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Fighting Back: Lawsuit Targets Vince McMahon and WWE’s Alleged Pattern of Abuse

Posted: April 16, 2024

On January 25, 2024, former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) employee Janel Grant filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, alleging she was the “victim of physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, and trafficking at WWE.” Grant lists Vince McMahon, 78, WWE’s billionaire founder and (now former) executive chairman, John Laurinaitis, 61, WWE’s former head of talent relations, and the WWE itself as the defendants in the case. Grant is seeking relief for nine civil claims.

Grant’s claims include: (1) declaratory relief to void the nondisclosure agreement (NDA) McMahon and the WWE coerced her to sign under the Speak Out Act, (2) declaratory relief that the NDA should be voided under common law, (3) a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) against McMahon and Laurinaitis, (4) the WWE’s participation in venture in violation of the TVPA, (5) negligence against the WWE, (6) civil battery against McMahon and the WWE, (7) civil battery against Laurinaitis and the WWE, (8) intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress against McMahon and the WWE, and (9) intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress against Laurinaitis and the WWE.

Grant first met McMahon in March 2019, after they were introduced to each other by their apartment building’s residential manager, where McMahon lived in a penthouse duplex. At that time, Grant had recently lost both of her parents after serving as their sole caretaker and was still grieving. She was unemployed and struggling to find long-term employment. When Grant met McMahon, McMahon “dangled career-making and life-changing promises” in front of her. However, this was soon followed by “an increasing lack of boundaries.” McMahon allegedly pushed her to partake in a physical relationship with him, in exchange for her employment at WWE. Grant complied, fearing both personal and professional consequences if she did not consent.

In June 2019, the WWE hired Grant as an entry-level legal “administrator-coordinator,” a role specifically created for her by McMahon. Before Grant began her job at WWE, she requested to end any physical relationship with McMahon. Instead, beginning on Grant’s first day of work, McMahon contacted her constantly with “controlling and sexually charged” text messages. Grant felt as though she was constantly under surveillance and surrounded by McMahon’s “allies” in the office, all of whom she felt knew what was going on and about her sexual relationship with McMahon. The immediately toxic work environment at WWE caused Grant to have near-daily panic attacks in the office.

Grant’s complaint alleges McMahon’s coercive behavior led to repeated instances of the sexual exploitation of Grant, violating the TVPA. In March 2020, McMahon allegedly “began showing explicit photos of Ms. Grant to people both inside and outside the company.” McMahon told Grant “she had made a perfect stranger very happy” after sharing the explicit photos of her with another WWE employee. Grant “voiced apprehension about McMahon sharing naked photos of her with someone she did not know,” and caused her to panic further that “these private and intimate photos” included her body and face.

Two months later, in May 2020, McMahon allegedly “recruited an individual whom he manipulatively referred to as his ‘friend’ to engage in a ‘threesome’ with McMahon and Ms. Grant.” McMahon allegedly “induce[d]” Grant into participating by “referring to [her] as his ‘girlfriend’ and sen[ding] her a large bouquet of flowers,” and claimed through her participation, he was “protect[ing] her job from a furlough that WWE would imminently announce.” Grant expressed apprehension about participating in a threesome with someone she did not know, but McMahon further coerced Grant by “insist[ing] that the plans were already made and suggest[ing] he would lose a friendship if she did not go through with [the threesome].” McMahon’s manipulation “resulted in the outcome he wanted,” and Grant was subjected to participate in “several additional threesomes, in large part because she felt she had no other choice,” with McMahon’s reminders about him protecting her position and career with WWE.

McMahon recruited Laurinaitis into his exploitation of Grant in November 2020, first by allegedly pressing Grant “to make explicit photos and videos to send to Laurinaitis.” McMahon and Laurinaitis would allegedly pressure Grant into multiple threesomes beginning in December 2020. By March 2021, continuing to manipulate and control the future of her career at WWE, McMahon transferred Grant from the legal department to the Talent Relations department, which was managed by Laurinaitis as the Head of Talent Relations and General Manager. Grant alleges “McMahon constantly reinforced the expectation that [she] sexually perform for him and her new boss Laurinaitis, both in and out of the office,” and she “should obey if Laurinaitis wanted to bring in yet more men” into their sexual encounters.

Further, beginning in July 2021, McMahon allegedly “advertise[d] a sexual encounter” with Grant to a WWE Superstar “during the formal negotiation of a new Booking Contract with WWE.” McMahon promised the WWE Superstar that Grant would do anything requested of her. McMahon would continue to encourage and coerce Grant to send explicit content to the WWE Superstar through March 2022.

