A former ESPN tennis analyst who sued after being fired in 2017 due to his description of Venus Williams’ style of play cannot update his complaint by adding new allegations and two additional employees of the sports network as defendants, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Feffer said that although plaintiff Doug Adler hired a different lawyer in December who took another look at the case, allowing him to amend the complaint now would be unfair to the defense.
The judge said Adler’s new lawyer, James A. Bryant, did not explain in his declaration when he learned the new information he cited in support of the proposed amendment, nor did he elaborate on why the motion to update the lawsuit was not brought earlier.
In addition, Bryant brought the motion after ESPN attorney Raymond Bertrand filed a motion to dismiss the original case, Feffer said.
Adler, who’s now represented by the law firm founded by the late Johnnie Cochran, maintains his use of the word “guerrilla” was misinterpreted by some critics, many on social media, who thought he was using the racially offensive term “gorilla” regarding the black tennis star and her performance in the Australian Open.
Bertrand told the judge that allowing the amendment complaint at this stage would be harmful to the defense.
“The mere substitution of different counsel with different views is not a basis for allowing an amended complaint,” Bertrand said. “The prejudice is apparent.”
The term “guerrilla tennis” was meant to describe aggressive tactics, but ESPN “bowed to the Twitter universe of haters and those ignorant of tennis who thought (Adler) used the word gorilla to describe Venus Williams that day,” Adler alleges in his original lawsuit.
The original suit also alleged that other employers shunned Adler following ESPN’s firing of him shortly after the Jan. 18, 2017, Williams match. Filed in February 2017, the complaint alleged wrongful termination, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
ESPN Senior Vice President Mark Gross and the network’s vice president, Jamie Reynolds, were also named as defendants.
In December, Adler hired Bryant of the Cochran Firm as his new lead counsel. In his court papers, Bryant said his review of the case “supported legal theories that were not pleaded in the (original) complaint.”
The proposed amended complaint sought to add causes of action for defamation and both fraudulent and negligent representation. Bryant also wanted to bring in as defendants Don Colantino, an ESPN senior director, and Mike Soltys, ESPN’s vice president of corporate communications.
The proposed amended complaint alleged Soltys defamed Adler by issuing a statement that ESPN removed the plaintiff for making an inappropriate comment “that was viewed negatively by everyone but Adler.”
The “viewed negatively by everyone by Adler” portion of the statement was false and “perpetuated the false narrative that (Adler) made a racist comment,” according to the proposed amended complaint.
Bryant told Feffer on Wednesday, however, that he would be amenable to dropping the defamation claim if the other amendments were approved. He also said the defense could depose Adler again if necessary and that the trial could still start as scheduled Oct. 15.
ESPN attorneys say in their court papers that Adler “issued an apology on Jan. 19 saying he was speaking about Ms. Williams’ tactics and strategy and that he chose the wrong word to describe her play.”
The network “concluded that he should have been more careful in his word selection and (ESPN) exercised the right remove him from providing announcer services for the remaining three days of ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Open,” according to ESPN’s court papers.
But according to the proposed amended complaint, Adler agreed to apologize on air in reliance upon Colantino’s promise he would remain employed by the network. Colantino wrote the apology Adler read to viewers, the amended complaint states.
After giving the apology, Adler says he was removed from the broadcast booth and prevented from calling the match he was scheduled to work. The next day, Adler was asked to leave the premises and Colantino told him ” that his services had been permanently terminated,” the proposed amended complaint states.
“Plaintiff ultimately fell into deep depression and suffered from a massive heart attack,” the proposed amended complaint states.
Adler lives in Los Angeles and was an All-American player at USC. He was hired by ESPN in 2008 and covered the U.S. Open, French Open and Wimbledon. He alleges the network ruined his sterling reputation cultivated over 40 years, during which he announced some 3,000 matches.