A New Jersey jury in the Superior Court of New Jersey for Camden County has awarded former Major League Baseball pitcher Mitchell Williams $1,565,333 in a wrongful termination action he filed against MLB Network, Inc. Mitchell Williams v. The MLB Network, Inc., et al., No. L-3675-14.
Williams, nicknamed “Wild Thing,” played professional baseball from 1986 until 1997, and was an All-Star in 1989. Over the course of his career, Williams played for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Texas Rangers, the Chicago Cubs, the Houston Astros, the Kansas City Royals, and the California Angels. In 2009, Williams became a major league baseball studio analyst for MLB Network. In 2011, Williams signed a new five-year contract (with an option for a sixth year) with MLB Network, but his employment was terminated in 2014.
In September 2014, Williams sued MLB Network and Gawker Media Group Inc., alleging that Gawker erroneously reported that, during a May 2014 Little League baseball tournament, Williams cursed out a child while coaching his 10-year-old son’s Little League team, ordered one of his son’s teammates to hit the opposing pitcher with a beanball, and was ejected from the game for arguing and cursing. Williams further alleged that, following the erroneous Gawker reports, MLB Network: (1) issued public statements that suggested Williams had admitted to the reported misconduct at the Little League tournament; (2) forced Williams to take a 30-day leave of absence from MLB Network; (3) threatened to terminate Williams’ employment unless he signed an amendment to his contract agreeing not to coach or attend any of his children’s Little League baseball games, go to therapy, and get approval before posting any pictures on Facebook; and (4) terminated Williams employment when refused to sign the amendment. Williams claimed that, as a result of MLB Network’s and Gawker’s conduct, he also lost jobs with MLB.com, Sports Network, and Fox Sports.
The case went to trial in June 2017. After an 11-day trial, the jury rejected MLB Network’s claim that Williams had violated a “morals clause” in his contract. The jury found that MLB Network wrongfully terminated Williams and breached his contract when it fired him based on the Gawker stories. The jury then awarded Williams $1,565,333 in damages. Gawker Media Group Inc. filed for bankruptcy and was dismissed from the case, in 2016.
This case serves as a reminder that employers should act cautiously before taking any adverse employment action against an employee based on negative reports from third-parties. When possible, employers should conduct their own investigations and assure themselves of the accuracy of any negative reports before relying on them. As Williams v. The MLB Network makes clear, if the third-party’s report is inaccurate, the employer may end up paying the price.