Don Lemon’s Accuser Ordered to Pay CNN Host $77K in Attorney’s Fees as Case Falls Apart, Two Key Witnesses Switch Sides to Defense

 
don lemon

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

The lawsuit filed against Don Lemon in 2019 made salacious allegations, claiming that the CNN host had assaulted plaintiff Dustin Hice at a bar in the Hamptons the previous summer. But recent court filings show Hice’s case falling apart, with a judge ordering Hice to pay Lemon more than $77,000 in attorneys’ fees and not one, but two key plaintiff’s witnesses switching sides to the defense.

Hice’s complaint claimed that on July 15, 2018, he was a Florida resident working for the summer as a bartender in the Hamptons and his boss, George Gounelas, decided to close up early. The two went to another area bar, Murf’s Backstreet Tavern, along with a bar patron originally identified in the complaint as “Jane Roe.”

While at Murf’s, Hice recognized Lemon and, according to the complaint, Hice offered to buy him a “lemon drop” drink, which Lemon declined.

The complaint then described the alleged assault, claiming Lemon approached Hice and his friends:

At such time, Mr. Lemon, who was wearing a pair of shorts, sandals, and a t-shirt, put his hand down the front of his own shorts, and vigorously rubbed his genitalia, removed his hand and shoved his index and middle fingers into Plaintiff’s moustache under Plaintiff’s nose.

Mr. Lemon intensely pushed his fingers against Plaintiff’s face under Plaintiff’s nose, forcing Plaintiff’s head to thrust backward as Defendant repeatedly asked Plaintiff “Do you like pussy or dick?”. While saying this, Mr. Lemon continued to shove his fingers into Plaintiff’s face with aggression and hostility.

The complaint said Hice was “shocked and humiliated” and “emotionally devastated” by the alleged assault, claiming that he “lived in fear” of running into Lemon again, he found it difficult to continue working in the Hamptons, other Hamptons locals mocked him, and he was emotionally traumatized, including experiencing suicidal ideations.

From the beginning, Lemon has vociferously denied these accusations. A CNN spokesperson told Mediaite after the complaint was filed that the lawsuit had followed Hice’s “unsuccessful threats and demands for an exorbitant amount of money,” which a source familiar with the matter described as including an “extortionary” demand for $1.5 million shortly before Lemon was scheduled to host a Democratic presidential primary debate in the summer of 2019.

CNN also pointed out that Hice had deleted social media posts that attacked CNN, including taking down his Twitter account. A Jan. 2017 Instagram post that was purportedly on Hice’s account showed him posing in front of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. The caption read, “touring the #CNN center today…or as #Trump would say ‘the home of Fake News’ lol.” At some point, Hice reinstated his Twitter account and continued to write posts attacking CNN, including several specifically referencing his lawsuit. Multiple tweets expressed support for former President Donald Trump and at least once he tweeted at Trump about the lawsuit.

Major cracks appeared in Hice’s case early on, during discovery (for the non-lawyers, that’s the pre-trial phase in which both sides are permitted to request documents and other evidence from each other and from relevant parties, including taking sworn depositions).

A series of court battles ensued over Hice’s posts on Instagram, Twitter, and text messages, with Lemon’s attorney Caroline Polisi repeatedly filing requests for Hice to comply with the court’s discovery orders.

In a letter to the court dated June 21, 2021, Polisi quoted Magistrate Judge Steven Locke from a recent hearing where he noted Hice’s repeated noncompliance and ordered him to produce the evidence by January 15, 2021. Hice “did nothing to preserve relevant evidence here and in fact got rid of some of it, whether on purpose or not,” said Locke, describing Hice’s behavior as looking “like a pattern, and that pattern is a problem.”

It was in fact a problem, a huge problem, for Hice, because there is a process in civil litigation where if one party is found to have destroyed evidence in bad faith, the other side can file a motion for sanctions that could include eliminating entire claims from a plaintiff’s case (or defenses for a defendant), ordering the payment of costs and attorney’s fees, and even an instruction to the jury that they should draw an “adverse inference” against the party who destroyed the evidence.

And that’s exactly what happened. On Oct. 1, 2021, in a nearly 30-page motion with dozens of pages of exhibits, Polisi filed a motion for sanctions against Hice for spoliation of evidence and other misconduct. In the motion, Polisi described how Hice had admitted to “bad faith spoliation and witness tampering,” and had “selectively destroyed countless text messages, social media posts and messages, and incriminating photographs, believing that this evidence would be damaging to him in the litigation.”

Furthermore, text messages subpoenaed from Gounelas showed Hice offering him financial compensation in exchange for favorable testimony, Polisi argued. In his initial deposition, Gounelas had backed up Hice’s claims. But after Lemon’s legal counsel confronted Gounelas with his own text message conversations, he admitted in a second deposition that Hice had indeed asked him to support his story and recanted his prior testimony.

