Ex-'Simpsons' Composer Gets to Advance in Lawsuit Over Firing

Alf Clausen - 2015 30th Annual ASCAP Awards - Getty - H 2017
Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge is allowing 79-year-old Alf Clausen to proceed in his lawsuit against Fox and producers of The Simpsons over his termination as the show's lead musical composer. But in a bit of a surprise, it's a disability claim that will carry Clausen forward rather than a charge of age discrimination.

Clausen filed his case in August 2019 and initially made no mention of the fact that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The composer did nod to a physical disability in general, but details would only come later upon an amended complaint as well as Fox's bid to dismiss it. Clausen says the diagnosis came in 2013 and that he kept it private for three years. Only in 2016 when he started experiencing tremors and muscle spasms did he inform others about his condition. He alleges that producers made no attempt to accommodate him, and Clausen's son Scott gave a declaration how one Fox executive commented, "What’s going on with your dad? Now’s not the time to piss off the producers."

Fox gave a reason for Clausen's firing in an anti-SLAPP motion (that being its attempt to defeat the musician's case on the grounds it was a frivolous exercise in interfering with its free speech rights). According to Fox, Simpsons producers had learned that Clausen was outsourcing work to his son and others. Additionally, there were alleged concerns among producers about whether Clausen was the right person to accomplish the full breadth of music — including hip-hop — needed for the show.

Clausen responded that Fox had known he regularly delegated work and that it was ludicrous that he, as an Emmy-winning composer, couldn't capture the showrunners' vision. In other words, Clausen painted Fox's reasoning as pretextual.

The arguments from both sides set up the latest instance of a court wrestling with how to separate free speech from discrimination. The defendants contended that replacing Clausen with Hans Zimmer amounted to First Amendment activity based on the work product, while Clausen aimed to have Judge Michael Stern focused on how the production failed as an employer.

In a decision made public on Monday, Judge Stern rules that Clausen's claims of failure to engage, failure to accommodate, retaliation and unfair business practices aren't subject to anti-SLAPP. As for the other claims — disability discrimination, age discrimination, wrongful discharge — the judge believes those claims are subject to anti-SLAPP. That moves the judge into the issue of whether Clausen has a probability of prevailing on the merits of such claims. Clausen can't make the case for age discrimination, but the judge sees the probability he'll prevail on the disability claim. As such, Clausen can proceed on nearly all of his claims.

What makes one claim more likely to be successful than another? Why are only certain claims subject to SLAPP analysis?

Unfortunately, Stern's 8-page order (read here) is bereft of any detailed analysis.  If no settlement comes, it will likely undergo appellate scrutiny before trial.