In January 2022, McMahon allegedly revealed to Grant that his wife had found out about their affair. In order “[t]o avoid divorce, negative publicity, and other repercussions,” he terminated Grant from WWE and asked her to sign an NDA. Before Grant even retained her own legal counsel (who was approved by McMahon), McMahon decided on the amount of money Grant would receive in exchange for signing the NDA (3 million dollars) and the payment schedule, amongst other terms. After eight days of McMahon allegedly calling, texting, and pressuring Grant, “remind[ing] her that by not signing, she would jeopardize him, the company, and his family, and that she would surely become the subject of national headlines and ruin her reputation if she did not sign,” she signed the NDA on January 28, 2022.

Grant’s complaint argues that the NDA signed by Grant, McMahon and WWE “was entered into through coercive tactics, and it is legally unenforceable” pursuant to the federal Speak Out Act and common law. The complaint claims the NDA’s confidentiality term, written to “prevent Ms. Grant from saying anything to anyone about WWE or her employment there” was overly broad on its face. Moreover, even if the NDA was enforceable, Grant’s complaint alleges McMahon breached a core term of the NDA by failing to wire a $1,000,000 payment due in February 2023.

Grant’s lawsuit is far from the first time that Vince McMahon has been accused of similar behavior and actions. In 1992, WWE’s first female referee came forward publicly, accusing McMahon of raping her in 1986. By the time she came forward, the statute of limitations for rape had run, so she was unable to bring charges against McMahon. Additionally, in 2006, a 22-year-old tanning salon employee in Boca Raton, Florida accused McMahon of sexually assaulting her, after allegedly showing her nude photos of himself unprompted, and then forcibly kissing and groping her.

In July 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported McMahon had “agreed to pay more than 12 million dollars over the past 16 years to suppress allegations of sexual misconduct and infidelity.” McMahon allegedly paid the 12 million dollars to four women, all previously affiliated with the WWE, “who signed agreements with Mr. McMahon that prohibit[ed] them from discussing potential legal claims against or their relationships” with McMahon. Grant’s 3-million-dollar NDA payment was included in this 12-million-dollar total. Following subsequent investigations from the SEC and federal prosecutors, the WWE updated its earnings statements, revealing that McMahon’s “hush-money” payments actually totaled closer to $19.6 million.

After several decades of accusations of abuse and “hush-money” payments, on January 26, 2024 (one day after Grant’s lawsuit was filed), McMahon resigned from his role as executive chairman of TKO (WWE’s parent company) and from his position on the TKO board of directors. In addition to Grant’s civil claims in Federal District Court, on February 2, 2024, The Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors are also investigating McMahon, searching for “documents related to any allegation of ‘rape, sex trafficking, sexual assault, commercial sex transaction, harassment or discrimination’ against current or former WWE employees.” In addition, prosecutors have also “reportedly spoken to several women named in the grand jury subpoena who were alleged to have received settlement agreements and signed non-disclosure agreements over sexual misconduct by McMahon.”

Under the Victims Of Trafficking And Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the term “severe forms of trafficking in persons” includes sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion. The CSE Institute believes that the facts in this case demonstrate a clear violation of the TVPA because based on the facts asserted in the lawsuit, “McMahon communicated with [Grant] while traveling across the country (and internationally) to recruit, entice, obtain, provide, maintain and/or solicit [Grant] for purposes of engaging in sexual acts. McMahon also flew others and/or caused others to travel to Connecticut, including Laurinaitis and WWE Superstar, from out of state for the purpose of sexually exploiting Ms. Grant,” and “McMahon and Laurinaitis were able to force, defraud, or coerce Ms. Grant into continued sexual activity because of promises of job placement, job security, and advancement with the WWE and personal protections.”

In addition, the CSE Institute believes based on the facts in Grant’s complaint that the “WWE knowingly participated in the trafficking … by benefiting from and knowingly facilitating the venture in which McMahon traveled for WWE affairs across the United States and recruited or enticed females such as Plaintiff into coerced sexual encounters on the promise of employment with WWE, job security and advancement,” and that the WWE is liable under the TVPA because it “knew, or recklessly disregarded, that it was the practice of McMahon to entice, recruit, force, and/or coerce women into sexual acts based on the promise of a new life, a job, an income, job security, and advancement within the WWE.”

This case illustrates yet another example of an individual in power using their position to exploit others. At the CSE Institute, we have observed lawyers, doctors, teachers, bosses, landlords, and coaches who have used their power, wealth, or status to manipulate, sexually assault, rape, and exploit others. There is no question that there was a significant power imbalance between Grant and McMahon, the billionaire founder and former executive director of WWE, and that McMahon used his power over Grant to control and pressure her to engage in sexual acts.

Most importantly, the CSE Institute applauds the bravery of Janel Grant in filing this lawsuit. Survivor voices are the force of change and have the power to bring awareness to the reality of abuse present in systems of gross power imbalance. We continue to urge organizations to establish proper procedures for investigating and effectively handling reports of abuse in hopes of facilitating relief and justice for potential victims.

The CSE Institute will continue to provide updates in this case.

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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