Clanton, Alabama, resident Bonnie Cahalane was unlawfully incarcerated for almost five months at the Chilton County Jail--known to locals as "The Chilton Hilton"--and since has been forced out of her home. The house now is up for sale, all because of an agreement she reached under duress in Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds' courtroom.
The Felder episode is one of the key story lines in History of the Eagles: The Story of American Band, a three-hour film that has been running on Showtime since February and now is available on DVD. Produced by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, History of the Eagles probably will be one of the most watched documentaries of 2013.
At the heart of the film is a 40-year journey of an iconic band, the group that came to define the Southern California sound of the 1970s. But tucked between tales about the birth of classic songs--and numerous internal squabbles--are insights about this important legal concept: A contract that is reached under duress is void. (For Alabama law on the subject, see Claybrook v. Claybrook, Ala., Civ. App., 2010.)
Felder sued band leaders Glenn Frey and Don Henley, seeking more than $50 million in past earnings and potentially lost income. The case ultimately was settled, and Felder must have received some measure of justice because his net worth is estimated at $60 million.
Will Bonnie Cahalane achieve justice? If the rule of law still means anything in Alabama, she will. That's because the so-called agreement to sell her house was reached while she was in prison clothes and under threat of returning to "The Chilton Hilton" if she didn't cave in.
Don Felder forever will be known as the guy who gave birth to "Hotel California," which is the Eagles' signature tune and ranks No. 49 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." But Felder, through years of turmoil and courtroom unpleasantness, has taught us that contracts reached under duress are void and cannot be enforced.
How did Felder's legal saga unfold. The roots of it were planted when he was invited to play slide guitar for two songs ("Already Gone" and "Good Day in Hell") as a "late arrival" on the band's third album, 1974's On the Border. Felder's role was to toughen up the band's sound and help them transition from a country-rock band to an edgier rock band.
Felder filled that mission so well that he was invited to become a full band member for 1975's One of These Nights, which went quadruple platinum and became by far the band's biggest selling album at that point. Felder joined founding members Frey, Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner as equal partners in the band's business affairs.
That "five equal partners" concept started to fray when Leadon left the band in 1975. His replacement, Joe Walsh, was hired as a band member, but he was not a partner in its business entity, Eagles Ltd.
Felder's songwriting and guitar work were central to the seminal Hotel California album in 1976, with the disc going 16 times platinum and becoming one of the most beloved and influential LPs of all time. Another founding member, Randy Meisner, left after that album--and his replacement, Timothy B. Schmit, was hired under terms similar to those for Walsh.
That left only three partners in Eagles Ltd, and the band broke up in 1980 following tension-filled sessions for 1979's The Long Run.
Frey has called the breakup a "14-year vacation," and during the split, he and Henley had the most successful solo careers of any band members. When the Eagles reconvened in 1994, Frey decided that it should be on terms that were favorable to the two partners who had become the best-known lead singers and songwriters. Frey and Henley were to become "the Gods" of the band, while Felder was to accept a substantially smaller piece of the pie.
Felder wound up signing the re-arranged deal, but it clearly was done under duress--and, under the law, such a contract is no contract at all. As Felder continued to question Frey, Henley and manager Irving Azoff about the group's finances, he finally was forced out of the band.
Lawsuits and countersuits began to fly, and Yahoo! News' Bruce Simon described the issues in a 2006 article:
Felder, who says he was an equal partner and shareholder in Eagles, Ltd., claims that Henley and Frey began abusing him in 1994 on the Hell Freezes Over tour, when new business entities were formed that gave Henley and Frey a majority position. When he protested, Felder was told to "take it or leave it" and was threatened with firing.
Felder further alleges that several of the group's business dealings in the past 10 years have been compromised by outside interests. Among other things, he says the Hell Freezes Over album was placed with Geffen Records to help satisfy Henley's legal battles with the label; that Azoff and Peter Lopez, Frey's personal attorney, were paid to act as tour promoters, rather than having independent promoters bid on the project; and that the merchandising licensing fee for the Hell Freezes Over tour was "substantially below the market price."
The suit goes on to say that "the greed of Henley and Frey became more insatiable with each new project." They formed yet another company to handle the business dealings related to the Eagles boxed set Selected Works: 1972-1999, and that this new company totally excluded Felder, Walsh, and Schmit from an ownership stake. When Felder once again complained, he was sent a letter by Azoff that said he was out of the Eagles, which led him to sign the papers under duress.
Here is how Jeff Leeds, of the Los Angeles Times, described the case in 2002:
Felder's lawsuit accuses Henley and Frey of bullying him into "one-sided" agreements divvying up band profits, withholding financial information and firing him without cause. . . .
The lawsuit, filed last year in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks past earnings and potentially lost income totaling more than $50 million. Felder is seeking to dissolve Eagles Ltd., the corporation that holds rights to the band's name, some unreleased recordings and other property.
I've been a fan of Don Henley and Glenn Frey for 40-plus years and have enormous respect for their status as one of the great songwriting teams of the modern era. But their treatment of Don Felder reveals them to be pretty sorry human beings. Felder should still be in the Eagles, but short of that, it's an encouraging sign that Frey and Henley had to pay substantial sums for their abusive actions.
Speaking of sorry individuals, that brings us back to Chilton County Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds. He might be protected by judicial immunity, but his associates who have helped bully Bonnie Cahalane could wind up facing serious civil liability. And if Reynolds is found to have gone beyond his judicial capacity to engage in a conspiracy to deprive Ms. Cahalane of her civil rights . . . well, the good judge might find his own wallet to be considerably lighter.
Don Felder has proven that you can successfully fight back against bullies in court. Let's hope Bonnie Cahalane drives home the same lesson.
Previously in the series:
From "Hotel California" to "The Chilton Hilton," Bonnie Cahalane and Don Felder Share Legal Woes (May 21, 2013)