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Sage Steele’s Lawyer Counters ESPN’s Efforts to Dismiss Lawsuit

  • Steele sued ESPN and Disney in April, alleging her freedom of expression rights were violated.
  • ESPN filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in June.
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ESPN anchor Sage Steele’s legal team pushed back on the sports network’s request to dismiss her lawsuit in a court filing.

Steele sued ESPN and parent company Walt Disney Co. in April, a lawsuit that alleged her First Amendment and Connecticut’s free-speech rights were violated when she was sidelined for two days after a September appearance on a podcast hosted by former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler.

The filing was in response to ESPN’s June motion to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. Attorneys for the Worldwide Leader argued that Connecticut court — where the lawsuit was submitted — lacks standing to hear a case involving Disney, a Delaware corporation headquartered in Southern California. 

ESPN’s attorneys also noted that Steele’s employment contract was with the network, not Disney.

“Despite [the] defendants’ protestations, Disney is [the] plaintiff’s employer under the terms of her employment contract, and that contract indicates that Disney’s corporate policies direct and control both her conduct and the conduct of its affiliate, ESPN,” Michael S. Taylor, one of Steele’s attorneys, wrote in Thursday’s filing.

“This dispute arises directly from the enforcement of two Disney policies: one requiring employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine and one purportedly limiting employees’ ability to comment on matters of public importance during non-working hours.”

Taylor noted that beyond ESPN being a subsidiary of Disney, Connecticut courts also have jurisdiction since some of its customers reside in the state. 

“Disney does ubiquitous business in Connecticut, marketing and selling its online video streaming services, including Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu, to thousands of customers in the state,” Taylor wrote. “As a result, Disney is subject to personal jurisdiction in Connecticut under both the applicable long-arm statute and the federal ‘minimum contacts’ test, and Defendants’ motion should be denied.”

In Cutler’s Sept. 29 podcast, Steele called Disney’s vaccine mandate “sick and scary” and also questioned why the Obamas identified as Black for the U.S. Census.

Steele alleged in her original complaint that she was suspended two days and pulled off assignments. 

In an affidavit from Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president and executive editor, the network countered, “Steele and I spoke about her appearance on the ‘Uncut with Jay Cutler’ podcast, and comments she made during it, shortly after the episode went live.

“I told her that ESPN was going to temporarily sit her out until the negative attention her comments were receiving died down. … I ultimately chose to pull Steele off of the New York City Marathon and Rose Parade.”

Williamson added that organizers of the Jimmy V Victory Gala asked ESPN to take her off the event “because they perceived her comments about the COVID-19 Vaccine as ‘anti-science,’ and the Foundation’s mission is to raise funds for cancer research.”

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 29. 

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