A federal judge chided attorneys tied to four Cheer Incorporated lawsuits during a status conference held in U.S. district court on Tuesday afternoon – telling them further delays in this high-profile institutional sex abuse case would not be tolerated.
“It’s going to trial a lot sooner than you think,” senior U.S. district court judge Henry M. Herlong, Jr. told a veritable gaggle of barristers gathered in the old federal building in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. “We’re going to try this case sooner rather than later.”
“If you have a conflict, you are going to have to have another lawyer fill in for you,” Herlong added, indicating his intention to try the case sometime in 2024.
“It’s going to trial before the end of 2024,” Herlong said.
The judge also indicated his intention to pursue an expedited mediation schedule in the event the parties were able to reach an agreement prior to going to trial. On the mediation front, both sides signaled their intent to begin such negotiations in earnest no later than early October.
Herlong seemed especially miffed that attorneys with the Columbia-based Strom Law firm – who represent the plaintiffs in the case – had yet to provide defense lawyers with the names of their anonymous clients.
“I’m flabbergasted,” he told Strom attorney Jessica Lerer Fickling. “Are you trying to prolong this case?”
(Click to view)
“It is not our intention to prolong this case,” Fickling responded, citing concerns about the confidentiality of her clients in an industry rife with retaliation.
Herlong came down hard on all the attorneys in his courtroom. In fact, his frustration soon spilled over into what he deemed a broader lack of follow-through across the legal profession.
“I can’t speak to other judges in other courts but I’m increasingly seeing this same thing of lawyers saying they’re going to do – but not doing,” Herlong said. “Regretfully, I’m seeing more of that – lawyers coming in and wanting more time and then I find out they’ve wasted a whole number of months.”
Defense attorneys – who have won a few early victories in this case – did their best to capitalize on Herlong’s frustration.
“We haven’t been able to tell our client who is suing them,” defense attorney Fred Suggs Jr. told the judge, producing an email from October 2022 which requested information from plaintiffs’ counsel. According to Suggs, the email went unanswered.
Suggs is representing Varsity, a Memphis-based company that’s made billions of dollars selling cheerleading apparel and organizing cheerleading and dance camps/ competitions across the country. Varsity is one of several corporate defendants named in the Cheer, Inc. lawsuits – which span multiple states and include dozens of plaintiffs and defendants.
Fickling said defense attorneys in the case had been provided the names of the victims – although she acknowledged her opposing counsel had not been given detailed information or authorization to begin conducting research related to them.
“Our clients are very, very afraid of retaliation,” she said.
Fickling also made it clear the lack of information-sharing during the discovery process was a two-way street.
“We’ve asked for certain information that they haven’t provided,” Fickling said.
Reached for comment after the hearing, Fickling declined to specify the information to which she referred.
“But I will say we’ve worked throughout this litigation to protect the anonymity of our clients and will continue to do so,” she said. “We prepared a schedule that will move this case forward quickly and efficiently despite defendants’ efforts to delay after the court ruled that the cases against certain of the defendants would proceed forward.”
Though chided by the judge, Fickling and her Strom Law counterparts – Bakari Sellers, Ally Benevento, Mario Pacella and Amy Willbanks – seemed pleased as they left the courtroom. And given the expedited mediation and trial schedule, they probably should be pleased with the forward motion of their case.
“Judge Herlong was pissed at the plaintiffs’ lawyers but then he put the onus squarely on defense counsel,” one legal analyst told me after the hearing, stating it was “more likely than not” the case would settle prior to trial.
RELATED | VARSITY SCORES LEGAL VICTORY
Tuesday’s hearing was held precisely one year to the day after Scott Foster – founder and owner of the Greenville-based Rockstar Cheer franchise – died of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.”
On the day after his death, FITSNews exclusively reported that Foster was staring down “a multi-jurisdictional investigation into (among other things) allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls.” Following that report, the floodgates opened with additional incriminating information about the 49-year-old Greenville, S.C. businessman.
As lawsuits began to be filed in civil court, we quickly learned it wasn’t just underage girls – and it wasn’t just Foster. Most importantly … we learned it wasn’t just Rockstar. What was it? A widespread institutional sex abuse scandal – one enabled by years of failed oversight within the industry.
The first federal lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Greenville, S.C. on behalf of four Jane Does and two John Does. Three additional federal lawsuits followed in South Carolina and the scope expanded quickly to different states – and more gyms and coaches.
In addition to graphic allegations of sexual assault, the Cheer Inc. cases have alleged widespread institutional failures on the part of multiple defendants – including Varsity and the U.S. All-Star Federation (USASF), the governing body for All-Star cheerleading in the United States.
As of the South Carolina cases, Herlong made it clear he was inclined to consolidate them into one – and to “babysit” them moving forward, if necessary.
“This case is different from others,” he acknowledged. “But it’s still just a case.”
As the broader Cheer Incorporated saga continues to unfold across the country, count on FITSNews to keep our readers informed of its very latest developments – including any responses we receive from any of the individuals or institutions named in our reports. As our audience is aware, our news outlet has an open microphone policy which affords anyone accused of wrongdoing – or anyone with an intelligent perspective on this matter – the opportunity to share their views with our audience, unabridged and unfiltered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.