'American Idol' Final Season Shadowed by Phillip Phillips Legal Drama

Phillip Phillips PR 2013 L
Nick Walker

In early January, the 15th and final season of American Idol will begin. One of the mysteries involves whether producers will have their biggest alumni return, and if so, whether that will include 11th season winner Phillip Phillips.

Earlier this year, Phillips filed a petition with the California Labor Commissioner (CLC) in an effort to void his deals with companies affiliated with Idol producer 19 Entertainment. He's asserting that the management contract he made as a precursor to his success on the program runs afoul of the Talent Agencies Act, the California law that says only licensed talent agents can procure employment for clients. If he's successful, this could have ramifications for more Idol stars as well as others who have appeared in reality TV competition shows.

Usually, the adjudication of TAA disputes is a painfully slow and arduous process, but surprisingly, the CLC has scheduled a hearing to discuss the issues in the Phillips case on Dec. 4. About a month away from the season premiere of Idol, the hearing could spur discussion between the parties. That is, if the producers are interested in having Phillips return.

Then again, there's added complication thanks to a lawsuit that 19 Entertainment filed in late September against music manager Michael McDonald and Mick Management.

After Phillips came forward to complain how 19 had "manipulated" him into accepting jobs for its own benefit, 19 turned around and sued McDonald for having "unceremoniously duped Phillips into attempting to terminate" its relationship with the Idol star.

The poaching lawsuit alleges that Phillips became a sensation thanks to 19's "tireless efforts," responsible for his $5 million earnings in 2013 alone, but that McDonald "actively pursued Phillips whenever possible," pressured him to break off relations, which caused Phillips to begin airing grievances to 19 and eventually file an action with the CLC.

In response, McDonald seeks to have the $2 million lawsuit paused in favor of Phillips' CLC petition, arguing that if the artist was successful, 19 wouldn't be able to prove "that its Contract is or ever was valid," thus precluding claims of tortious interference and unjust enrichment.

19 disputes this assessment, telling a judge in court papers last week that it need not demonstrate the existence of a valid contract to prevail. And even if otherwise, and Phillips was successful, 19 argued that the CLC could sever unlawful portions of the contract rather than void the whole thing. Further, the Idol company warned that a stay in litigation "would stop this litigation dead in its tracks for possibly up to five, or even nine years, due to the notoriously long time it takes for the CLC to reach decisions in proceedings alleging violations of the Talent Agencies Act." 

Yes, that's how long the nightmarish, bureaucratic California agency overseeing labor disputes can take.

But something a little strange happened after 19 made this warning. The very next day — last Thursday — an attorney at the CLC set the December 4 hearing date.

Suddenly, Phillips' bold attempt to review a management contract arising from a reality TV show is on the fast track. The question, though, could be whether Idol wants any fallout from this legal dispute interfering with what should be the final celebration of a path-breaking show. Officially, American Idol begins January 6, though the competition — and what happens on-air — will be influenced by auditions before judges much sooner.