This month of February, the action continues in court in Los Angeles where Nicholas Cage, the star of the romantic comedy Moonstruck and former owner of a million-dollar comic book collection, filed a lawsuit last October against his former business manager Samuel J. Levin. Cage has had a lot of money troubles lately, including one from the IRS which hit him up with more than $14 million dollars in back taxes, plus three separate lawsuits claiming millions of dollars from him. And he’s been selling his assets like crazy, including posh homes in Bavaria and Las Vegas.
As it happens, Cage, one of the highest paid movie stars in Hollywood, blames his former business manager for his woes and in his lawsuit he accuses Levin of fraud and mismanagement and seeks damages of more than $20 million dollars from him.
But Levin isn’t laying low either and has fired back with own lawsuit against Cage, where he is asking the court to say he didn’t do anything wrong and for Cage to pay him $129,000 for work he claimed to have done. Levin claims that Cage lived above his means and ignored his advice in the way he spent money. For instance, Levin said that back in 2001 when Cage hired him, he had warned Cage who makes about $20 million per movie that he’d need to make $30 million a year to maintain his lavish lifestyle, which included expensive vacations and the “Gatsby-scale parties” he liked to throw.
Levin got even more specific: he said he warned Cage not to buy the castle in Bavaria and another one in England. He also claimed that in 2007 alone Cage bought $33 million in property, including 22 automobiles. And to demonstrate that he was indeed a good manager, Levin then claimed that early in their working relationship, he did have some luck persuading Cage to sell off a dozen automobiles plus his $1.6 million comic-book collection.
As with most situations like this, allegations are flying in all directions between Cage and Levin and only the court can sort out all this stuff after all the evidence is presented. But on the face of it, and again, only on the face of it, here’s how it kind of looks: First, Levin is a licensed CPA with more than 20 years of experience and has no prior record of complaints from clients. Next, Cage’s lawyers have not come out and specifically denied that Cage ignored Levin’s advice.
So far, Marty Singer, Cage’s lawyer, has only said that it was Levin’s job as business manager to say “no” to his client’s actions. Well, maybe so, but it’s not that simple in the real world, especially with rich celebrity clients who are spending their own money and are not breaking any law by doing so. As Singer himself would already know or perhaps may be about to find out, even lawyers have trouble occasionally getting clients to listen, especially the powerful ones.
But for comedians and other entertainers generally, the big lesson here is also a quite simple one: there are consequences for ignoring expert advice. For starters, the refusal to follow the advice of a professional is usually a good defense for the professional in a lawsuit situation. Especially if they document it right. One common way to document such matters is to prepare what lawyers colloquially call a “C-Y-A” letter (as in “cover-your-ass”) which basically says that advice has been given but refused by the client.
Sometimes, when things get messy, a client’s dirty laundry may also be aired in public. Here, Cage’s lawyers have attacked Levin for sort of making an embarrassing laundry list of Cage’s behavior with money. But did you wonder if they can they punish Levin in any way for outing Cage? Not a chance! And here’s why: the law isn’t going to tie Levin’s hands behind his back when he’s been sued by a former client and his character is under attack. This means he could now use ammunition which in other situations he may not be able to use against a former client.
But the real value of this case is not who wins or loses in the end but what lessons folks in similar situations in the future can learn from this, whether they’re comedians or managers.