Fox, CAA Settle Heated Lawsuit Over Creation of USA's 'White Collar' (Exclusive)

White Collar Jeff Eastin - H 2012

White Collar Jeff Eastin - H 2012

Fox Television Studios, the showrunner of USA's White Collar and his agents at CAA have settled a lawsuit alleging that the show's former story editor was improperly denied a share of revenue due in part to a conflict of interest.

Travis Romero filed suit last year contending that he came up with the idea for the hit USA crime drama but was cut out of profits by producer Fox TV Studios and creator-showrunner Jeff Eastin. Romero claimed that he and Eastin had been close friends and creative partners for almost 20 years and had conceived of White Collar in Eastin's San Fernando Valley hot tub.

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After the lawsuit was filed, it was amended to expand its scope significantly by alleging that some of Hollywood's top players, including Fox TV Studios executive vp Matt Loze and president David Madden, CAA agents Rob Kenneally and Tom Young, and an attorney at the Jackoway Tyerman firm had allegedly urged and/or helped Eastin to cut out his purported partner from sharing in the fruits of the show's success.

But the parties have reached a settlement, and Eastin's attorney tells The Hollywood Reporter that court papers were being filed Friday to dismiss the case. “The matter has been resolved, and the litigation is dismissed,” says attorney Max Sprecher. Terms of the settlement are being kept private.

The deal comes days after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a tentative ruling significantly limiting the Romero lawsuit. The CAA agents and Fox executives were dismissed from the lawsuit, but a malpractice claim remained against the attorneys, and Romero was granted a chance to refile many of his claims. A trial date had been set for March 2013.

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The case raised interesting issues about the nature of representation in Hollywood.

Romero submitted a legal theory that Eastin was obligated to share equal compensation for their alleged co-development of White Collar. He says that in 2008-09, he and Eastin worked with Fox to present a pitch to USA. During this time, Romero says he attended lots of meetings and allegedly was told that he would be paid as a creator of the show.

But he says he was pushed aside, and during the litigation he produced e-mails from some of the defendants from years back as evidence. For instance, in March 2009, Madden e-mailed Eastin with the suggestion not to submit Romero to USA because of concerns about his writing voice. Eastin answered with surprise and wanted specifics. Madden replied that Fox had issues like this in the past, including on Burn Notice, and warned against opening Romero to scrutiny by USA executives.

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"Not staffing Travis is unacceptable," Eastin purportedly replied. "He is invaluable to me."

Madden responded in an email. "It's not a matter of appreciating his contribution. We've had many shows where someone with a shared story credit wasn’t on staff. I'd go so far as to say that that is the rule rather than the exception."

Allegedly pushed aside, Romero says he went along with this at first.

Later, The New York Times ran an article where Eastin acknowledged that the idea for White Collar "had really came from a friend of mine, Travis Romero, who I broke the story with."

(In the litigation, Eastin said he was misquoted by the Times reporter.)

Romero also claimed that his agents and lawyers were no help because they also represented Eastin and failed to have his interests at heart due to the conflict.

But earlier this week, Judge Rolf Treu ruled on the defendants' motion to dismiss the case, addressing the myriad claims including fraud, misrepresentation, unfair business practices, breach of fiduciary duty and malpractice.

Treu trimmed a claim that Eastin had breached a partnership, saying Romero "failed to allege the exact terms of the alleged partnership agreement." The judge also dismissed the fraud and unfair business practices claims against Fox and CAA, saying these causes of action hadn't been alleged with enough particularity. The Jackoway Tyerman firm escaped various fraud claims as well, but Treu rejected its request to toss Romero's malpractice claim.

However, Eastin was still facing allegations of fraud, misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty and an accounting violation, and the judge granted Romero a chance to amend his lawsuit, meaning CAA and Fox could have been dragged back in. So the parties settled. 

Fox TV and CAA declined to comment. We've reached out to Romero attorney Rhett Francisco for a comment


Twitter: @eriqgardner, @THRMattBelloni