R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R. is suing her longtime record label for release from her contract, citing a California law that limits personal services contracts for state residents to seven years.
Filed in California Superior Court in Los Angeles on Thursday (June 16) under the artist’s birth name, Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, the complaint alleges that MBK Entertainment has held sway over Wilson’s career decisions beyond the seven-year period allowed under California Labor Code Section 2855, also known as the “Seven-Year Statute.”
“Wilson has not been free to provide her recording services except as permitted or dictated by MBK,” the complaint, written by her attorney Allen Grodsky, reads. Wilson signed with MBK on May 19, 2011, when she was 14 years old, and concurrently signed with MBK owner Jeff Robinson for management, though Robinson is not individually named in the lawsuit.
According to Wilson’s complaint, the agreement with MBK violates California law by binding her as an “exclusive employee” of the company past the seven-year period allowed under Section 2855 of the state labor code. Under the contract, Wilson is held to an “‘Initial Period’ which ended the later of 15 months after May 19, 2011 or 12 months after the commercial release in the United States of Wilson’s first album under the contract, and up to five additional Option Periods of more than one year each,” as noted in the complaint.
To date, H.E.R. has released just one proper studio album – last year’s Back of My Mind – as well as two compilation albums made up of material from prior EPs. All were distributed by Sony’s RCA Records, which is not named as a defendant. The complaint does not state how MBK defines an album release.
Wilson is seeking a judicial declaration that the MBK agreement is “voidable and may not be enforced against Plaintiff under California law to the extent it purports to require Plaintiff’s services after May 18, 2019,” and that MBK’s attempts to enforce it violate the state’s Business & Prof. Code 17200. She is additionally asking for “restitution and disgorgement of funds according to proof,” costs of the suit and “other and further relief” as determined by the court.
The suit further alleges that after Wilson hired Robinson as her manager, he fired the law firm that represented her in negotiating her MBK recording deal and then used his own lawyers to represent her in subsequent agreements, including publishing and touring deals. While those lawyers took a 5% commission on each of those deals, they “did not have a written fee agreement or a conflict waiver” signed by Wilson but rather performed those services “as a favor” to Robinson, who was also paid a 20% commission for each of the deals.
“Wilson’s seven years have run,” the complaint states. “MBK’s attempts to thwart this important and fundamental California public policy should not be condoned.” It adds that Wilson has already delivered notice to MBK “that she will no longer render personal services.”
Representatives for Wilson and MBK Entertainment did not immediately respond to Billboard‘s requests for comment.
Wilson’s filing arrived just as the California bill known as the Free Artists from Industry Restrictions (FAIR) Act was reintroduced in the state Senate last week. A first hearing before the body’s Labor, Public Employment and Retirement committee is scheduled for Wednesday.
Now known as AB 983, the FAIR Act seeks to repeal a 1987 amendment to the Seven-Year Statute that allows record labels to sue artists for damages (including potential lost revenue) if they leave after seven years but before delivering the required number of albums in their contract. AB 983 is supported by the CA Fair Act Coalition, a collective that includes The Music Artists Coalition, the Black Music Action Coalition, Future of Music Coalition, Songwriters of North America and SAG-AFTRA.
Wilson is far from the first artist to sue her record label for allegedly violating the Seven-Year Statute. Artists including Don Henley, Courtney Love, Luther Vandross, Metallica and Incubus have also taken their labels to court pursuant to that law.