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High court to hear TV judge's case

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2008/01/13 16:51

For 10 years, Judge Alex E. Ferrer decided criminal cases in the Florida courts. Now, as "Judge Alex," he arbitrates petty disputes on his syndicated television show -- and his decisions are final.

Sometimes, though, people who agree to arbitrate disputes do not like the result. Ferrer is one of them.

This morning, the Supreme Court will hear his claim that he should not have to abide by a contract he signed six years ago with a manager in Los Angeles, calling for a 12% commission on any work the manager got him and requiring arbitration if any dispute arose.

Ferrer says that Arnold M. Preston, a lawyer, was not licensed as a talent agent, nor did he actually help him obtain his TV job. That came more than a year after an initial meeting with several television executives, Ferrer said.

The TV judge says the California Talent Agencies Act protects performers -- and he is one -- from crafty agents. It gives the state's labor commissioner the power to void unfair contracts with managers or agents.

"He didn't know anything about the entertainment industry when he got into this," said Robert M. Dudnik, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Ferrer. "He was a criminal lawyer from Florida. This contract was faxed to him in a hotel room in Reno, and he signed it and faxed it back."

But Preston's attorney, Joseph D. Schleimer of Beverly Hills, says a deal to arbitrate is a deal that must be honored. Ferrer, he said, is "the arbitrator who refuses to arbitrate."

"If people sign an arbitration agreement, that deal is binding. Even his TV show works that way," Schleimer said.

This seemingly petty dispute over where to decide this issue -- not what to decide -- has bounced around the courts in Los Angeles for three years.

In 2005, soon after "Judge Alex" went on the air, Preston pressed for his fees to be paid. And when Ferrer refused, Preston invoked the arbitration clause in the contract.

"Arbitration is quick, easy and final," Schleimer said. (Or at least it can be. This ongoing litigation, he added, "is probably the least efficient way of resolving a dispute.")

Dudnik, Ferrer's attorney, filed a motion in Los Angeles County Superior Court to block arbitration until the California labor commissioner could rule on whether the contract should be voided. A Superior Court judge agreed with Ferrer, and said the dispute over the contract should go first to the labor commissioner.

Preston appealed, but a state appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, agreed the labor commissioner should consider the matter.

In dissent, Justice Miriam A. Vogel wrote: "This is not how it supposed to work. . . . When a former judge and a lawyer enter a contract in which they agree that that any dispute about that contract will be resolved by arbitration, I think they ought to be bound by that agreement."

Buoyed by that strong dissent, Preston appealed his case to the California Supreme Court. Without comment, that court refused in February to hear the matter.

The U.S. Supreme Court looked to be a long shot. In May, Schleimer petitioned the justices to hear the case of Preston vs. Ferrer to decide whether an "interstate arbitration agreement" can be ignored if it conflicts with California's special protection for performers. To the surprise of the lawyers on both sides, the justices in late September voted to hear the case.

Dudnik, who has been in Washington for several days to prepare for today's session, said he was surprised the high court wanted to hear this dispute.

"I wouldn't have given it one chance in a hundred. This is a very narrow issue," he said. The only question is whether the California labor commissioner can rule on the validity of the management contract before the dispute goes to arbitration or to a judge, he said.

Along the way, however, the spat between the TV judge and his manager has taken on added importance. The legality of binding arbitration is a recurring dispute in many industries.

Major employers prefer to avoid costly battles in court, and they like arbitration as a way to settle disagreements with workers and suppliers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Macy's have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on Preston's side, urging the high court to rule squarely that arbitration deals must be honored.

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have joined the case on the side of "Judge Alex." They say the high court should not undercut California's legal protection for those in the entertainment industry. By overseeing the licensing of talent agents and by reviewing contracts, the state labor commissioner "regulates a creative industry where individuals are vulnerable to abuse," they told the justices.

No matter how the Supreme Court rules, Dudnik said, the dispute will be far from settled. "If this is a 100-yard race, we are now about the 20-yard line," he said.

This phase of the case will decide where the dispute between Ferrer and his manager will be decided. "Even if we win in the Supreme Court," Dudnik said, "there's a good chance we'll end up back in arbitration."

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