Appeals judges send Clint Black case back to trial court

Singer's suit over business manager's fiduciary duties needs clarification

 Country star Clint Black will get another chance in court.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals in Nashville last week reversed a decision by Chancellor Carol McCoy to grant summary judgment to Charles Sussman, Black's former accountant and business manager, whom the country singer had accused of self-dealing, negligence and breach of contract. The case will now go back to the Chancery Court for a retrial.

Black had filed suit in late 2008 against Sussman and his artist management entities, which do business as Gudvi Sussman & Oppenheim and with whom he had worked since 1992. The complaint said Sussman gave Black bad business advice that cost him more than $2 million and advised him to sign personal guarantees totaling more than $2 million for start-up label Equity Records Inc.

One issue addressed by the appeals court opinion, which written by Judge Andy Bennett, was Black’s reliance on Sussman for what turned out to be bad financial and business advice and the requisite hat Sussman was wearing at the time the failed advice was given.

Black alleges Sussman encouraged him to invest in Equity Records to the exclusion of two other established labels which had expressed interest in Black. He said Sussman advised him to leave $500,000 in the struggling label for expenses, a practice not common to the industry as stated in the appeal. And Black loaned the label $325,000.

What Black apparently didn’t know was that Sussman was paying himself $10,000 every month from the coffers of the struggling label. Sussman also advised Black to sign personal guarantees on all notes the label had on the books. The guarantees exceeded $2 million.

Further, court filings indicated Sussman advised Black to advance $406,000 to Equity Label to keep it running. That money was never repaid, according to the appeal. Black also left his royalties with the label on the advice of Sussman.

Music Row attorney Casey Del Casino, who is not involved the parties and had not read the appeals court decision, isn’t surprised by cases like this.

“I think there’s certainly an element of fiduciary responsibility in the relationship between an artist and his financial manager whether delineated or not,” said Del Casino.

Del Casino said Sussman apparently wore several hats working for Black — a practice he said is common in the industry — and it matters what hat Sussman was wearing when he gave the advice in question. In his accounting role, Sussman's actions would have carried with them a one-year statute of limitations. As business manager, that time frame is three years.

The appeals judges' decision details the responsibilities Sussman had and the attendant liabilities associated with those responsibilities. Also, a large section of the appeals court decision dealt with Black’s reliance on partnership entities for advice and whether issues of fact still remain regarding Black’s reliance on those partnerships.

Black has had a rocky relationship with business and financial managers in the past. In 1992, Black’s career stalled due to a dispute with then manager and ZZ Top co-founder, Bill Ham. A lawsuit followed over royalties and publishing rights occupying nearly seven months of the entertainer’s time and costing untold sums of money. Black then entrusted his finances to business manager/accountant Sussman.

Samuel Lipshie and Patricia Moskal of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings are representing Black. Representing the Sussman companies are John Belcher, Curtis Harrington and Jordan Keller of Lassiter Tidwell Davis Keller & Hogan, while Bennett Harrison Jr. and Cole Dowsley Jr. of Cornelius & Collins are working for Sussman personally.