Sheen's legal case against studios not so crazy

Thu Mar 3, 2011 8:47pm EST
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By Matthew Belloni and Eriq Gardner

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."   Continued...