Law Review: A real Oscar snub (Opinion)
The 95th Academy Awards ceremony was held this week. Yes. Movies are still being made and movie theaters still exist. Had to double check. The cultural coup of the television show is nearly complete. Binge until your eyes bleed.
For those antiquated feature-film few, the Citizen Kane denying, Titanic immortalizing Oscars celebration is the crowning moment. The eponymous gold figurine the apogee of cinematic achievement.
More than 3,000 of those shiny awards have been given out over the years, and a recent decision, Juarez v. Ward, from the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, concerns the fight for one of them.
David S. Ward is a Hollywood writer and director of a surprisingly diverse body of work, including The Sting, Major League, and Sleepless in Seattle. Ward won the 1974 Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay for The Sting – a classic Paul Newman / Robert Redford bromance film, before bromance films were a thing. The victory entitled him to one 13.5 inch, 8.5 pound, bronze-cast, gold-plated statuette, commonly known as the “Oscar.”
Ward’s Oscar became the subject of litigation between Ward and Maria Duarte Juarez after Juarez – who was formerly employed by Ward but not fully paid for her services – obtained a judgment against Ward for unpaid wages and penalties.
Fame can be a fickle friend, and Ward, it seems, came upon tight times. He claimed to have few assets beyond a baseball bat signed by the cast of Major League (cool, but probably not too valuable), and the Oscar (cool, and probably somewhat valuable). Given the limited assets from which to collect on her judgment, Juarez applied for an order that Ward’s Oscar be delivered for public sale – the proceeds of which would then be used to pay down the amount owed by Ward.
Enter stage left. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the organization that hands out Oscars – caught wind of the public sale, it intervened in the litigation between Juarez and Ward to assert its own rights to the Oscar.
Here’s the rub. Oscars come with strings attached. To physically receive an Oscar, a winner must sign a contract granting AMPAS a right of first refusal to purchase back the Oscar for $10. The rationale for restricting free transfer of the little golden men: “An Oscar that is sold by [one] who did not earn the award diminishes the honor of the achievement and the value of AMPAS’s copyrighted statue.”
After AMPAS intervened, it exercised its right of first refusal, and Ward sold back the Oscar for $10. Juarez, deprived of one of Ward’s more valuable assets, appealed to obtain possession of the Oscar or to force AMPAS to pay the judgment owed by Ward. Both arguments failed.
The court of appeal held that, because Ward was contractually and equitably restricted from transferring the Oscar, Juarez could assert no claim to the Oscar that would trump AMPAS’s right of first refusal. Though restrictions on the transfer of personal property are generally disfavored, the Court reasoned the Oscar restriction was a reasonable prohibition necessary to preserve the “prestige” of Oscar statuettes and the Academy Awards.
But do not fret, out an Oscar, the court confirmed Juarez has a lien against Ward for the full, whopping $10 AMPAS paid to Ward for the statuette. Prestige prevails over the aggrieved. A real story book ending. And the Oscar goes to … AMPAS. An Oscar snub for the ages.
Ravn R. Whitington is a partner at Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada. Ravn is a member of the firm’s Trial Practice Group where he focuses on all aspects of civil litigation. He has a diverse background in trial practice ranging from complex business disputes to personal injury to construction law, and all matters in between. He may be reached at email@example.com or http://www.portersimon.com.
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