Hollywood Docket: Michael Jackson's Ex-Manager Revives Neverland Ranch Dispute

Plus a settlement in a case over an upcoming Jake Gyllenhaal film and a licensing agreement for '24' watches.
Neverland Ranch

The legal conflict between Michael Jackson's estate and his former manager Tohme Tohme will return to court following a judge’s decision to partially end a two-year stay on the case.

The estate, now run by entertainment lawyer John Branca and longtime music executive John McClain, and Tohme filed dueling lawsuits against each other in 2012. The cases dispute whether Tohme’s efforts in the final few years of Jackson's life were to launch a comeback for the troubled star or enrich himself at the King of Pop's expense.

Tohme claims in his complaint that he became the late singer’s manager in mid-2008, following his alleged intervention in a dispute Jackson found himself in with a sheikh of Bahrain. He claims that in the time before the singer’s death in June 2009, he performed services for Jackson including overseeing his deal for the proposed "This Is It" tour and securing a loan to prevent foreclosure on his Neverland Ranch home. He says he’s entitled to a 15% commission on Jackson's revenue during that time plus a finder's fee for the Neverland deal.

The estate’s attorneys tell a different story. They claim Tohme manipulated Jackson into agreements that gave him "unfair financial compensation" and that Jackson fired him in March 2009.

But weeks after the complaints were filed, the estate’s attorneys filed a motion to stay — put on hold — the entire case. They contended that the California Labor Commission first had to rule on whether Tohme's work violated the Talent Agencies Act, a controversial law that says only licensed talent agents can secure employment for clients.

The stay was granted in its entirety, and it's been in place until a couple weeks ago. The Labor Commission heard the case nearly a year ago but still hasn't made a ruling. Tohme's attorneys filed to lift the entire stay, arguing the "extraordinary delay" warranted reviving the case. Alternatively, they requested at least the Neverland dispute reenter the court because securing a real estate investment isn't covered by the TAA. In hearings over the past two weeks, Los Angeles Superior Court judge Mitchell L. Beckloff agreed to lift the stay on only the issue of Neverland. The rest of the case awaits the Commission's decision.

"We’re very happy the court ruled that Dr. Tohme's claim based on his obtaining the financing to save Neverland can go forward," Tohme's attorney James Curry tells The Hollywood Reporter. He says he'll file a motion for summary judgment on the Neverland claim on Tuesday for a hearing scheduled for April 27.

"I think the lifting of the stay is appropriate, and we’ll just proceed forward with a narrower task," the estate's attorney Howard Weitzman tells THR. He adds that the estate's attorneys plan to complete more discovery before filing new motions.

The commission is expected to issue its decision soon on the other matters. Judge Beckloff set a trial for next year for the entire case, but he noted the date is "very premature" given the uncertainty of the Commission's timing. 

In other entertainment law news...

  • In time for the film to sell to The Weinstein Company in Berlin, the case over the Jake Gyllenhaal starrer The Man Who Made It Snow has settled. In November, the thriller's production company Emmett Furla Oasis sued its screenwriter, Brett Tabor, claiming he'd breached their exclusive deal for EFO to produce and finance the picture, which was conditional on the company securing Gyllenhaal’s involvement. They claim they offered $6 million (though some sources say it was lower) to get Gyllenhaal for the lead role, an American who became involved in Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s, but meanwhile Tabor allegedly went behind EFO's back by pacting with IM Global for financing and distribution. The case now has been "very amicably" settled, says EFO's attorney Martin Barab. IM Global continues to represent the film to international distributors.
  • Bad Judge's Kate Walsh won't be heading back to court, on TV or in real life. Weeks after her NBC sitcom ended its only season, Walsh has settled her lawsuit over commissions for the series. She and her Kitty Likes To Scratch Productions sued in September — shortly before the series' premiere — claiming her former managers at Evolution Entertainment tried to extract a commission for the show despite having been fired over a year ago. The details of the settlement are confidential, but Walsh’s attorney Bryan Freedman tells THR, "The case has been resolved in an amicable fashion, and all parties are pleased with the resolution." 
  • A specialty watchmaking company has sued Fox for allegedly mistiming a licensing agreement for 24: Live Another Day watches. Michael Gee Fierstein claims that he and his U.S. Agency Watch Company — which sells FBI, CIA and other specially branded watches — were approached by Fox to sell 24 watches after the network announced its 12-episode revival of the hit series. Fierstein's company signed a two-and-a-half-year licensing agreement in which it would pay Fox a $25,000 advance plus royalties on the 24 watches it sold. But Fierstein claims it wasn’t until the day the series premiered in May 2014 that the network’s licensing department provided him with approved packaging designs, so he couldn’t have the watches manufactured and shipped until the show had nearly finished its run. He claims the the timing led buyers to cancel orders of at least 15,000 watches. He's suing Fox's merchandising and licensing department for breach of contract and negligence. Fox declined to comment.
  • Lil Wayne is suing his record company Cash Money Records — to the tune of $51 million. The rapper claims that his longtime label hasn't honored the terms of their agreement in 2003 to co-found the label Young Money, alleging that it failed to pay profits for recordings by Drake and other Young Money artists, refused to accept artists Lil Wayne submitted to join the label and didn’t maintain $1 million escrow fund for its operation. "Cash Money has jeopardized the ability of the Young Money Label to properly and successfully conduct business," reads the lawsuit. In addition, the rapper alleges he wasn’t paid for an upcoming album, Tha Carter V, according to the payment scheme his contract demands, which is $8 million when he begins recording and $2 million when he delivers the finished record. He's sued for breach of contract, anticipatory breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and conversion. Here's the complaint. 

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