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Disney, Fox Lose in Court: ‘The Simpsons’ Composer’s Discrimination Lawsuit Can Move Forward

Composer Alf Clausen attends the 2016 ASCAP Screen Music Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 24, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.

As The Simpsons prepares to reach new audiences on Disney+, legal tensions are heating up between the show’s producers and its longtime music man. Los Angeles County Judge Michael L. Stern issued an order that went public last week, allowing The Simpsons composer Alf Clausen to move forward with an employment lawsuit against the show’s producers.

Hollywood music giant Alf Clausen, 79, handled the music for The Simpsons from 1990 until his firing in 2017; for his work, Clausen won two Emmys and became the most nominated composer in Emmy history, amassing a record 23 Emmy nominations. Prior to his work on The Simpsons, Clausen was the composer for many successful television shows, such as The Donny & Marie Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, Fame, Little House on the Prairie, and Moonlighting, as well as feature films such as Mr. Mom, Splash, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Naked Gun.

At the heart of the litigation is a dispute over The Simpsons producers’ underlying reason for firing Clausen. In a lawsuit filed last August naming Disney, Twentieth Century Fox and others as defendants, Clausen alleged that producers wrongfully terminated him. He also alleged that he had been the victim of discrimination on the bases of both his age and his disability (a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis). Clausen further claims to be the victim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The producers, on the other hand, said their decision had nothing to do with Clausen’s age or disability – but was motivated by Clausen’s deficiencies as a composer. They said Clausen had been improperly delegating some of the composition to his team, and that he was unable to adequately capture the producers’ vision when it came to use of synth and rap music. When Clausen was fired from his The Simpsons gig, he was replaced by fellow movie music veteran, 62-year-old Hans Zimmer. In his pleadings, Clausen had some unkind words for Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy-Award-winner Zimmer, known for composing the music the Pirates of the Caribbean series, InterstellarGladiatorCrimson TideInceptionDunkirk, and The Dark Knight Trilogy. Clausen alleged that once Zimmer’s company was hired as his replacement on The Simpsons, the show’s music became “inferior in quality, depth, range and sound, yet stylistically similar in substance.”

Clausen, fending off any arguments that he might be the wrong choice to continue managing the show’s soundtrack, argued in pleadings that he is, “equally capable of creating hip hop, rap and any other style of music,” and that, “after 50 years of composing music for films and television, there was no style of music that was foreign to Mr. Clausen or that he was uncomfortable creating.”

Clausen san that during his tenure on The Simpsons, he “composed numerous rap and hip hop cues, including the ‘Homerpalooza’ episode of season 7, where the producers had him compose the hip hop song ‘Insane in the Membrane,’ by the rap group Cypress Hill, using an orchestra.”

The defendants argued that Clausen’s lawsuit was a frivolous attempt to infringe on their free speech. On that basis, defendants had a statutory right under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute to move to strike the complaint at an early phase of litigation. Judge Stern found that Clausen met his burden of proof on disability discrimination and wrongful termination claims, but not on the age discrimination or intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. The case will now move forward through the discovery process.

[image via Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for ASCAP]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos