All of the lawsuits alleging widespread age discrimination in hiring of older television writers have been settled. AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL) attorneys represented the writers. The total amount of the settlements of the 23 class actions covering thousands of writers is the largest in the history of age discrimination litigation.
AFL attorneys were co-counsel for plaintiffs who sued a total of 51 defendants, including the major TV networks, studios and 11 talent agencies on behalf of more than 6,000 writers. The plaintiffs charged that because the television industry was convinced that veteran writers could not produce scripts that appeal to the "twenty something" audiences targeted by the advertisers, older writers were systematically "gray-listed," illegally freezing them out of employment opportunities. The result, the plaintiffs claimed, was that older writers, as a class, were robbed of their right to participate in their chosen profession. Many suffered severe emotional distress, saw their incomes shrink dramatically to the point that some had to sell their homes, deplete their retirement savings and file for bankruptcy.
These cases began as a single lawsuit, Wynn v. NBC, filed in federal court in Los Angeles in 2000. In 2002, however, the plaintiffs, all of whom were older (over 40) writers who had unsuccessfully applied for or who had been deterred from applying for television writing jobs, changed strategy. They dismissed the federal suit and then filed 23 class actions in California state court that covered the same 51 defendants named in the federal suit.
After more than 10 years of intense and complex litigation, the court approved four settlement agreements signed by plaintiffs and defendants in all 23 class actions, thus avoiding more years of expensive and frustrating court battles. While denying wrongdoing, the settling defendants agreed to settlements totaling $75 million.
In addition to the monetary payout, the largest of the three settlements (covering 19 of the 23 cases) provides for a Fund for the Future (FFF), an innovative program designed to provide opportunities for older writers. Initially funded by $1.5 million allocated from the settlement payout, the FFF will be supplemented by any settlement funds left over after claims of class members have been paid. FFF's activities include networking and providing grants or loans to qualified settlement class members to finance the preparation, publicizing and dissemination of television or movie-format scripts, shorts, presentations, pilots, new media or similar audio/visual works. The FFF also may provide emergency social welfare loans (i.e., for food, health, transportation or shelter) to individual settlement class members who meet financial criteria and may pay for a study exploring ways to enhance plaintiffs' access to medical insurance and/or financial resources to supplement pensions.
What's at Stake
The litigation exposed the industry-wide "gray listing" of older writers. Although the settlements come without admission of liability by the defendants, the litigation has triggered changes in how older writers are perceived by the industry.
All 23 class actions have settled, bringing this seemingly endless litigation battle to vindicate the rights of older workers to a successful conclusion.
Co-counseling with AARP Foundation Litigation were Sprenger & Lang; Kator, Parks & Weiser; Katz, Marshall & Banks; and Schwartz, Steinsapir, Dohrmann & Sommers.