On June 21, 2017, in accordance with an order from the Superior Court of Stamford Connecticut, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. submitted an application for half of the $241,007 in attorney’s fees and costs to be paid by Phillip Jack Brooks (a/k/a CM Punk).
This is the story of how a slander lawsuit in Illinois led to a large lawyer’s bill over a subpoena in Connecticut.
The Cook County Lawsuit
On February 2015, Dr. Christopher Amann, senior ringside physician for WWE, filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois against Phillip Jack Brooks (a/k/a “CM Punk”) and Scott Colton (a/k/a “Colt Cabana”). Amann’s libel & slander lawsuit alleged that Brooks (Punk) had “falsely impugned the integrity of Amann as a medical doctor” on Colton’s (Cabana’s) “Art of Wrestling” podcast (transcript). The request for judgment was for “compensatory damages in an amount in excess of $1,000,000, punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial and such other relief that the Court deems just and appropriate”.
Defendant Scott Colton (Cabana) filed a motion to dismiss the “meritless lawsuit” in June 2015. His motion claimed that statements on the podcast were not defamatory. Furthermore, Colton’s lawyers noted that Dr. Amann should only meet the definition of a “limited purpose public figure” and thus cannot demonstrate that there was “actual malice in order to state valid claims of defamation”. Lastly, Colton claimed that “neutral reportage privilege” should protect him since he did not “espouse or concur” with Brooks’ statements or act “deliberately to distort Brooks’ statements to launch a personal attack of his own”.
Defendant Phillip Jack Brooks (CM Punk) responded with a robust answer and affirmative defenses in August 2015 that he “specifically denies that he falsely impugned the integrity of Plaintiff as a medical doctor”. While Brooks’ stated that “the Podcast speaks for itself”, the response vigorously “denies the characterizations of various statements” in the original complaint. The filing offered several defenses including:
- 1st Amendment
- “The allegedly false and defamatory statements are constitutionally protected expressions of opinion and therefore nonactionable under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”
- Rhetorical hyperbole and imaginative expression
- “Statements by Brooks such as “lazy” or “worthless piece of shit” would “consist of loose, figurative, rhetorical and/or hyperbolic language constituting nonactionable opinion”.
- “Brooks may be reasonably interpreted as conveying his intention to share his subjective views about his experiences”
- Multiple physicians
- “Statements about which Plaintiff complains did not refer to Plaintiff by name and could be reasonably construed to refer to persons other than Plaintiffs.”
- Limited Purpose Public Figure
- Plaintiff (Amann) has “voluntarily become a public figure in his own right” by appearing on a “popular podcast promoted by WWE”, giving “numerous interviews to member of the media” and being on Twitter as “@WWEDocAmann”.
- Brooks’ statements were not “false or misleading” and did not act “with any sort of malice or fault when he made the alleged statements challenged by the Complaint in the course of the Podcast”.
- No Reasonable Jury
- “Brooks made his challenged statements with good motives and for justifiable ends” and even if the “statements at issue were not technically or literally accurate in every detail, no reasonable jury could find that the statements were not substantially true”.
- Fair Comment and Criticism Privilege
- The statements “were fair commentary concerning legitimate subjects of comment and criticism on matters of public interest and concern, including topics related to the health and safety of professional athletes and treatment of concussions”.
- Unclean Hands
- Plaintiff (Amann) “has repeatedly placed the interests of the WWE over the medical interests of Brooks and other patients” and “engaged in unprofessional, incompetent and/or dishonest conduct in furtherance of the WWE’s entertainment and/or business interests that compromised and tarnished his reputation, professionalism and/or integrity”.
- Plaintiff (Amann) “violated his duty of physician-patient confidentiality to Brooks, and invaded Brooks’ right of privacy” in his complaint.
- Plaintiff (Amann) “coordinated and conspired with the WWE in bad faith to prepare, bring and pursue this lawsuit in retaliation.. for the embarrassment that the Podcast caused WWE”.
