CAA Calls Out Sage Steele Lawsuit As “Meritless Attempt” To Get Out Of Paying Commissions She Owes Agency – Update

UPDATED with CAA response: CAA is pushing back hard Tuesday after Sage Steele filed a lawsuit against the agency as a part of her suspension and alleged sidelining at ESPN after 2021 comments about Covid vaccine mandates and Barack Obama.

“Ms. Steele’s allegations are a meritless attempt to avoid paying the significant commissions she owes CAA, which is the subject of a claim CAA previously filed with, and presented to, the California Labor Commission that is in the final stage of being decided,” attorney Patrick J. Somers tells Deadline of the complaint Steele filed today in Los Angeles Superior Court against her current agency.

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Steele and her lawyer Bryan Freedman say that case revealed that the ex-SportsCenter co-host’s agent Matthew Kramer lied to her, manipulated her and failed to protect her after pubic and corporate backlash against her remarks on Jay Cutler’s podcast.

CAA and its hired lawyer disagree.

“As her agency, CAA worked diligently for Ms. Steele beginning in 2013, during which time her career as a sports broadcaster flourished.,” added the Kendall, Brill & Kelly lawyer serving as CAA’s outside counsel in this matter. “CAA’s agents unequivocally acted only in her best interest to help her navigate the controversy she created; yet, now, she denies the agency’s valuable support, skill, and judgment despite having repeatedly expressed her gratitude in numerous written communications throughout that time period.”

All of which is to say, don’t think CAA is considering settling with Steele like ESPN and Disney did last year.

CAA building evacuated
CAA building evacuated

PREVIOUSLY, 3:42 PM: If former ESPN host Sage Steele ever drops by CAA again, it’s going to be pretty awkward.

Steele filed a wide-ranging, damages-seeking complaint filed today in Los Angeles Superior Court against the agency, part of the blast radius of accusing your reps of lying to you and tossing you under the bus for bigger deals. Even though Steele made controversial comments about ESPN and Disney’s Covid vaccine mandate policy and former President Barack Obama’s biracial identity almost three years ago, this is also the consequence of the onetime SportsCenter host wanting to be rid of CAA, and the uber-agency not letting her go.

No matter how you cut it, with Steele’s lawyers calling CAA “morally corrupt … routinely” and tossing everyone from Harvey Weinstein, Terrance Howard, Cold Case EP and WGA exec Meredith Stiehm, and The Wire creator David Simon into the matter, it’s messy.

“As this Complaint will allege, award-winning ESPN on-air talent Sage Steele sought professional and legal advice from CAA at a time she was being persecuted for exercising her First Amendment rights,” the jury trial-seeking filing says (read it here). “Rather than advocate for her or guide her to seek appropriate legal counsel, CAA immediately sided with ESPN and its parent company Disney and sacrificed her so it could continue to reap the benefits from its profitable relationship with the companies,” added the suit, which alleges breach of fiduciary duty and two claims of declaratory judgment. It names Steele’s agent and CAA’s sports media group co-head Matthew Kramer specifically.

“As Kramer, Steele’s agent at the time, recently testified under oath, he made no attempt whatsoever to stand up to the demand that Steele apologize, or to seek legal counsel on her behalf or advise her to seek independent legal counsel. As it has time and time again, CAA failed to act in accordance with its fiduciary duty.”

With repeated cut and pastes of Kramer’s seemingly damning testimony from a separate case before the California Labor Commission initiated by CAA over commissions from Steele, today’s complaint filed by Bryan Freedman and Theresa Troupson puts the blame for the very public punishment Steele underwent from Disney and ESPN on CAA. The Mouse House reaction came after Steele’s September 29, 2021 comments on Jay Cutler’s podcast questioning “sick and scary” vaccine mandates, Obama and more. After a short period of behind-the-scenes corporate arm-twisting, Steele put out a statement October 5, 2021 that said in part: “I know my recent comments caused controversy for the company, and I apologize.”

She was suspended with pay the same day.

When Steele returned to work, she later claimed that ESPN had systematically “sidelined’ her.

To that, Steele sued ESPN and Disney for retaliation and more in April 2022. Last August, that suit was settled with undisclosed conditions. At the same time, Steele, now a YouTube host, officially exited ESPN so she could “exercise my First Amendment rights more freely.”

“Kramer felt no compunction about lying to Steele when he thought doing so would be a convenient way to manipulate her into a more acquiescent mindset,” today’s complaint alleges. “His goal throughout was evidently to keep Steele pliant, docile, and continuing to bring in her lucrative commissions.”

“If CAA had been acting in Steele’s best interests rather than its own, it should have stood up to ESPN on Steele’s behalf rather than pushing Steele, and advising her as her agent to agree to an apology and a suspension,” the filing also says. “It certainly should have advised Steele to seek legal counsel to understand and defend her rights. If CAA had met its fiduciary obligations to Steele, Steele would never have been forced to make a public apology and submit to a humiliating suspension, and she would not have had to go through a costly and public lawsuit to undo the harm CAA allowed to be done to Steele.”

“Sage’s agency should have advocated on her behalf so that she did not have to apologize for what was clearly protected speech under Connecticut law,” Freedman told Deadline this afternoon. “Instead her agent did not even bother to ask ESPN or Disney if there was a way she did not have to apologize.”

Although Steele claims her “long-term career prospects have been immeasurably damaged” by what went down with ESPN and Disney, she’s certainly been busy. In March, Bill Maher unveiled the currently streaming The Sage Steele Show as the first program on his new podcast network Club Random Studios. In April, Steele replaced Candace Owens in the voice cast of conservative platform The Daily Wire‘s upcoming animated sitcom Mr Birchum.

As a part of today’s action, Steele wants to part ways with CAA, something she says the agency won’t allow.

“Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment from this Court that Plaintiffs’ future performance of the agreement between Plaintiffs and Defendants is excused by reason of Defendants’ material breach of the agreement, and that Plaintiffs owe nothing further to Defendants,” the complaint says, while also oddly noting that “CAA also represents a number of athletes, who depend on CAA’s ability to obtain favorable coverage from ESPN.”

CAA has not responded to request from Deadline for comment on Steele’s lawsuit. If and when they do have a response, this post will be updated.

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