In that second deposition, Gounelas had testified that he was “assuming” that Hice’s text messages to him mean that Hice would “give me something if he wins something. That’s, obviously, what he’s insinuating…And he says, ‘I got you.’ I guess, again, like, I guess he’s insinuating if he gets anything he’ll take care of me money-wise.”

The matter of “Jane Roe” is another interesting wrinkle, and again wildly unfavorable to Hice. He had originally attempted to conceal her identity, omitting her name and contact information from the required witness lists and other disclosures. “Jane Roe” was eventually revealed to be a woman named Isabel Peters, and in response to a subpoena, Peters provided screenshots of multiple text messages and photos exchanged between her and Hice that were dated a few weeks after the alleged incident at Murf’s.

The text messages revealed two “disturbing instances,” Polisi wrote, in which Hice and Gounelas trespassed onto Lemon’s residential property in the Hamptons, taking photos of themselves, including one in which Hice was “holding a lemon in front of his own genital area.”

hice and gounelas trespassing on don lemon's property

Screenshot from Memorandum of Law in Support of Don Lemon’s Motion for Terminating Sanctions, showing photographs of Dustin Hice and George Gounelas, allegedly trespassing on Lemon’s residential property.

Hice texted Peters that he wanted to put Lemon’s face on a t-shirt and wrote other insults about Lemon, including referring to the openly gay CNN host as “A REAL CAWKSUKAAAA!!”

Hice failed to produce any of these text messages or photographs in response to subpoenas, and admitted later that he had intentionally deleted them.

Contrary to the claims in the complaint that “Jane Roe” had witnessed the alleged encounter between Hice and Lemon and would back up Hice’s claims, Peters’ actual deposition testimony was the complete opposite.

Peters described both Hice and Gounelas as “out of control, yelling and screaming,” pestering Lemon repeatedly, even though the CNN host wanted nothing to do with them. She not only denied seeing anything like Hice had claimed, but testified that Gounelas was talking to her at the time the incident allegedly occurred and therefore could not have witnessed it himself (which Gounelas eventually corroborated, after being confronted with Peters’ testimony). Peters also testified that Hice himself had told her that Lemon “didn’t even touch him,” but merely “put his…hands in his face.”

This evidence, argued Polisi, showed that contrary to Hice’s claims that he “lived in fear” of running into Lemon again and was “emotionally distressed” and “socially isolated” from the shame of the alleged incident, “in fact Plaintiff pursued Mr. Lemon throughout the Summer of 2018 as part of a pattern of harassing behavior, which started with his relentless, unwanted overtures toward Mr. Lemon at the bar in July 2018.”

Magistrate Judge Locke again ruled in Lemon’s favor. “Hice’s conduct, when taken in total, depicts an attempt to deceive this Court by attacking the integrity of the litigation process, and must be treated accordingly,” wrote Locke, ordering an adverse inference jury instruction against Hice and for him to pay Lemon’s attorney’s fees. Locke declined to rule that the text messages between Gounelas and Hice constituted proof that Hice had attempted to bribe Gounelas, but Lemon can still make that argument at trial, if this case proceeds that far.

Polisi filed a claim for $106,000 in attorney’s fees and costs, and an order from Locke on Wednesday reduced that slightly (a standard practice), ruling that Hice owes Lemon $77,119.33.

Both Peters and Gounelas have been removed from Hice’s witness list and are now listed as witnesses for the defense in updated filings by Polisi.

But wait — there’s more.

William Erdmann, a gay man who went to high school with Hice in Boynton Beach, Fla., came forward after seeing on Twitter a clip of Hice being interviewed by Megyn Kelly on her eponymous podcast. Erdmann retweeted the clip from The Megyn Kelly Show and called Hice’s claims “fake.”

In high school, tweeted Erdmann, Hice and his friends “did the VERY THING he is accusing Don Lemon of” and “bullied me so badly for being gay that I had to switch high schools my Junior year.”

Erdmann described the bullying in a sworn declaration filed by Polisi with the court, and it did indeed sound remarkably similar to Hice’s claims in the lawsuit against Lemon.

The case is still pending in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, although it remains to be seen what sort of case Hice could expect to make in court when his main witnesses are now testifying for the defense, there’s text messages that could be viewed as an attempt to bribe a witness, and it’s part of the court record that he deliberately destroyed evidence. Juries tend to find that sort of behavior means a plaintiff is just not trustworthy, and the adverse instruction from the judge will only further undermine any remaining credibility Hice might have.

A source close to Lemon told Mediaite that it had been frustrating waiting for the legal processes to move forward but it was “really satisfying” to see the court recognize that Hice’s case was “a complete sham” and attempt at a “money grab” from the beginning.

Mediaite reached out to Hice’s counsel, but did not receive a reply. A CNN spokesperson referred us to Polisi, who declined to comment.

This article has been updated with additional information.

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