The legal team for Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook suffered a minor defeat in a Utah County court Monday.
Last December, Utah Jazz fan Shane Keisel and girlfriend Jennifer Huff filed a lawsuit against Westbrook and the Utah Jazz, seeking $100 million combined in damages on claims of defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Keisel and Huff argue that Westbrook and the Jazz’s public statements in the wake of a verbal altercation between the fan and the then-Oklahoma City guard led to Keisel losing employment opportunities and receiving death threats.
On Monday, lawyers for Keisel, Westbrook, and the Jazz met in a virtual courtroom to argue over whether or not Westbrook’s detailed disciplinary history as an NBA player was evidence Keisel’s legal team could access in preparation for trial.
Westbrook’s lawyers argued it should be withheld on the grounds that Westbrook’s disciplinary history had no legal relevance to the incident on March 15, 2019, which resulted in Keisel getting a lifetime ban from Vivint Arena.
“The plaintiffs, 100%, want to use that evidence to show that Russell Westbrook is a worse guy than Shane Keisel,” Matthew Lalli, one of Westbrook’s lawyers, argued — noting that would be inadmissible evidence.
However, Keisel’s legal team countered that Westbrook’s record could be relevant. In particular, they suggested if the NBA had warned Westbrook about future discipline in inappropriate fan interactions, that he might be motivated to lie about what happened with Keisel to escape suspension.
“Russell Westbrook made a decision to make it about race to protect himself,” Keisel allegedly said on social media in the days after the incident.
Judge Derek Pullan sided with Keisel’s lawyers, overturning a previous ruling that forbid the disciplinary history from going to Keisel’s team.
While the fines levied for Westbrook’s previous interactions with fans are public, the NBA’s warnings would not be. Monday’s ruling doesn’t make Westbrook’s full disciplinary history a matter of public record — that would be decided later in the legal process. So too could be depositions of Westbrook, Keisel and Jazz executives. The NBA, and commissioner Adam Silver, were also subpoenaed in relation to the lawsuit.
Monday’s arguments also included a debate over whether Keisel used the word “down” when yelling at the guard to “get on [his] knees,” and whether or not it legally mattered.
“If you’re on your knees, you’re down on your knees,” Jazz lawyer Jeffrey Hunt argued. “It’s a submissive position.”
That was one reason given that the statement could be construed as racial in nature — a position which the Jazz have a sociologist ready to testify to, if needed. Keisel’s lawyers claimed his comment was only intended to mean Westbrook should continue playing basketball.
Others nearby, though, took the claim as a sexual reference, and Keisel admitted this potential interpretation as well in an early interview. The Jazz say that either the racial or sexual nature of Keisel’s shouts would justify banning Keisel under the NBA’s code of conduct.