Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Judge rules against ICM

Says Abate's jump to Endeavor did not threaten agency.,,1781689_4,00.jpg
By Josh Getlin
Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A federal judge ruled Wednesday against International Creative Management's bid to block Richard Abate, its former high-profile literary agent, from jumping ship to rival Endeavor Talent Agency.

In denying ICM's request for a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Peter K. Leisure said the agency had not shown that it would be irreparably harmed by Abate's decision to join another company before his contract had expired.

The courtroom fight between ICM and Abate, which began last week, highlighted the rivalries and tensions between the agencies' seeking to exploit the lucrative market for book-to-TV and book-to-movie deals in New York.

Abate had told ICM in February that he was leaving to join Beverly Hills-based Endeavor, where he hoped to start a New York literary office for the company.

Los Angeles-based ICM had argued that Abate was legally obligated to refrain from dealing with the agency's competitors until his contract ended Dec. 31.

The battle has been closely watched by publishing and movie and television agents in New York and Los Angeles because it poses a classic conflict between an agent's right to seek employment and an agency's desire to keep secrets and confidential information from falling into the hands of its competitors.

Brian Kaplan, one of Abate's attorneys, said he was "extremely pleased" with the court's decision. But the battle is not over.

In a statement issued after Leisure's ruling, Richard Levy, ICM's general counsel, said the matter would now head to arbitration, where the agency is seeking $10 million in damages.

In arbitration, both sides will turn over requested information, question witnesses and prepare for what could be a lengthy tussle.

A key issue in Abate's case will be to determine ICM's share of commissions earned for books that he represented but which remain under contract to the agency.

Typically, both sides try to settle such matters amicably, before the dispute and legal expenses escalate further.

But Levy of ICM didn't sound particularly amicable Wednesday, saying: "We are disappointed with the court's decision. However, on behalf of our clients who rely on our efforts to protect their privacy and enforce the integrity of their contracts, Richard's blatant misconduct compelled us to act."

The confrontation was triggered by Abate's decision in February to turn down a three-year extension of his contract with ICM and instead take a position with Endeavor.

In his decision, Leisure did not rule on whether Abate had breached his legal obligations. The judge pointed out, however, that ICM had not shown that its long-term client relationships would suffer as a result of Abate's decision to move to Endeavor.

Leisure noted that ICM's relationships with its literary clients "do not take the form of contracts for a fixed term. Rather ... ICM represents a client for a particular book or article only.... Authors decide anew with each project whether to engage ICM or another agency for that project."

Leisure also ruled that Abate had not absconded with confidential information and trade secrets, either by e-mailing himself a list of his professional contacts from the office or by sending himself a related phone log.