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Sheen's legal case against studios not so crazy

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Charlie Sheen might consider himself a "winner," but it's far from clear whether the "Two and a Half Men" star would prevail in what seems like an inevitable legal showdown over who is to blame for the implosion of America's most-watched sitcom.
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Charlie Sheen might consider himself a "winner," but it's far from clear whether the "Two and a Half Men" star would prevail in what seems like an inevitable legal showdown over who is to blame for the implosion of America's most-watched sitcom.

After the CBS network and producer Warner Bros. Television (WBTV) canceled the show's eighth season last week, the 45-year-old actor launched a nonstop media blitz demanding that the cast and crew be paid for the remaining eight episodes (WBTV will pay the crew for four) and possibly for the ninth season.

Sheen's lawyer Marty Singer argued in a terse February 28 letter to the network and studio that his client is "ready, willing and able" to resume work and that he's been locked out "in retaliation for" criticisms of "Men" co-creator Chuck Lorre.

While showbiz legal experts say that referring to Lorre as a "clown" and a "retarded zombie" on television doesn't help Sheen's cause, many believe he has a decent case, especially if reports are true that his deal with WBTV includes no morals clause. The controversy, say the lawyers consulted by The Hollywood Reporter, will hinge on which side breached the heavily negotiated contract that pays Sheen more than $1.2 million an episode.

Sheen's lawyers believe that Warner Bros. and CBS violated their obligations by allowing Lorre to dictate that the show be shut down in the wake of Sheen's outrageous statements and partying with porn stars. Sheen maintains he's clean and sober and there's nothing in his private life that would trigger a "default" under his contract. The legal arguments mirror a path that has proved successful for other entertainers who have been terminated for offensive comments.

Martin Gold, a litigator at SNR Denton in New York, says the situation reminds him of when CBS fired shock jock Don Imus after he made derogatory statements about the Rutgers women's basketball team. CBS tried to avoid paying Imus on his contract, but it couldn't get around the argument that the conglomerate got exactly what it had bargained for, signing extension after extension even though it knew Imus' reputation.

Similarly, if the deal between WBTV and Sheen is "pay or play" -- as Singer's letter says it is -- then Sheen will argue that bragging that he's survived "banging seven-gram rocks" can't be held against him. Indeed, Warners knew for years about Sheen's behavior -- including stints in rehab and an arrest on charges of attacking then-wife Brooke Mueller -- but only acted after Sheen insulted Lorre, perhaps the studio's top producer.

Gold says, "This was going on for a long time, so it can hardly be called a surprise."

However, experts say CBS and Warner Bros. could have equally strong arguments that Sheen, not the network or studio, violated the contract. And if Sheen is found to have materially breached his deal, he could forfeit his rich deal and even be forced to reimburse CBS/WBTV for lost revenue, which could reach as much as $250 million if the show shuts down permanently.

Such a case would likely be premised on the notion that Sheen, despite his willingness to show up on set, has become such a high risk and has damaged so many relationships that continuing the show would not be possible. It's no coincidence that the statement released by CBS and WBTV on February 24 blamed the shutdown on "the totality of Charlie Sheen's statements, conduct and condition."

Ellyn Garofalo, a partner at Los Angeles' Liner Grode Stein firm, believes the studio and network would focus on Sheen's public statements about Lorre and take depositions from those who work on the Men set to "show Sheen had become impossible to work with," she says.

CBS/WBTV also could argue that Sheen is damaging the show and network with his media rampage, possibly violating a "disparagement" clause in his contract, and that his presence would cost TV's top comedy advertisers and viewers (though "Men" ratings have remained steady during the fiasco).

But Hollywood litigation expert Aaron Moss at Greenberg Glusker thinks an argument based on Sheen's outrageous behavior alone would be hurt by the absence of a morals clause. Instead, Moss believes that CBS/WBTV could target the actor's physical condition.

"The best argument that Warners would have would be to not focus on conduct and statements per se but only as evidence of his condition, tied to his inability to do his job," Moss says.

Which means that a judge would likely scrutinize Sheen's contract to determine whether he was actually fulfilling his job responsibilities. If, for instance, he was employed not just to deliver lines but also to promote the show, then CBS/WBTV could argue that Sheen had already shirked these duties by placing the show in a negative light. And, of course, Sheen's employers now have a week's worth of public tirades to use as evidence that perhaps he wasn't showing up to the set in top condition. Moss points to one statement made by Sheen on 'The Dan Patrick Show' that could come back to haunt the actor.

"(I've) never been drunk, never been high on the set once," Sheen told the syndicated sports show host on February 15. "But I would show up not having slept much. Doing a network run-through and asking the director, Jamie, to move my mark a little bit so I could be next to a piece of furniture or a table so I wouldn't fall over."