Get a demo Do I subscribe? News sign-up
Print

Disney’s General Counsel “Didn’t Like” Ovitz, Court Told

News, 01 December 2004


An enduring (and endearing) Hollywood myth is that the cast and crew of Jaws christened Steven Spielberg's plastic and rubber monster shark 'Bruce' - the name of the movie's front-office lawyer.

So far as is known, no similar sobriquet has been attached to Sanford P Litvack, former general counsel for the Walt Disney Company - although it is possible that Michael Ovitz may have regarded him in that light.

Litvack on Tuesday testified in the ongoing saga of Disney shareholders versus Disney directors, currently playing at the Georgetown, Delaware Chancery Court. On the subject of Ovitz, Litvack told the court: "I didn't like him and he didn't like me."

For the benefit of those residing in the constellation of Ursa Major, this is the story so far: Disney shareholders, outraged by the $140 million ($105.59m; £73.4m) severance package handed to former Disney president Michael Ovitz, are suing the latter along with present and former members of the Disney board (including ceo Michael Eisner) for recovery of that eyewatering sum.

Given Ovitz' alleged poor performance in the presidential role for which he was cast by longtime pal Eisner, shareholders argue he should have been fired for 'cause' (gross negligence or malfeasance) - in which circumstance Ovitz would have received nary a cent.

Questioned as to why Ovitz was not fired for 'cause', Litvack said he had found no basis for doing so after reviewing complaints about him - among which were the president's failure to fit in with the Disney corporate culture, his aloof attitude, an inflated expense account and other lavish spending.

"He was guilty of not being able to do the job," opined Litvack, himself a former Disney director. "But failure at a job does not amount to gross negligence or malfeasance. If there was a way not to pay him, I would not have paid him," he told Judge William B Chandler III.

Litvack had concluded that the complaints against Ovitz did not rise to the level of wrongdoing needed to deny him the severance. "I made a determination, which I still believe to be the correct one," insisted the legal eagle.

Questioned as to why he had not asked any lawyer outside the company to conduct a formal review or examine employment-law cases to reaffirm his opinion, Litvack replied that he had been "dealing with contracts all my life" and instinctively knew what would have justified denying Ovitz his severance.

The little matter of protecting one's own butt might have been justification enough for most lawyers, remarked one cynical observer.

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff