Former ESPN Announcer’s Wrongful Termination Suit Removed Back to State Court
A California Federal Judge ruled that former ESPN announcer Doug Adler’s wrongful termination suit, in which he claimed two executives and the network misinterpreted his “guerilla” comment about Venus Williams’ game play, will head back to state court, as ESPN failed to prove the executives’ Connecticut residence for invoking diversity jurisdiction.
The dispute arose when Adler used the word “gorilla” while Venus Williams was on the court during the 2017 Australian Open. Adler was forced to make an on-air apology the following day, before being fired one day after that. In return, he filed suit against ESPN Productions, Inc., Mark Gross, Senior Vice President of Production, and Jamie Reynolds, Vice President of Production, for wrongful termination of employment, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, and intentional/ negligence infliction of emotional distress.
Adler’s remark, as alleged in his complaint, and captured by footage of the match, was “she misses her first serve and Venus is all over her. You see Venus movie in, and put the guerilla effect on.”
Adler’s suit maintains that he did not use the word to describe an aggressive style of play, as his usage of the word was misinterpreted by ESPN and the two executives. Rather, Adler alleges that he used the phrase “guerilla tennis” because it “has frequently been used to describe a player’s aggressive tactics in the sport.” Essentially, Adler’s suit argues that the expression describes a technique where players come to the net in order to intimidate their opponent and force an unforced error.
Notably, Adler supported his allegation with examples of the phrase being used in popular tennis culture. His suit referenced a 2012 profile of female tennis player, Agnieszka Radwanska, in Tennis Magazine, where the author used the exact same phrase, “guerilla tennis.” Further, Nike produced a televised ad starring Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi entitled “Guerilla Tennis.”
Adler alleges that ESPN failed to properly investigate the matter, and fired him too soon after the incident, in bad faith, and without good cause.
On March 16, ESPN removed the suit to federal court, arguing that the opposing parties lived in different states, and that damages would exceed $75,000 — the state court’s amount-in-controversy ceiling. However, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson ruled that ESPN improperly invoked diversity jurisdiction, since it alleged “upon information and belief” that the two network vice presidents, Gross and Reynolds, lived in Connecticut — the same state where it maintains its principal place of business.
The judge stated that the defendants did not establish residency in Connecticut based off of those words, as “[t]he notice of removal’s allegations, alleged on information and belief, are insufficient to establish the citizenship.” Further, the judge noted that ESPN’s executive board had failed to join in the removal, and “ESPN has failed to explain their absence.”
Even though Adler did not state a specific amount of damages he sought to recover in his suit, ESPN maintained that federal jurisdiction was appropriate, because the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. As support, ESPN crunched the numbers to come up with a $148,000 minimum, based off of Adler’s claims for emotional distress, lost wages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Judge Anderson’s ruling did not address the $75,000 jurisdictional limit.
David Ring, Adler’s attorney, stated that it didn’t matter whether the forum was in federal or state court, and that “we look forward to litigating this matter.” Ring did not give a specific dollar amount on the amount of damages owed, as “[h]ow do you place a value on one’s reputation which is abruptly destroyed when his employer falsely labels him a ‘racist’ and fires over an innocuous comment?”