Paparazzi agency X17 is violating wage and labor laws that creates unfair competition with PerezHilton .com, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by the celebrity gossip site's owner.
The complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by Mario Lavandeira, aka Perez Hilton, comes seven months after X17 sued the blogger for copyright infringement alleging he posts the agency's photos on his Web site without permission. Lavandeira recently lost his Web host and was temporarily offline due in part to copyright complaints.
Lavandeira's lawsuit, filed by Bryan Freedman of Los Angeles' Freedman & Taitelman, claims X17 employs illegal aliens, calls them independent contractors to avoid payroll taxes, requires them to work "excessively long hours," promises commissions on the sales of their photographs without any intention of paying, and allows the photographers to use aggressive and abusive tactics toward other paparazzi.
"Until X17 launched its own copycat blog, X17 and Perez Hilton were not competitors of one another in any sense of the word," the lawsuit states. "Now, with respect to this narrow aspect of X17's business (which, in turn, relies on photographs from X17's employees for content), X17 competes against Perez Hilton."
Lavandeira's theory is that both Web sites feature celebrity news and gossip, but PerezHilton.com is expected to license material while X17 can rely on "its own labor pool, which it exploits through unlawful business practices," which in turn creates unfair competition.
The complaint was filed a week after PerezHilton.com was shut down by its former ISP, Crucial Paradigm, which reportedly was concerned about its own legal responsibility in light of the constant notices from X17 and other photo agencies of copyright infringement activity on the site. BlogAds now supports the Web site.
X17's Brandy Navarre, who owns the agency with her husband, Francois Regis Navarre, said the lawsuit is "a desperate attempt by a desperate person to come after the very people who shut down his Web site last week.
"He seems obviously frustrated by his business model, which is based on stealing photographs and is definitely not working," she said.
X17's lawsuit against the blogger, whose blog posts often feature snarky comments and drawings over celebrity photos, is currently pending in federal court in Los Angeles.
Navarre said Lavandeira's claims in the lawsuit are baseless.
"There is nothing illegal about the way we handle our employees," she said. "If Mr. Lavandeira is so concerned about the rights of photographers, he might want to stop stealing their images and denying them their income."
Navarre's attorney, John Tehranian of Turner Green Afrasiabi & Arledge in Costa Mesa, echoed his client's sentiments
"We don't foresee it having any effect on the other lawsuit, Tehranian said. "We don't see this lawsuit having an impact. Period."
Freedman said he has received a "plethora" of phone calls from former X17 photographers about the alleged illegal business practices. The PerezHilton.com site has even posted a notice to current and former X17 photographers asking them to contact Lavandeira if they feel they have "not been adequately compensated by X17 for your time (including overtime) or your photographs."
"This is an unfair competition complaint and if you're competing with someone, you have to compete fairly and not in violation of the laws," Freedman said. "These communications from former photographers have been coming in for months. This is not something done in response to anything that X17 has done, other than the way they've treated former employees."
X17 isn't alone in challenging Lavandeira's site. In February, Universal City Studios sued him for allegedly posting an unauthorized outtake photo of a topless Jennifer Aniston from the film "The Breakup." That case has been sent to mediation.
In April, he was sued by several other photo agencies in federal court for posting copyrighted pictures on his site without permission.
And in May, Lavandeira was sued in New York federal court for allegedly posting a copyrighted photo of Jason Alexander, who was briefly married to Britney Spears in Las Vegas. The photo accompanied a posting about Alexander's alleged drug use with Spears.
Those two cases are currently pending.
Also representing Lavandeira is Matthew Voss of Freedman & Taitelman and Gregory Doll and Michael Amir of Doll Amir & Eley in Los Angeles.
The case is Lavandeira v. X17, Inc., BC373254.