- Absence of Damages
- Plaintiff “cannot prove any actual or special damages” or “actual, proximate or legal cause of any economic injury to Plaintiff, any actual or cognizable injury to Plaintiff’s reputation, or any other concrete loss”.
- Due Process
- Violates defendant’s rights “to procedural and substantive due process due the vagueness and uncertainty of the criteria for the imposition of presumed damages and/or the calculation of presumed damages.”
- Plaintiff (Amann) “continues to be engaged by the WWE, and the WWE has publicly defended Plaintiff with respect to the challenged statements made on the Podcast”.
- Excessive Punitive Damages
- “Colton conducted the interview with Brooks at issue in good faith without any sort of malice or other degree of fault.”
- “Colton’s alleged conduct does not justify or warrant the imposition of sanctions to achieve any valid aims of punishment or deterrence.”
- “Any award of punitive damages would have dangerous and substantial chilling effect on protected speech”.
When pressed to explain how the Challenged Statements in the podcast had actual harm to his reputation, a filing from Plaintiff Christopher Amann provided interesting details. He noted that his medical malpractice carrier (Hallmark Specialty Insurance Company) “has increased his insurance premium approximately 63%, quadrupled his deductible, and his policy has less favorable terms including, without limitation, the elimination of his right to consent to settle any future claims” and that other carriers “have declined to offer coverage to Amann as result of the statements published by Brooks and Colton or have offered coverage only on terms even less favorable”.
In addition, Amann noted that he’s suffered “anxiety, stress, and loss of sleep and weight/muscle mass as result of the publication of false statements”.
Lastly, Amann claimed that he “anticipates future difficulty in obtaining job promotion within WWE, the continuing effect of the statement on his reputation with prospective employers and patients through access by Internet search engines, the lack of trust in his ability as a physician by new WWE talent”. Amann specifically noted that “Kevin Steen a/k/a Kevin Owens” inquired whether Amann committed the acts or omissions contained in the statements published by Brooks and Colton.
The WWE Subpoena
On February 2016, WWE was served with a subpoena from defendants Phillip Jack Brooks and Scott Colton for the purposes of “production of documents” and “oral testimony through depositions”.
The subpoena sought “all communications and other documents” on a number of topics. These included:
- February 20, 2015 article on WWE.com “WWE addresses CM Punk’s allegations”
- The “Art of Wrestling” podcast in question
- Any decisions, agreements or undertaking by WWE to pay or reimburse Dr. Amann or Dr. Amann’s counsel for any legal fees related to the Lawsuit
- Communication about Brook' staph infection diagnosis or treatment and Brooks' potential concussion diagnosis or treatment
- Medical files or evaluations of Brooks
- Personnel files on Brooks or Colton
- Formal and informal disciplinary, complaints and other communication concerning Dr. Amann
- WWE malpractice insurance policies
- Any announcements or statements made by Dr. Amann with respect to live or recorded WWE performances or matches or on podcasts including scripts, instructions, notes and plot outlines
- Protocols, guidelines, policies and procedures for WWE concerning medical evaluation, diagnosis and treatment regarding concussions or inflections for WWE wrestlers and dispensing antibiotics, painkiller and other medications
- All footage and photographs from 2014 Royal Rumble
- All photographs (and footage of WWE matches) including or depicting Brooks during October 1, 2013 through January 31, 2014
- All footage of any statements made by Amann at any time that refer or relate to Brooks or Colton
In March 2016, WWE responded to the subpoena request with an affidavit by WWE's Vice President of Legal and Business Afairs, C. Scott Amann. He estimated costs of compliance of the subpoena was between $182,650 and $443,650. It would depend on the “costs to identify, collect, review, and produce documents and electronically stored information”, specifically around the collecting and processing of 218 GB of data of e-mail (costing between $32,650 and $43,650) and burden and costs associated with reviewing potentially emails with their outside legal team (costing between $150,000 and $400,000).
Accordingly, WWE also responded with a “general objection to the Subpoena on the grounds that it would cause WWE undue or unreasonable burden or expense”. They specifically objected to almost every request as being “vexatious, harassing, overboard”.
