Nikki Finke Hires Charlie Sheen Lawyer as Penske Arbitration Nears

The former Deadline Hollywood editor will be asserting counterclaims against Jay Penske, who demands that she not compete with her former website until 2016 or beyond.
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With her journalistic future on the line, Nikki Finke has hired Hollywood litigator William Briggs to represent her in an upcoming arbitration with Penske Media, the owner of the Deadline Hollywood blog. Briggs, who was once partners with well-known attorney Marty Singer, has represented Charlie Sheen, among others.

Finke will be defending herself from Jay Penske's claims that she has breached her contract with the company, and she will pursue counterclaims for "injuries that Penske caused her," according to Briggs. Penske initiated an arbitration last month after an escalating public battle with Finke, the controversial founder of Deadline Hollywood.

Before and after leaving Deadline on Nov. 5, Finke has excoriated Penske on Twitter and in media interviews, demanding to be let out of her contract. Penske, the auto racing heir who is majority owner of Variety as well as Deadline and several other websites, has insisted on enforcing a contractual noncompete clause he believes would prevent Finke from writing for a rival site until at least 2016 -- and potentially longer if an arbitrator deems her writing on other outlets, including Twitter, to extend the term of her noncompete. (Finke's side believes that if upheld, the noncompete only extends to June 2014.) According to a statement from Penske Media, the company is also looking to "obtain monetary damages for numerous breaches of her contractual agreements with the company."

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Finke has signaled that she intends to start a new website as soon as possible. The noncompete potentially would interfere with such plans, and while California law generally frowns on noncompetes, Penske is primed to argue that Deadline Hollywood was a joint partnership instead of an employer-employee relationship, as Finke has frequently characterized it.

"It's our position that the noncompete to which Penske refers is invalid, is unenforceable, and it violates California law," Briggs tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There is simply no case law nor statutory law that supports Penske's position. Any notion or theory that there might be a joint partnership between Penske and Nikki is complete fiction. There was a written employment agreement between the two."

Briggs adds that if Finke's tweets come up, he'll offer the opinion that "Nikki has substantial First Amendment rights -- rights which cannot be undermined by Penske's attempt to silence her."

"Mr. Briggs is what I believe to be Ms. Finke’s ninth attorney in the process, and he seems to be following the same rhetoric in an attempt to publicly harm the company," Penske attorney Bryan Freedman tells THR. "Not a smart move as Ms. Finke will be held responsible for her behavior and substantial monetary damages. No public comments will stop the accelerating and inevitable result that the arbitrator will force Ms. Finke to honor the contracts she signed and the enforceable noncompete that the company paid for."

Arbitration will begin soon but an exact date has yet to be determined. Both sides are in the process of selecting the time and place of the hearing as well as the arbitrator. In advance, there have been settlement talks and a mediation session, but no deal has been reached.

Finke turned to Briggs, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Venable, after cycling through a number of lawyers over the years. The attorney is the first real Hollywood litigator to represent Finke, known for her abrasive reporting and writing style. Briggs has represented talent, production companies and agents in disputes ranging from copyrights and trademarks to profit participation and partnership agreements.

Perhaps his highest-profile case came two years ago when along with then-colleague Singer, Briggs represented Sheen in a $100 million lawsuit against Warner Bros. Television and Two and a Half Men co-creator Chuck Lorre over Sheen's firing. That case was thrown to arbitration against Sheen's will, and after a few months of fighting, Sheen eventually settled.

Among Briggs' other interesting work is representing EMI Music Publishing in defense of a 6-year-old lawsuit over Jay Z's sampling of an Egyptian film tune for the hit "Big Pimpin."

At the arbitration, he will be squaring off against Freedman of Freedman & Taitelman, representing Penske. The attorney has represented The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, went up against heavyweight producer Joe Roth in a dispute over Anger Management, and has represented talent agencies in a number of disputes over commissions.

Twitter: @eriqgardner