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California labor commission rejects most of reality TV producer Mark Burnett's claims [Updated]

May 12, 2011 |  4:25 pm

Reality TV show producer Mark Burnett has lost his bid for the California labor commissioner to resolve his long-running dispute with his former business partner.

Three years ago, Burnett's lucrative nine-year partnership with his business affairs chief, Conrad Riggs, fell apart, prompting Riggs to sue Burnett in California state court. Riggs alleged that Burnett, executive producer of such blockbuster programs as NBC's "The Apprentice" and CBS' "Survivor," was withholding producing fees and other money owed to him. Riggs claimed that Burnett and Riggs had an agreement that Riggs would be paid 10% of Burnett's net earnings.

Burnett countersued and a few weeks later, in July 2008, he switched the legal playing field.  MarkBurnett

Burnett petitioned the California labor commissioner, asserting that Riggs had acted as his de facto talent agent by setting up meetings with television network executives and negotiating contracts in violation of the state's Talent Agencies Act. Riggs does not have a license to act as a talent agent.

Burnett demanded that Riggs return more than $1 million in fees.

Burnett's petition was unusual because most complaints involving the Talent Agencies Act center on disputes between actors and their agents, not individuals who built one of television's most successful production companies.

California Labor Commissioner Julie A. Su did not accept the bulk of Burnett's position.

Earlier this week, she determined that Burnett's and Riggs' relationship was not subject to the state Talent Agencies Act on such shows as "Survivor," "Eco-Challenge," "The Apprentice," "The Contender" and "On the Lot." 

However, the labor commissioner found that Burnett had a point when it came to one show. Riggs, she found, was not entitled to any money from the television program "Martha," starring Martha Stewart, because Burnett essentially served as a producer-for-hire on that particular project.

"The testimony and evidence presented establish that Mark Burnett was self employed by his own companies and not by the networks (or other third party production companies) and that Riggs served as an intermediary with the networks for the purpose of selling Burnett's shows and not for the purpose of obtaining employment for Burnett," according to the 19-page ruling written by Edna Garcia Earley, an attorney for the labor commissioner.

The commissioner also appeared to question Burnett's attempt to use the Talent Agencies Act as a way to thwart Riggs' claims. 

"We do not believe the Legislature intended to revolutionize the entertainment inustry by requiring the licensing of all individuals engaged in raising funds, and in this case, negotiating licensing and distribution deals for bona fide independent production companies wholly owned by the petitioner, or to dramatically expand the role of the Labor Commissioner to function as the arbiter of all business disputes that might arise in the course of such deals," her ruling said. 

Now, the Burnett-Riggs feud is expected to move back to state court.  Riggs' suit has been on hold for nearly three years while Burnett's complaint with the labor commissioner was pending.

Updated at 4:35 p.m:  Mark Burnett's attorney, Steven A. Marenberg, provided the following comment: "We are pleased that the Labor Commissioner found that Mark Burnett was an 'artist' within the meaning of the Talent Agencies Act. We are also pleased that she found that Riggs violated the Act with regard to one show. The Labor Commissioner determined that even though Riggs procured employment for Mark, he did so for Mark's production company -- a distinction that we think will be reversed by the court that reviews this decision."  

-- Meg James

Photo: Mark Burnett. Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images