Court Urges WME and Writers Guild to End Feud: "Real People are Paying a Price During This Dispute"

Writers Guild of America Building - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of WGA West

A California federal judge on Friday emphatically encouraged WME and the Writers Guild of America to resolve their dispute, the last fight in the waning war between Hollywood talent agents and the WGA.

WME — the only major agency currently left standing — in November filed a motion for an injunction that would end the mandate that writers fire any agents that haven’t signed on to the WGA’s new rules regarding packaging fees and studio ownership. The legal battle, which launched in April 2019, originally included the other major talent agencies — but, since then, UTA, ICM and CAA have all reached deals with the guild and withdrawn their claims.

While WME maintains the guild is using its power to engage in an illegal boycott and U.S. District Judge André Birotte Jr. should intervene to prevent irreparable harm to the agency, WGA turned to a 1932 labor law that limits the federal court’s ability to grant injunctive relief in certain union-related disputes.

Those arguments were addressed during a Friday hearing via Zoom, but Birotte opened with a monologue encouraging the parties to settle and frequently came back to that advice throughout the proceeding.

He says it seems the parties ultimately want the same thing, but just disagree about how to accomplish it.

"I hope you all keep that in mind as you move forward," said Birotte. "I worry, and I could be wrong, that in the heat of litigation with exceptional lawyers and executives and the egos that may come with that … when you combine that with the money and power dynamics … folks can lose focus."

Birotte reiterated that while the people fighting this out in court are likely stressed out about the situation, they can "go running, get on your Pelotons, or do Yoga" to deal with that — and it's important to realize that outside the courtroom peoples' livelihoods are at stake.

He also kept pushing the lawyers, Jeffrey Kessler for WME and Stacey Leyton for WGA, on what exactly was holding up a settlement.

What WME wants is to be able to phase out their divestments on the same timeline as the phase out of packaging (a June 2022 deadline) and to grandfather in existing projects. It also feels like monitoring, enforcement and sanction provisions that are being requested are unfair compared to the deals the guild cut with other agencies. Meanwhile, WGA says the CAA deal does include similar provisions and extending the divestment deadline and making exceptions for so many projects would contribute to further conflicted representation.

Leyton, who noted that she isn't a party to settlement talks, said that there "has been some back and forth" between WME and WGA since the CAA deal was announced. She also said, though, that WME hasn't laid out a specific proposal or provided information the guild requested in October.

When it came to the jurisdictional issues raised by the WGA, much of the conversation centered on whether this was really a labor dispute and therefore subject to the Norris–La Guardia Act. Kessler argued the NLGA doesn't apply and, if it did, that the dispute falls under Section 107 of the act which would permit Birotte to issue an injunction. Leyton maintains that Section 107 is limited to specific unlawful acts such as violence and fraud, and therefore Birotte must comply with Section 104 which would preclude him from issuing an injunction.

The parties also dispute whether WME is facing the requisite irreparable harm. Kessler argued the agency has already lost over a thousand clients, about 300 of whom are showrunners, and young agents are starting to leave to work for competitors. Leyton argued that harm doesn't qualify because there's nothing that would keep those clients from coming back if and when they reach a deal and the boycott ends — and said if Birotte issued an injunction it would destroy all progress made toward a resolution because WME wouldn't have any incentive to settle.

Birotte ultimately took the matter under submission and reminded them to consider what he said at the beginning of the hearing: “Find a path to try to resolve this. Real people are paying a price during this dispute. ... The folks need and want you all to try to work this out.”