CBS Says There Was Never Any 'Judge Judy' Library Sale (Never Mind the Press Release)

Judge Judy Still - H 2016
Courtesy of CBS

Two years ago, CBS announced to great fanfare that it had "acquired" the massive library of Judge Judy from creator and star Judith Sheindlin. As of now, that press release is still up on CBS' website, and subsequent word that the TV judge scored $95 million for conveying rights to air archives of the program attracted tremendous buzz. The announcement proved there was indeed an aftermarket for a syndicated show like Sheindlin's.

Now, CBS and the judge famous for her common sense are testing out a pretty bold proposition in real-life court. As legal papers filed this month put it, "There was never any sale of the rights or transfer of copyright ownership to any episode of Judge Judy."

Say what?

CBS is now doing some fancy footwork due to an ongoing lawsuit from Kaye Switzer and the Sandi Spreckman Trust.

In the mid-1990s, Switzer and Spreckman were the ones to approach Sheindlin with the idea that the then-family court judge should take her career to television. The two female producers were fired shortly after Judge Judy debuted in 1996, a rich drama that was once fully detailed by Sheindlin in deposition testimony.

In subsequent fights over their ousting, Switzer and Spreckman did manage to strike a bargain for contingent compensation for their roles in launching the hit series. Most relevant to the present suit, under these agreements, Switzer and Spreckman would be owed a percentage should Judge Judy producer Big Ticket Pictures (now a CBS unit) ever sell rights to old episodes of Judge Judy.

That's what is alleged to have happened in 2015 when CBS wanted more seasons of Judge Judy. As the story has been told and retold repeatedly by the press (thanks in part to what those involved were saying), Sheindlin agreed to additional seasons in return for getting library rights (in addition to her then $42 million-a-year salary). The 2017 press release conveyed word that Sheindlin had sold her library back to CBS.

Or so it seemed.

Now that Switzer and Spreckman have come to collect their portion from the sale of rights (their lawsuit estimates $4.95 million is owed), CBS and Sheindlin have now come around to the position that there really was never any sale in the first place.

"A review of the 2015 and 2017 Agreements reflects that no such sale to Sheindlin ever occurred, and so no sale back to the CBS Defendants occurred either," states court papers from the defendants filed earlier this month in anticipation of a hearing Thursday. "The written contracts reflect that a sale to Sheindlin was contemplated, but never consummated."

CBS' attorneys at Sheppard, Mullin further attempt to explain that Sheindlin's 2017 deal for additional compensation had the effect of having "cancelled"  the "contemplated transfer" of rights. In other words, there may have been a deal for rights. But then there was another deal. So there really was no deal.

The plaintiff's attorneys clearly think this logic to be patently ridiculous and have amended their breach-of-contract lawsuit to take issue with this seeming theory of rescission. They also bring claims of tortious interference and are targeting how CBS and Sheindlin are allegedly conspiring to deny Switzer and Spreckman a monetary share of proceeds from the $95 million sale.

Before a Los Angeles judge and jury gets to decide which side has correctly interpreting the contracts and dealmaking, the Switzer and Spreckman side is pushing to obtain as many documents as possible reflecting discussions over the 2015 and 2017 negotiations.

That includes conversations involving Sheindlin herself. CBS argues that it has turned over all relevant documents and the ones not produced in discovery are privileged. For example, there are four emails between Sheindlin and David Theodosopoulos, who spent 25 years up until May 2017 as an in-house attorney at CBS. Switzer objects to the withholding of these emails with the contention that Sheindlin doesn't work for CBS and so her emails with him can't possibly be protected by attorney-client privilege. CBS responds that in 2017, Theodosopoulos began work as an executive producer for Sheindlin's new show Hot Bench, and in that role, advised Sheindlin as to legal matters. As such, it's argued that the privilege assertion is proper.

The hearing scheduled for Thursday won't decide whether Sheindlin's communications are privileged, among other things. Instead, both sides have agreed to bring such discovery disputes to a referee to decide. The judge will likely give his approval Thursday to the arrangement.

Eventually, though, both CBS and Sheindlin may have to publicly explain why a press release that generated hundreds of news stories wasn't really reflective of what actually happened.