Max Romeo Switches Lawyers Again In $15 Million Lawsuit Against Universal Music

Reggae legend Max Romeo has tapped his third lawyer in just over a year as he fights a $15 million lawsuit against Universal Music Group and Polygram Publishing over allegedly unpaid royalties dating back nearly five decades.

This development comes after a “profound disagreement” with his previous lawyer, Matthew F. Schwartz, of Schwartz & Ponterio, PLLC, according to New York Supreme Court filings obtained by DancehallMag.

Schwartz, in a December 3 letter to the 79-year-old singer, acknowledged the discord and suggested finding a lawyer whose approach aligns with Romeo’s. Enter Gary A. Stahl of Crowell & Moring LLP, who officially took over the case on Friday, December 29.

Max Romeo performing at the Welcome To Jamorck Reggae Cruise earlier this month. (Photo Tizzy Tokyo).

Romeo’s initial complaint, filed on December 15, 2022 by his first attorney, Laura Scileppi, of Dunnegan & Scileppi, LLC, centers around claims of unpaid royalties for his landmark albums War Ina Babylon (1976) and Reconstruction (1977), released under contracts with Island Records and Island Music. These agreements promised Romeo 25% of all recording revenue and 50% of publishing royalties for his compositions. However, he has alleged that UMG and Polygram, who now control Island Records and Island Music, haven’t paid him what he’s owed since 1976.

Interestingly, the dispute extends to royalties from his biggest hit, Chase The Devil, which has seen widespread sampling, including by the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, and The Prodigy, and use in soundtracks for various films and video games such as Grand Theft Auto—but has allegedly yielded not “a penny in royalties” for Romeo.

Additionally, after requesting a complete accounting of royalties dating back to 1976, Romeo claimed that he received only $125,565.04 from UMG in September 2021, followed by smaller payments. He alleged that these sums are nowhere near sufficient and fail to account for lost interest.

In March 2023, the singer substituted Scileppi for Schwartz, according to court records.

Two months later, Judge Suzanne J. Adams ruled in favor of UMG and Polygram, who had moved to dismiss the case on several grounds, including the six-year statute of limitations for initiating such claims in the state of New York.  

However, the judge allowed Romeo and Schwartz to re-file an amended complaint in September 2023.

In November 2023, UMG and Polygram, represented by Pryor Cashman LLP, responded with a second motion to dismiss, calling the lawsuit a “fishing expedition.”

They asserted that Romeo’s revised complaint still violated the statute of limitations, potentially restricting the Jamaican artist’s claims to no earlier than December 15, 2016.  They also, among other things, criticized the lawsuit for lacking specifics about when the alleged contractual breaches occurred, which royalty statements are in question, and which contract provisions were violated. 

Judge Adams is yet to rule on the second motion to dismiss. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for February 13, 2024.

Romeo is seeking over $7.5 million in damages for each breach of contract, plus interest, legal fees, and a full accounting of his royalties. He also aims to have the court rescind the agreements, effectively making him the legal owner of the two albums.

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