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:
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:
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:
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.
View the discussion thread.