Actors' Union Fending Off Discrimination Lawsuits

By DARRELL SATZMAN and AMANDA BRONSTAD
Staff Reporters

The Screen Actors Guild, facing two wrongful termination and racial discrimination cases after settling three others in recent months, is vowing to fight allegations that it says are baseless.

The suits, brought by Patricia Heisser Metoyer, the guild's former affirmative action director, and Kelley Langford, an ex-contracts administrator, both African Americans, have been set for Nov. 4, 2002, and Jan. 13, 2003 trials, respectively. Lawyers on both sides said they remain hopeful that settlements could be reached in the interim.

"SAG is well advised to get it resolved, because with the evidence we have they don't want to go to trial," said Rick Hicks, of Beverly Hills-based Hicks & Hicks, representing Metoyer. "If they do go to trial they are going to have real heartburn."

SAG, which has said that the allegations are without merit, declined to have any officials address the allegations for attribution.

A prepared statement released to the Business Journal said that the guild was forced to take action against Metoyer and Langford after complaints by other employees.

"These cases present atypical situations, often involving terminations made as a result of complaints of people of color who worked under the terminated employee," the unsigned statement said. "We have carefully investigated the circumstances of each of these terminations and are confident that the allegations of the lawsuits are without merit."

Hicks said that Metoyer, on the job for little more than a year, ended up in the bad graces of other SAG officials when she reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the union was exaggerating the number of minorities on its 270-person staff.

"When she got in there she actually started doing something and she stepped on some toes. Some people didn't like that," Hicks said. "They decided to retaliate and they did it with a vengeance."

The EEOC doesn't comment on specific cases.

Over the years, the entertainment industry has been rocked by allegations of discrimination, although J. Kevin Lilly, a shareholder at employment law specialists Litter Mendelson PC in Century City, doesn't find any disproportionate pattern. He added that clusters of wrongful terminations suits often follow an initial filing.

The five claims, he said, are "higher than what most employers experience. It doesn't mean they have done something wrong, however. It could just be bad luck."

Seeking damages

Metoyer's suit does not specify damages sought. According to court papers, Langford, the former contracts administrator, is seeking $2 million. Her case, like Metoyer's, contains a number of causes of action in addition to wrongful termination and racial discrimination.

A seven-year SAG employee who was fired in November 2000, Langford contends that she was discriminated on the basis of religion. In her suit, Langford said she was told by supervisors not to pray or keep religious icons at her desk. She also alleges SAG accused her of sexual harassment, the suit said.

The two sides have agreed to mediation in the Langford case, but not in the Metoyer case. SAG has countersued Metoyer, alleging fraud and breach of fiduciary responsibility, and has retained O'Melveny & Myers to join its original firm in the suits, Geffner & Bush.

According to papers filed by the union in Los Angeles Superior Court, an audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers found Metoyer had authorized improper payments to family members and colleagues, including her chief assistant, Peter Nguyen. Both were eventually fired.

Nguyen filed a wrongful termination suit that has since been settled. Terms were kept confidential, as were the terms of a settlement last year in a wrongful termination suit filed by former employee Ray McCoy Daniel Jr., an African-American. Another wrongful termination and discrimination case filed by former SAG executive Thomas Baiz, a Mexican-American, was settled last year with no money changing hands, according to a SAG official.

Compounding problems

The suits are yet another complication roiling the union, which has been beset by internal and external battles. By not speaking publicly, SAG has kept the lawsuits in the background.

The guild, coming off a bitter election for its presidency that was forced to a revote, depleted much of its pension fund during a six-month strike against advertising agencies that ended last year.

In April, despite an impassioned lobbying effort by the leadership, its rank and file rejected a proposed franchise agreement with the Association of Talent Agents, leaving the two sides without a pact for the first time in decades.

At the same time, SAG is pushing to extend its minimum terms and conditions to foreign productions, known as Rule One. The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which the Guild just negotiated a three-year labor agreement, claims the move violates the pact.

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