Hollywood Docket: Animation Anti-Poaching, Alleged Sexual Abuse on Cher Tour

Entertainment legal news including a lawyer's Photoshopped celebrity pictures and a dismissed 'Captain America' lawsuit
George Lucas's Lucasfilm is under fire in anti-poaching lawsuits

Former animator Georgia Cano’s class-action suit filed Tuesday is the second in two weeks over alleged anti-poaching policies at major animation houses.

It targets many of the same defendants as former VFX worker Robert Nitsch Jr.’s lawsuit—including Sony, Dreamworks and Disney’s Pixar and Lucasfilm divisions—claiming they forged non-competitive hiring agreements that “metastasized over the years into an industry-wide wage-fixing cartel.” The difference is, while Nitsch’s proposed class covers animators employed by the studios since 2004, Cano wants to represent those like herself who’d been hired before 2004.

Her lawsuit is one of several cases to spring from a 2010 lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against Pixar, Lucasfilm and technology companies including Google, Apple and Adobe. That litigation ended when the companies agreed not to enforce anti-poaching agreements for five years.

Several class-action lawsuits followed. A 2011 litigation led to a $9-million settlement for Pixar and Lucasfilm, but the case remains in progress for the other defendants (whose attempt at a $325-million settlement was recently shot down because U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh decided it wasn’t enough). Nitsch’s complaint claims to exclude the 2011 case’s class, but it’s unclear how his lawsuit presents much that’s new.

Now comes Cano’s complaint. The animator, whose recent credits include Skyfall and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Part 2, covers the same ground in her lawsuit as Nitsch does, with much of the same evidence—including declarations from George Lucas that the defendants wanted to “keep the industry out of a “normal industrial competitive situation” and Pixar and Walt Disney Animation president Ed Catmull that “We have avoided wars…because all of the companies up here – Pixar, ILM [Lucasfilm], Dreamworks, and couple of smaller places – have conscientiously avoided raiding each other.”

But her proposed class of pre-2004 employees includes over 50,000 current or former animators, she estimates (and her suit names one additional defendant, the smaller studio Blue Sky, though she never worked there). If her lawsuit goes forward, the studios could face anti-poaching litigation from several angles.

In other entertainment law news:

  • The city of Cleveland is off the hook for its role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier — at least, in federal court. The city’s summary judgment motion was granted Wednesday in the case filed against it in an Ohio district by Cuyahoga Lakefront Property. Here's the ruling. The company owns a parking lot that it claims was blocked for two weeks by the filming of the superhero sequel. It sued the city, which approved the shoot, and separately the production company, Vita-Ray, which settled its case for $13,500 in July 2013. The city’s motion for summary judgment was in part granted because judge Patricia Gaughan found the Cuyahoga Lakefront had filed substantive due process causes of action, but presented a procedural due process argument. But the judge dismissed other claims because Cleveland isn’t legally out of the woods. The claims of unconstitutional taking of property can only be brought in a federal court when the state has provided no remedy, and Cuyahoga Lakefront currently has a case on the issue pending in an Ohio appellate court.
  • It took mere days for Jamie Foxx to be sued over his latest song release, "Party Ain't a Party." It took even less time for the lawsuit filed last Thursday to be dismissed. Nontra Records has dropped its claim that the song is a copyright infringement of the rights it says it owns to J Rand's work. Here's the dismissal papers. How the dispute got resolved isn't clear.
  • The copyright suit filed against United Airlines by Sony Music and various subsidiary labels over in-flight music will not leave the runway. The airline has settled with the labels, and a New York judge dismissed the case on Monday. Sony claimed in its complaint that United was providing copyrighted music and music videos by artists including Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears to passengers without paying, and it named as co-defendants a music contractor involved in getting the music airborne and a rights management consultancy hired by the other defendants to examine the issue. Its claims included common-law infringement of recordings before 1972, which are not covered by federal copyright laws and are a hot issue in the courts, but now the case won’t provide any insights on that score.
  • If they could turn back time, Jacquelyn Dowsett Ballinger, Suzanne Easter and Kevin Wilson probably would never have signed on to Cher’s Dressed to Kill (D2K) tour. The dancers have sued the songstress, claiming they were fired from the tour for reporting an alleged sexual assault by a male dancer on a female fan after a June stop of the tour. But the complaint alleges Wilson and Easter were also fired because they’re African-American—they claim Cher once remarked “We have too much color onstage” while auditioning dancers and selected a white dancer over a more skillful minority dancer—and Easter because she’s over 40. They’re suing for violations of unfair competition and the whistle-blower statute and several causes of employment discrimination, and they name Cher’s Isis Productions and manager Lindsay Scott and manager Roger Davies as defendants.
  • It’s one thing to want photos with celebrities, but it’s quite another to post Photoshopped pictures of yourself with figures including George Clooney, Morgan Freeman and President Barack Obama on your legal office’s website. A State Bar Court has deemed Svitlana Sangary’s use of such photos on her website (the photos have been taken off but are still posted at an older URL) to be deceptive advertising and recommended a six-month suspension for the attorney, The Recorder reported.
    In addition to the photos, the court found that Sangary had withheld a former client’s file for almost six months and had failed to cooperate in investigations of her conduct—including responding to disciplinary notices late and with unrelated ramblings (“Sangary is a prominent donor and philanthropist, supporting important social causes, who had recently received the email from President Obama with the subject line 'I need your help today’”). The court recommended she be put on probation for three years, with two years’ suspension if she violates its terms.

Email: Austin.Siegemund-Broka@THR.com
Twitter: @Asiegemundbroka