ESPN Says Former Legal Analyst's "Stale Gossip" Doesn't Cut It in Court

Adrienne Lawrence alleges sexual harassment and a corporate culture "rife with misogyny." ESPN now tells a judge she "should not be permitted to hijack the judicial system."
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A year ago, Adrienne Lawrence was dispensing legal wisdom on ESPN and opining on everything from the NFL's suspension of star running back Adrian Peterson for domestic violence to how NBA point guard Derrick Rose beat a lawsuit for allegedly gang-raping a woman. After Lawrence's contract wasn't renewed, she is now in a far different position. She is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against ESPN for allegedly permitting a hostile workplace rife with sexual harassment and retaliating against her after she objected to supervisors and the human resources department.

Lawrence, who in 2015 left a $235,000-a-year job as an associate at the prestigious law firm of Greenberg Traurig to take a $75,000 per year fellowship at ESPN, filed a 93-page complaint last month that had many in the sports media world talking. That's because Lawrence not only discussed her own experiences, but also presented four "confidential witnesses" and had dozens of pages directed at the decades-long "misogynistic and predatory culture" at ESPN. The complaint included subsections titled, "Watching Porn Remains a Favorite Pastime at ESPN," "Men at ESPN Use Predatory Tactics Like Sexual Grooming" and "ESPN Has a Long History of Mistreating Pregnant Women." 

On Wednesday, ESPN submitted its first substantive response to Lawrence's lawsuit, demanding in one motion (read in full here) that references to "stale gossip," "unresolved lawsuits" and "collateral matters" be stricken and in a separate motion (read in full here) that her false light claim based in part on statements from social media bots be dismissed as an impingement of the First Amendment. ESPN is arguing that its former legal analyst has brought allegations that have fallen fall short of federal pleading standards and, at the very least, is looking to narrow what this case examines.

"This is a single-plaintiff case about Adrienne Lawrence’s work environment and interactions with ESPN employees during her brief two-year fellowship at the company, beginning on August 10, 2015," opens ESPN's motion to strike. "It has nothing to do with tabloid stories about the alleged culture at ESPN in 1979, the 1980s, or the 1990s. It is not about people with whom Lawrence never worked and never met. But to distract from the weakness of her claims, Lawrence’s complaint contains no fewer than 36 paragraphs (more than 12% of the total factual allegations) that make fanciful assertions about ESPN’s distant history or that otherwise bear no nexus to the matters before this Court."

ESPN continues by telling the judge that Lawrence "should not be permitted to hijack the judicial system to wage a public relations asserting claims dating back to before she was born."

In particular, ESPN doesn't like how Lawrence dredged up the 2015 settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by former ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman's makeup artist nor a 2005 lawsuit from an ESPN employee who claimed being terminated after becoming pregnant. Plus other cases.

"All of the allegations regarding Unresolved Lawsuits are immaterial under Rule 12(f) because they are based on lawsuits that were never adjudicated on the merits," states ESPN's motion. "The complaint acknowledges that each of the Unresolved Lawsuits was settled. All of the allegations regarding Unresolved Lawsuits are therefore immaterial as a matter of law and should be stricken."

Nor does ESPN like the part of the complaint that talks about how the network kept a New York City apartment in the 1980s that allegedly was a sex-and-drugs hotspot or how in the 1990s, there was enough "sexual harassment charges to keep executives busy," with specific references to various ESPN star personalities.

The defendant argues that even if Lawrence was permitted to corral witnesses to talk about these alleged events, their testimony would be inadmissible as too remote or irrelevant.

"Simply put, the Stale Gossip does not relate to Lawrence’s work environment," argues ESPN's lawyers at the firm of Paul Hastings. "It relates to an alleged decades-old work environment that Lawrence never experienced, which has no bearing on her claims."

Similarly, ESPN is looking to strike allegations related to bed bug complaints and how Jemele Hill allegedly received a threatening and racially disparaging voicemail from Berman. It's argued that collateral matters such as these are both irrelevant and likely to inflame the jury.

With one major exception, ESPN doesn't much address allegations related to Lawrence's own alleged victimization. According to her complaint, she was preyed upon by various colleagues under the guise of mentorship, subjected to colleagues' sexual comments about stars like pop singer Rihanna, and given lesser assignments and ultimately had her contract non-renewed after Lawrence rejected sexual advances by SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross but nevertheless witnessed a "bogus rumor" at the workplace that the two were intimate.

ESPN does, though, talk about the aftermath of her allegations surfacing in a feature in The Boston Globe.

In her lawsuit, Lawrence alleges she was attacked when ESPN released "forged texts to make it falsely appear that she stalked Buccigross" and when ESPN used "bots and fake social media accounts to defame her and fuel negative sentiment against her online while dummy accounts feigned support for Buccigross."

In one exhibit, ESPN presents a side-by-side comparison of texts in an effort to show they were hardly fabricated or rearranged.

Elsewhere in court papers, ESPN states that Lawrence has offered no factual support for alleged use of bots and says the allegations are implausible.

In the bid to dismiss the false light claim, ESPN argues it has a constitutionally protected right to issue a statement on a matter of public concern in response to the allegations in the Boston Globe article, that its statements were true and not highly offensive, and that there was no malice.

Finally, bots or real authorship, ESPN argues these third-party tweets like the one from @Black_4Trump ("You are a disgrace to us black people. The released texts show you were the aggressive one") aren't actionable for another reason.

"These tweets are quintessential opinions protected by the fair comment privilege, which protects opinions regarding public matters that are based on 'known or disclosed facts,'" states the motion to dismiss. "Lawrence voluntarily thrust herself, and her relationship with John Buccigross, into the center of public controversy. The tweets reveal that the released text messages and Lawrence’s allegations form the factual basis of each opinion expressed."