After nearly two years of delays, the more than $70 million lawsuit filed against “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett by his former business partner Conrad Riggs can continue, California Labor Commissioner Julie A. Su ruled this week.
Riggs is claiming that Burnett failed to pay him producing fees for his work helping shows such as “The Apprentice” and “The Restaurant” and did not buy him out of his stake in Mark Burnett Productions.
But the suit, which was filed in 2008, has stalled while Burnett’s legal team attempted to argue that Riggs violated the Talent Agencies Act by unlawfully negotiating contracts for the reality show producer.
A Los Angeles Superior Court hearing was halted in 2009 while the commission weighed whether or not Riggs had run afoul of the law by making deals for Burnett without his permission and essentially serving as an agent despite lacking a license.
In what is largely a legal victory for Riggs’ side, Commissioner Su ruled that the dispute belong in the courts, not the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, and that the relationship between Burnett and Riggs was not subject to the same rules governing producers and their agents.
“We don’t believe the Legislature intended to revolutionize the entertainment industry by requiring the licensing of all individuals engaged in raising funds, and in this case, negotiating licensing and distribution deals for bona fide independent production companies wholly owned by petitioner, or to dramatically expand the role of the Labor Commissioner to function as the arbiter of all business disputes that might arise in the course of such deals,” Commissioner Su wrote.
Bart Williams, an attorney for Riggs, said he expected discovery will resume shortly, while Steven A. Marenberg, an attorney for Burnett indicated that his client might appeal the commissioner’s ruling.
“We believe that the decision of the labor commissioner vindicated the position we’ve had from the begining which is that Mark Burnett Productions is an independent production company and Mr. Riggs did not operate as his agent. The notion that Conrad Riggs worked as Mark Burnett’s unlicensed talent agent for 9 years, and Mr. Burnett didn’t realize until 2009 what Mr. Riggs was doing is nonsensical,” Bart Fields, an attorney for Riggs, told TheWrap.
While the commission said that the dispute over unpaid profits from Mark Burnett Productions to Riggs’ company Cloudbreak Entertainment Inc. could go forward, it did rule that Riggs must pay Burnett back any funds he received from the talk show “Martha.” Burnett, the commissioner ruled, had operated as an independent producer and not as an his production company’s banner during his brief stint on Martha Stewart’s morning show.
“We’re pleased that the labor commissioner found that Mark Burnett was an artist within the meaning of the Talent Agency’s Act and we’re pleased that the labor commissioner found that Riggs violated the act with respect to at least one of Mark’s shows. The labor commissioner determined that even though Riggs procured employment for Mark, he did so for Mark’s production company, a destinction that we think is wrong and one that will be reversed by the judge who reviews this case. We remain confident that ultimately we’ll win on this issue and many others that weren't before the labor commissioner,” Marenberg told TheWrap.