Thursday, March 22, 2007

ICM: agent stole property

Abate lawyer says client had right to jump ship

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Josh Getlin, Times Staff Writer

March 22, 2007

The already bitter fight between the ICM talent agency and uber-literary agent Richard Abate got even nastier Thursday, when both sides clashed in federal court over Abate's bid to leave his former employer and set up a rival literary shop at the Endeavor Talent Agency in Manhattan.

"Information is power and it's a huge asset," said ICM attorney A. Michael Weber, arguing that Abate's move to Endeavor could threaten his client with "irreparable harm" and the loss of priceless contacts, including access to authors and existing literary deals.

"This case is all about money," answered Abate's attorney, Brian Kaplan, arguing that his client had a right to explore and accept employment outside of ICM, and that the agency was mainly concerned about losing the profits that Abate has generated in lucrative literary deals.

As both sides made their opening arguments, a paper box filled with more than 50 literary contracts negotiated by Abate--the symbol of what was at stake--rested on a table near the ICM lawyers.

During the hearing, Abate sat quietly and showed little emotion, wearing a dark suit and periodically drumming his fingers on a desk. But the court hearing, offering an unusual window into the world of talent agencies and mega-deals, was tense from the moment U.S. District Judge Peter K. Leisure called it to order.

ICM, which filed the legal action earlier this month, is seeking a preliminary injunction to block Abate from beginning work at Endeavor until his ICM contract runs out at the end of this year. The agency is also attempting to block the agent from representing himself as an Endeavor agent with any potential new clients, until the contract has expired.

Leisure will issue a final decision on the preliminary injunction, and he warned ICM early in the proceedings in Manhattan that "there is little support" for the agency's bid for a temporary restraining order, since so much time has elapsed between the filing of the case on March 7 and Thursday's hearing. He also acknowledged that both sides have indicated they will be dealing with a potential arbitration of the matter, even as the legal hearing continues in federal court.

In his opening comments, Weber charged Abate with "a blatant violation of his employment agreement," alleging that the agent had agreed not to explore or accept employment with a rival agency while his ICM contract was in force. Although the agency had offered Abate a three-year extension of his current contract, paying him a base salary of $260,000 per year, Abate had instead decided to jump to Endeavor, to open up a new branch of the agency devoted to turning literary material into TV and movie properties, Weber said.

Beyond that breach, Weber said Abate had "surreptitiously taken company property…he contacted clients to let them know he was going…and talked to (ICM) employees…and he misappropriated confidential information."

Kaplan, firing back, said ICM was suing Abate for "having the temerity to speak with another agency about employment when his [current] employment ended." When his former employer offered him an extension, "he said, 'I want to think about it,' he wanted to decide whether to stay at ICM." And he added that it was hypocritical for ICM to argue that Abate's defection represented a threat because "they (ICM) have tried to raid other agencies in California. This is the way they do it, your honor."