Hollywood Docket: Al Jazeera Exec Ordered to Testify in MLB Stars' Lawsuit Over Sports Doping Film

Ryan Zimmerman-Getty-H 2018
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

An Al Jazeera Media Network exec can't use a legal move relied upon by high-ranking government officials to escape deposition in a lawsuit brought by baseball players alleging they were defamed by the documentary The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers, a D.C. federal judge has ruled. 

Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and now-retired Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard in January 2016 sued Al Jazeera over the story, which links them and retired NFL legend Peyton Manning to shipments of steroids and human growth hormone. 

In March 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson denied Al Jazeera's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, finding Zimmerman and Howard sufficiently alleged facts that would permit a reasonable jury to find that the defendants published in the film statements that defamed them.

Last month, the court granted Zimmerman and Howard's motion to compel the deposition of Mostefa Souag, then-acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network. On Nov. 2, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather issued a memorandum explaining that ruling. 

According to that filing, Souag watched the documentary before its broadcast and advised the investigative journalism unit that he didn't see any problem with it and they should move forward with airing it as long as they were comfortable with the advice given by the company's legal team.

The network's lawyers responded to plaintiffs' initial deposition notice by saying Souag wouldn't attend an Aug. 6 deposition in D.C. because his high rank meant he had less knowledge than other employees, there were "less intrusive" ways to get information from him and if he were deposed it should happen in Doha, Qatar.

After months of correspondence, attorneys for Zimmerman and Howard filed the motion to compel. The network argued Souag was protected by the apex doctrine, which shields some high-ranking officials from being deposed in matters in which the information sought can be obtained from lower-ranking employees. Brown acknowledged the application of the doctrine for government officials, but didn't analyze whether it applies to corporate executives because the court would compel Souag to appear for deposition "even if that standard applied."

"Dr. Souag’s review and authorization of 'The Dark Side' prior to its publication gives him unique knowledge of facts highly relevant to this case," writes Meriweather. "Only Dr. Souag can describe his approval and decision-making process. Although Dr. Souag may lack an independent recollection of that review, Plaintiffs are nonetheless entitled to explore the topic and Dr. Souag’s standard practice for reviewing documentaries, at a deposition."

Meriweather declined to make Al Jazeera pay for plaintiffs' fees in bringing the motion because the network's objection to Soag's deposition was "substantially justified, albeit unsuccessful."

In other entertainment legal news:

— Ed Sheeran, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have reached a settlement with an Australian duo who in January sued the stars for copyright infringement. Sean Carey and Beau Golden claimed the McGraw-Hill song "The Rest of Our Life," which was co-written by Sheeran, blatantly copied their 2014 song, "When I Found You." Their attorney Richard Busch filed a letter with the court Thursday indicating the parties have agreed to settle and expect to hammer out the details of the deal in the next 30 days.  

— A medical technology company is asking a New York federal judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by Clint Eastwood. The actor in July sued Molecular Defenses Corporation, alleging "covert intellectual property transfers" involving a medical research company in which he is an investor and its patents for immunity booster glutathione. Now Molecular Defenses is asking the court to dismiss the suit, arguing that Eastwood and his co-plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they haven't adequately alleged an ownership interest or concrete financial interest in the patents. (Read the filing here.)

— Dan Rosen in 2014 sued Walk of Shame producers, writer-director Steven Brill and star Elizabeth Banks, claiming the film was based on a rom-com screenplay he pitched to Banks back in 2007. A California federal judge in 2015 found no substantial similarity between the two works, and the decision was affirmed on appeal. Rosen's remaining claim for breach of implied contract was then refiled in state court in 2016, and he later added claims for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and unjust enrichment. Brill and Lakeshore then filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the state court granted in part and denied in part finding that Rosen's complaint largely centered on the defendants' failure to pay him for his script and that doesn't implicate speech. It granted the motion with respect to Rosen's request for screen credit. 

"[T]the question here is whether failing to pay was conduct in furtherance of the speech of the movie," writes Associate Justice Laurence D. Rubin. "We conclude the 'furtherance' requirement cannot be stretched this far. ... Not all conduct with some relation to speech is in furtherance of that speech; failing to pay for a script is not sufficient." The panel also affirmed the district court's decision to sustain Lakeshore's demurrer. Rosen's claim for failure to pay against Brill will proceed, as will all of his claims against Banks. (Read the full decision here.)

In hiring news:

— Endeavor has promoted Dan Limerick to head of business affairs for its representation business, which includes WME, IMG Models, The Wall Group, Art & Commerce and Dixon Talent. Limerick will oversee client dealmaking and manage guild relationships on behalf of the company. Limerick joined WME in 2016 as head of TV business affairs from Warner Bros. Television.

— Tom Ara and Robert Sherman have joined DLA Piper's growing entertainment practice in its Century City office. They will serve as co-chairs of the firm's entertainment finance practice, and both were most recently at Greenberg Traurig.

— Leif Cervantes de Reinstein has joined Sheppard Mullin's Entertainment and Digital Media practice group. He was most recently head of Reed Smith's global television practice.

— T. Hale Boggs III is joining O'Melveny & Myers as a partner in its Mergers & Acquisitions practice. He comes from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, where he was chair of Manatt Digital and co-chair of the firm's venture capital group.

— Frankfurt Kurnit has promoted entertainment associates Marcie Cleary, Sasha Levites and ?Julie M. Murray to counsel, effective Jan. 1.