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Falsely “outing” a former co-worker on a popular morning radio show may cost Cobb County, Ga., resident Todd Wolff a lot of money. Jurors in Cobb State Court Judge Irma B. Glover’s courtroom last week awarded Anthony Middlebrooks $30,000 in actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages in his suit against Wolff. Middlebrooks claimed that Wolff called WNNX-FM’s (99X) “Morning X” morning-drive show and referred to him on the air as an adulterous homosexual. Middlebrooks v. Wolff, No. 99A4264 (Cobb State Dec. 6, 2000). Middlebrooks’ lawyer Christopher G. Moorman says he was concerned initially about trying the case in Cobb County but gradually began to think the venue was ideal. “Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Maybe Cobb County is the right place to try this case,’” Moorman says. Wolff’s lawyer William G. Leonard, says he will seek a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and will appeal if that fails. “I think the jurors were the only people in that courtroom who were not surprised by the verdict,” he says. In his complaint, Middlebrooks, a former manager at DP Solutions, says he was driving his wife to work Dec. 11, 1998, when he heard Wolff on the “Morning X”‘s segment “Ask Us Anything.” Wolff, he claims, asked DJ Jimmy Baron if he was gay, because Wolff knew of a man who claimed to be carrying on a homosexual relationship with Baron. “No, I am, uh, you know, I’m of the hetero variety. Always have been. Don’t plan on changing that, you know, in the near future,” Baron said, according to a transcript. “OK, so maybe it was just — uh — The gentleman running around is Tony Middlebrooks,” Wolff said. “Oh, you know the guy?” interjected DJ Steve Barnes. “Well, no, I’ve just, uh, I had a friend introduce himself and asked him what was going on. But it was Tony Middlebrooks that was saying that he was having an affair with you,” Wolff said. “I don’t know who that is,” Baron responded. Middlebrooks claimed that Wolff knew he was telling lies when he made the statements. Middlebrooks sued Wolff for slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He asked for general and compensatory damages for mental anguish, pain and suffering, and harm to reputation. Claiming that Wolff’s actions were spiteful and vindictive, intended only to cause him harm, Middlebrooks also asked for punitive damages and attorney fees. But Wolff argued that he intended his comments as a joke and not as a statement of fact, and was only repeating something Middlebrooks himself had joked about. “We always explained it as a joke in very poor taste, but still only a joke,” Leonard says. And Baron, who vaguely remembers the call, said he didn’t consider it anything especially out of line at the time. “The Morning X,” he says, can become pretty raucous. “It didn’t seem like anything other than just another nut calling,” he says. “Just some dude screwing with one of his friends, like in the schoolyard. You know: ‘You’re gay. That guy’s gay.’ “ At the time, Baron says, the DJs conducted the show completely live, without a “dump” switch that delays calls and allows the station to control what comments go on the air. Now the station institutes an eight-second delay, he says. Moorman says that although he and Middlebrooks “weren’t entirely happy” with WNNX’s handling of the situation he declined to file suit against the station. The most he could get, he says, would be negligence, and the station’s lawyers would make the suit more trouble than it would be worth. Baron, he says, didn’t utter the slander himself. “He didn’t put the name in,” he says. “He didn’t fill in the blank.” Besides, he says, Wolff was “solvent.” Middlebrooks wasn’t the only party tossing around accusations of slander. Wolff filed a counterclaim of his own, suggesting that Middlebrooks had slandered him first. During a company retreat in Dallas, Dec. 4, 1998, Middlebrooks says, Wolff made a pass at his wife. Middlebrooks filed a complaint with the owner of the company, and three days later Middlebrooks was fired. Wolff spoke on 99X the next day. In his counterclaim, Wolff accused Middlebrooks of falsely filing thecomplaint in an effort to get him fired and avoid his own impending termination. The jury found against the counterclaim. And Moorman says it actually may have helped his client. “They really seemed to hold it against the guy that he would file that claim,” he says. Moorman says he didn’t go to court to argue whether falsely claiming someone is gay constitutes libel in itself. “I was not there to label homosexuality as wrong,” he says. The implied charges of adultery and promiscuity were a greater concern to his client, Moorman says. Kent Middleton, professor of journalism and communications law at the University of Georgia, says slander charges vary according to the environment. “Anything that causes a person to be shunned or humiliated” could qualify, he says, but that changes with time and place. Charges of homosexuality in San Francisco, Calif., might be less damaging than similar charges in a small town, or against a married man or a member of a very conservative church, Middleton says. Moorman says in this case, it was pretty clear the jury thought his client’s reputation had been damaged. Some 40,000 people heard the show, he says, including many who know Middlebrooks and would question his relationship with his wife. Some kind of compensation was in order, he says. “We suggested, ‘Why not give him a dollar for every person who heard it?’ ” he says.

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