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September 22, 2010 9:56 AM

Discovery Turns to Williams & Connolly Again for Deadliest Catch Suit

Posted by Brian Baxter

UPDATE: 9/30/10 10:30 a.m. CBS News reports that three captains have withdrawn from Discovery's top-rated Deadliest Catch series as a result of the company's civil suit against the Hillstrands.

Could reality television be carving out a new niche for high-powered litigators? Based on the recent work thrown to Williams & Connolly from Discovery Communications, that seems like a distinct possibility.

Discovery is no stranger to litigation. The Silver Spring, Md.-based cable operator, which has soared in popularity in recent years, seems to have become more litigious as it joins the rest of the TV industry in moving away from scripted programming to reality shows. And when Discovery goes to court it brings in the litigation big guns from Williams & Connolly, even when the case is against two small-town Alaska fishermen.

The Hollywood Reporter broke the story on Discovery's $3 million civil suit against brothers Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand, the stars of Discovery's top-rated show Deadliest Catch. The program follows the work of fishermen who brave the rough waters of the Bering Sea in search of Alaskan king and opilio crab.

Discovery filed the suit on September 15 in Maryland Circuit Court for Montgomery County in Rockville, Md., claiming breach of contract and seeking $3 million in damages. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the company alleges that the Hillstrands have refused to complete work on a Deadliest Catch spin-off, "Hillstranded," which focuses on the defendants' lives away from their ship the Time Bandit.

Williams & Connolly partner Paul Gaffney and associates Ryan Vangrack and Sarah Teich are representing Discovery in the litigation. Just last week, the firm was tapped to handle a trademark case filed against Discovery over the popular Cake Boss show which airs on The Learning Channel, a Discovery subsidiary. Williams & Connolly is working on that case along with lawyers from Arent Fox and Seattle's The Sherman Law Firm, according to our previous reports.

And last year Gaffney took the lead on Discovery's breach of contract suit against Jon Gosselin, star of Jon & Kate Plus 8, another hit TLC show. That case reached a speedy conclusion after a judge issued a preliminary injunction against Gosselin, which led him to settle the litigation this past February.

Gaffney declined to comment on the firm's work for Discovery when reached by phone Tuesday afternoon.

Litigation activity aside, Discovery has gone through some changes in recent years. The company announced a restructuring plan in December 2007 and went public the following September. A handful of management changes over the last three years have put former lawyers in top positions.

Joseph LaSala, Jr., took over as Discovery's general counsel in January 2008 when his predecessor, Mark Hollinger, was promoted to COO. (LaSala was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment; several Discovery spokespersons also did not respond to requests for comment on the Deadliest Catch suit.)

Hollinger, who previously worked at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, reports to Discovery CEO David Zaslav, a Dewey & LeBeouf alum who stepped into the role of CEO in January 2007. Zaslav's $34 million pay package, disclosed in an SEC filing earlier this year, has been raised as an issue in this latest case against the Hillstrands.

"While [Zaslav] reaps a $33.9 million bonanza in a single day in January 2010, his company attempts to bankrupt hardworking fishermen," said Hillstrand lawyer Jeff Cohen of Beverly Hills-based Cohen Gardner in a prepared statement issued to The Am Law Daily.

"Three million dollars is exponentially greater than any compensation ever paid to the Deadliest Catch captains and yet this is the figure Discovery is trying to extort from these men," Cohen added. "Isn't there enough unemployment in American without forcing hard working sea captains to declare bankruptcy, sell their boats, and fire their crews?"

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