Following WWE’s response to the Subpoena request, there was actually a second subpoena issued to WWE on May 6, 2016 which was narrower “in respect to time period for which documents and records are being sought”. WWE insisted that “the estimated costs of compliance… remain applicable”.
There were twenty WWE employees that were identified as possibly having relevant material in their electronic mailboxes. They included top executives that many would recognize such as Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, Paul Levesque, Kevin Dunn, Michelle Wilson along with those involved with Talent Relations (Mark Carrano, Michelle Wilson, Jane Geddes, John Laurinaitis, Kristin Altman, Karin Strelec), medical staff (Stacy DePolo, Chris Amann, Michael Sampson, Chris Brannan, Larry Heck), communications staff (Tara Carraro, Brian Flinn), legal (Scott Amann, Laura Brevetti) and Brad Blum (US Army officer turned WWE Chief of Staff).
For the next several months, there were back-and-forth legal machinations related to whether WWE would comply with the subpoena and what their final production of documents would look like. In August 2016, WWE’s counsel applied for “Complex Litigation Application” status but that request was denied. In November 2016, as Brooks’ lawyer was based in California, he requested that a conference would be held over the telephone, but WWE’s lawyer’s objected and requested that the conferences be held in person. WWE argued that certain documents should be considered privileged and did not need to be turned over. Brooks’ lawyers disagreed. It went back and forth like this for months.
Eventually on December 12, 2016, Judge Charles T. Lee entered an order in the Superior Court of the Judicial District of Stamford, CT. In Docket No FSTCV166029332S (Phillip Jack Brooks v World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.) the Judge ordered that:
- WWE would search for and produce emails for six employees that were identified while the emails of the other fourteen employees would not be searched unless Brooks obtains evidence in the course of discovery that shows good cause for the search.
- WWE would produce all video footage and still photographs of Brooks from one WWE event per week between November 1, 2013 and January 1, 2014, as may be designed by Brooks.
- WWE and Brooks will split 50/50 the reasonable attorneys’ fees and other reasonable expenses incurred by WWE in connection with the foregoing response to the Subpoena.
- WWE shall produce to Brooks’ counsel the information by February 4, 2017
- Disagreements to appropriate amounts will be resolved by the court
Over the next several weeks counsel for WWE and Brooks’ “conferred on numerous occasions by email and telephone regarding potential search terms and date ranges to use to search the ESI (electronically stored information)”. By January 2017, a potential 5,873 documents were identified for review.
In June 2017, WWE’s counsel submitted an application for attorneys’ fees and costs for the expenses that “WWE was forced to incur in connection with responding to the subpoena” of $241,006.52. (While expensive, a quarter of a million dollars is within the range that had been originally proposed by Scott Amann after the initial subpoena request.) The 50/50 split which had been in the Judge's order meant that plaintiff Brooks owed the WWE $120,503.26.
In July 2017, plaintiff Phillip Jack Brooks objected to the expense. The filing cliams that WWE had included “expenses for resisting the subject subpoena and for other work that could not benefit Brooks”, “expenses supported by time entries that are so heavily redacted that they do not establish the purpose of the work performed” and “expenses for time entries that are excessive for the task performed”. Instead, Brooks requested that “the Court find that the reasonable costs of compliance are 33% of the expenses claimed, and issue a fee award accordingly.”
This would mean that “reasonable cost of compliance” would be one-third of the original $241,007 bill, and Brooks’ would be responsible for only half of that cost. Thus, instead of a bill for $120,503, Brooks’ was proposing to pay just $39,776. The debate on the reasonableness of the legal fees and appropriateness of expenses will continue for some time.
How this shakes out in the end will be interesting. Further oral arguments over the cost of the subpoena may be scheduled as early as the end of August.
In the end, this is only a tangential portion of the original Cook County Libel/Slander lawsuit. That case drags on in Illinois with depositions already scheduled into 2018. Still, more and more information is being revealed in Connecticut through the lawsuit in conjunction with the subpoena.