In recent months, CNN has seen its fair share of tumult with the suspension and firing of Chris Cuomo in December and last week’s resignation of Jeff Zucker as CNN Worldwide’s president. But now one of the network’s most visible anchors, Don Lemon, is set to head to court to face an assault and battery case involving a sexualized incident. The trial comes after Lemon, whose show aired in the slot after Cuomo’s and who cohosted a podcast with the now-dismissed news personality, reportedly turned on his longtime friend, questioning why CNN would reward the disgraced anchor by paying his multimillion-dollar severance during a call with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, The Wall Street Journal reported.
On Wednesday, a federal judge set a date for jury selection in the federal civil trial against Lemon in the Eastern District of New York courthouse on Long Island, according to court documents viewed by The Advocate. The anchor, through his attorney, had sought to avoid a jury trial. However, the judge denied his motion.
The Advocate has reached out to Lemon's laywer for comment and did not hear back before publishing.
Here’s what you need to know:
Why is Don Lemon being sued?
A former bartender named Dustin Hice filed a lawsuit in 2019 alleging that Lemon approached Hice and assaulted him by rubbing his fingers in Hice’s face after fondling himself at a bar in the Hamptons.
Hice’s lawsuit claims that on July 15, 2018, after closing the Old Stove Pub, he and a group of colleagues went to Murf’s Backstreet Tavern, a bar in Sag Harbor, for drinks. After entering the bar, Hice recognized Lemon, who was enjoying drinks with a group of friends. Hice says he tried to get Lemon’s attention and offered to buy the CNN anchor a lemon drop vodka drink, but Lemon declined the offer and told Hice he was “just trying to have a good time,” according to court documents. Hice returned to his colleagues and went about his night.
According to the lawsuit, Hice says later in the night Lemon approached him, put his hands down his pants, rubbed his genitals, and then pushed his fingers against Hice’s upper lip and nose, saying, “Do you like pussy or dick.” Hice, who lives in Florida, claims he fled the bar in shock and was left traumatized, suffering significant emotional distress from the incident, and was plagued by feelings of shame, anxiety, and guilt to the point that he could no longer work at the Old Stove Pub during his summers in New York, as he had previously done.
Hice has said in interviews that he was never hitting on Lemon, as he identifies as heterosexual, and only offered to buy the drink as a platonic gesture.
What does Don Lemon say happened?
As The Advocate previously reported, Lemon, 55, categorically denies the allegations and his representatives claim that Hice, 41, has a history of negativity toward CNN.
“The plaintiff in this lawsuit has previously displayed a pattern of contempt for CNN on his social media accounts,” a CNN spokesperson told Mediaite. “This claim follows his unsuccessful threats and demands for an exorbitant amount of money from Don Lemon. Don categorically denies these claims and this matter does not merit any further comment at this time.”
Mediaite reported that a now-deleted Instagram account that appears to have belonged to Hice contained at least one post that included the #Trump hashtag and referred to CNN as “the home of fake news.” The post appears to have been made during a tour of the network’s world headquarters at CNN Center in Atlanta.
Additionally, a source close to Lemon told the outlet that Hice demanded $1.5 million in exchange for not filing suit against him, which Lemon rejected out of hand, claiming that he did nothing wrong.
A court filing reveals that a friend who was with Hice the night of the alleged attack said in a deposition that he wasn’t sure Lemon actually made contact with Hice. Furthermore, text messages from two additional witnesses contained photos of Hice posing for a picture holding a lemon in front of his crotch while standing in front of Lemon’s home as well as him and a another person lying on the ground in the anchor’s driveway with their legs in the air. The person pictured with Hice in the second photo couldn’t verify Hice’s version of events and was subsequently not placed on the witness list, court documents say.
During Donald Trump’s administration, Lemon often became a target of Trump’s attacks, resulting in racist and homophobic harassment by the former president’s supporters. Some have questioned whether the suit was a part of that.
“I’m not doing this for notoriety or fame; I’m doing this because I’m standing up for myself and what I believe in,” Hice told Fox News. “I’ve grown a new respect for people dealing with mental health issues because stress, depression, anxiety, those are all very serious things. It consumed my life.”
What’s taken so long to bring this case to trial?
Hice filed his lawsuit in August of 2019, 13 months after the alleged incident occurred. The ongoing global pandemic, a long discovery process, and various motions by Lemon’s legal team contributed to the length of time it’s taken to get a trial date.
Lemon’s attorney, Caroline J. Polisi, had been asking the court for a bench trial — a legal proceeding in which a judge adjudicates the matter — in order to avoid the case being decided by a jury. A bench trial was originally scheduled for January 3, 2022, according to court documents, but Judge Joan M. Azrack ruled in December that the bench trial would be canceled and a jury trial scheduled.
The court also ruled that Hice destroyed electronic records and repeatedly failed to produce evidence and witness information in a timely manner during the discovery process. As a result, the judge granted Lemon’s motion for sanctions, which include allowing the jury to use Hice’s actions as evidence against him. Lemon’s attorney is also requesting the judge to issue an order for Hice to pay Lemon about $106,500 in attorneys’ fees.
The trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York is scheduled to begin June 6 at 9:30 a.m.
*A previous version of this story referred to the lawsuit as a "sexual assault case" as it has commonly been called. While the alleged incident may be sexual in nature, the lawsuit does not allege sexual assault but instead assault and battery as well as intentional affliction of emotional distress. The Advocate regrets the error and has updated all references.