Showrunner sues Fox over WGA strike suspension

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Showrunner sues Fox over WGA strike suspension

Thu May 28, 2009 @ 07:46PM PST

By Matthew Belloni

20tv_a Veteran TV showrunner Kevin Abbott has sued Twentieth Century Fox Television claiming that the studio owes him $1.38 million for improperly withholding payments and suspending his overall deal during the 2007-08 WGA strike.

According the breach of contract lawsuit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Abbott was let go along with many other top writer-producers during the opening days of the WGA strike. But he claims that his deal with 20th TV "was markedly different from the contracts of many of his peers" and "specifically protected him from suspension or termination based solely upon a strike."

Abbott, whose writing and producing credits include "Roseanne," "My Name Is Earl" and ABC's current sitcom "Surviving Suburbia," claims he signed an overall deal with 20th TV in 1999 to work on the sitcom "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place" and other shows. He then signed another deal in 2002 to work on "Reba" and another overall deal 2005 to continue with the studio for three years and $6 million.

He says that in the 2005 renegotiation, 20th TV and his representatives agreed that the standard terms of his 1999 deal would be incorporated into and govern the new arrangement.

That 1999 deal allegedly contained a Force Majeure clause that prevented the studio from firing him during a labor standoff. It "expressly precluded suspension based upon a labor strike, unless Fox suspended all 'similarly situated' show runners," which did not occur, the lawsuit claims.

20th TV declined to comment on the suit.

Force Majeure clauses, which are standard in TV deals and allow studios to escape certain obligations in the event of a catastrophic event, became a key pressure point during the WGA strike as many writers and producers were let go days after the strike began.

Abbott says he returned to work on 20th TV's "Earl" after the strike ended, and he and 20th agreed to a per-episode fee totaling $270,000 for his services on the show.

But the studio is refusing to pay him the $1.38 million that was due on his $6 million contract when the strike began, he says. That number includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments he says were withheld because he had failed to sign a long-form agreement. When an overall deal expires and is being renegotiated, studios routinely hold back 10% of total compensation to be paid as a lump sum when the new deal is signed. Abbott says Fox never paid him the full amount.

"Fox unilaterally withheld 10% pending execution of a long form agreement, yet failed to take the most preliminary steps in circulating any documentation for review, let alone signature," according to the lawsuit.

The studio allegedly paid half the 10% owed in January 2007 but still owes the other 5%.

Abbott is repped by attorney Max Sprecher.

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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