World Wrestling Entertainment is punching back in a class action lawsuit filed by several of its former wrestlers. However, the WWE’s recent court filings take aim at the plaintiffs’ attorneys as much as the plaintiffs’ legal claims. The case provides us with a timely example of the ramifications of failing to carefully read pleadings before filing.
The class action pending in Connecticut federal court resembles the NFL concussion lawsuits brought by former players alleging that the NFL hid knowledge of brain injuries that occur from repeated concussions. This similarity was apparently not lost on the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as the Complaint they filed was almost entirely copied and pasted from the NFL suit except with the words “NFL players” replaced by “WWE wrestlers”. However, the plaintiffs were not especially diligent in recrafting the Complaint, as it also includes references to football player Michael Webster and ascribes statements made by the NFL to the WWE.
The WWE has responded by filing both a Motion to Dismiss and a Motion for Sanctions, arguing that the Complaint violates the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding pleadings. The WWE points to the 122 page Complaint, which it describes as “massively plagiarizing” from the NFL lawsuit and containing factual allegations without merit. Attorneys for the WWE also refer to a ruling in a similar case brought by the same attorney, in which the judge required him to amend his Complaint and added that “I want you to read it this time.”
While we have recently written about the potential liability of attorneys filing complaints with minimal review in the context of consumer finance laws, many attorneys can tell you the practice is common in other fields as well. Especially in those states with minimal notice pleading, it is not uncommon to read about a plaintiff who suffered “injuries to his/her neck, back, head and death” as a result of a defendant who “owned, operated, leased, maintained, controlled, supervised and/or used” a motor vehicle. Although alternative pleading is often permitted, it would likely be difficult for an attorney to explain why he pled that his client suffered from death as a result of the accident as she stands next to him in court.
While seemingly harmless for many cases, attorneys must be careful not make the mistake of the attorneys in the WWE lawsuit. In addition to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, many local rules and the rules of professional conduct have provisions relating to frivolous claims and contentions. Simply reciting every possible claim regardless of the factual circumstances may lead an aggressive defense attorney to move for an explanation of its basis. Worse yet, doing so in more complex cases, such as the WWE concussion class action, suggests to the court from the outset that little thought was put into the pleading and a similar lack of attention will be given to the case moving forward. In addition to reflecting poorly on one’s abilities as an attorney, this bad first impression will also negatively impact the case itself.
This is not to say that careful recitation of every fact in a basic case is necessary. The realities of the business of law require that certain aspects of a case receive less attention than others. However, an attorney can help avoid potential dismissal of his complaint, or even sanctions, by marking certain cases for extra review at the pleading stage. Cases in which liability is more tenuous, or in which the damages are high, will oftentimes be given special attention by opposing counsel in the early stages. Leaving obvious mistakes or inapplicable facts in a pleading signals to the court and defense counsel that the case may not have been properly vetted and undermines its value immediately. Choosing to give the Complaint a careful review will not only help in successfully resolving favorable cases, but may also be the difference between losing a case and having to pay sanctions for having ever brought it.