Let's suppose that you did a bunch of work for, say, an Internet startup that began with nothing but thrived, in part, due to your guiding hand. Then imagine this company decided that, as its way of saying thanks, it cast you adrift and added, "Oh, by the way, we're also not going to pay you for services already rendered." Yet after you take the company to court, the judge sides with its right to screw you.

You now have a taste of what it's like to be a personal manager — and, more specifically, a snapshot of the case of a man named Rick Siegel over the past four years or so.

Siegel has dedicated his life to fighting a law that has allowed actors, comedians and other entertainers to cut and run without compensating the managers who have brought them to the precipice of fame and fortune.

It pits Siegel's Marathon Entertainment vs. Rosa Blasi, an actress who was represented by Siegel until she fired him and refused to pay his accrued commissions of roughly $600,000. The case began in 2003 with Siegel's suit for nonpayment of fees and resulted in Blasi's attorney taking Siegel before the state labor commission, claiming that the manager violated the 1979 Talent Agencies Act.

Just this week, Marathon v. Blasi was ordered onto the California Supreme Court docket to be argued Nov. 6 in Sacramento, culminating a long and bitter battle for Siegel and his quest to exact just payment for managers who have largely been left twisting in the judicial wind. The decision by the highest state court will have significant implications for him and perhaps hundreds of other managers in California.

"If this seems like a no-brainer, it's because it is," Siegel believes. "I don't see how they can rule against us because if you're saying that it's all right not to pay managers for their services, maybe it's all right not to pay anyone for any service they perform."

Siegel estimates that clients who have used the Talent Agencies Act to disgorge themselves from paying personal managers has spurred losses of $250 million over the years in unpaid commissions. He claims that Anita Baker was able to get out of paying $7 million, Arsenio Hall more than $11 million, Thomas Haden Church about $3 million and Sean Hayes of "Will & Grace" fame between $2 million and $3 million.

These artists saved themselves a bundle by dumping their managers just when the getting got good, Siegel charges. When the lawsuit comes, the artist maintains that because the manager is an unlicensed talent agent, he or she has no claim to any commissions owed.

"So then the question becomes, why don't we just get our agency license," Siegel says. "The answer is, by the time a manager looks into this, it's already a problem. Secondly, getting an agency license would make us agents, a wholly different occupation. And if CAA already is earning a 10% commission on a client, how can I take 10% more?"

Those who oppose Siegel, including Blasi's lawyer, Michael Plonsker, maintain that personal managers are not entitled to commissions because they are not permitted to procure work for their clients, which they believe is at the heart of the Talent Agencies Act agreement. However, last year, the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed an earlier ruling to enforce portions of personal management contracts even if there are small violations.

Now, it goes to the Supreme Court.

"If we lose, it means that our occupation is, for all intents and purposes, illegal," Siegel reasons. "A profession will die. That can't be allowed to happen."