Wendy Williams’ Unsealed Lawsuit Against A+E Networks Claims “Exploitation” As Questions Linger

Newly unsealed court filings in Wendy Williams’ lawsuit against Lifetime parent company A+E Networks over the release of the Where Is Wendy Williams? documentary chronicling her deteriorating mental and physical state appear to show that the company allegedly shot the film without obtaining consent from the former talk show host’s court-appointed guardian. The project documented Williams’ life for the better part of a year showing her downward spiral as she struggled with family, fame and excessive alcohol consumption.

The complaint, which was unsealed on Thursday, claims that the contract A+E Networks brokered to shoot the documentary was not valid since Williams did not have the legal or mental capacity to authorize her participation in the title at the time. She was allegedly told that the film would be “positive and beneficial” to her image. It remains unknown who created the company that entered into a contract with the network allowing Williams to be in the film.

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“This blatant exploitation of a vulnerable woman with a serious medical condition who is beloved by millions within and outside of the African American community is disgusting, and it cannot be allowed,” states the complaint.

In a statement, A+E Networks said, “We look forward to the unsealing of our papers as well, as they tell a very different story.”

The controversial 4 1/2-hour documentary, which contains footage from roughly seven months of Williams’ tumultuous past few years until she entered a health facility to treat cognitive issues last year, aired as planned to blockbuster ratings, averaging slightly over a million viewers across the two nights it was broadcasted on Feb. 24 and 25. Lifetime said it was the biggest nonfiction debut in two years. Williams, her son, Kevin Hunter Jr., and her jeweler-turned-manager, William Selby, are all credited as executive producers.

The legal battle stems from Sabrina Morrissey, acting in her capacity as Williams’ temporary guardian, filing a lawsuit last month in New York County Supreme Court against A+E Networks to block the documentary’s release. It sought a temporary restraining order, which was granted before it was reversed by a higher court.

Appellate Justice Peter H. Moulton found that stopping the company from airing the documentary would be an “impermissible prior restraint on speech that violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.” Since the case was kept sealed, Morrissey’s arguments to stop the network from airing the title remained unknown.

Morrissey declined to comment, citing court orders prohibiting communications with the press. A+E Networks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the unsealed complaint, the documentary footage was filmed pursuant to a contract signed in January 2023. Williams, however, lacked the capacity to enter into the agreement, the lawsuit says. Pointing to a court-appointed guardianship Williams was placed under in 2022, Morrissey claims that the former talk show host was “incapable of managing her own business and personal affairs, and indeed, was placed into a guardianship and under the supervision of this court.”

William Selby, acting as Williams’ manager for the project, made representations to Morrissey that he would have final creative control over the final cut and that it would portray Williams in a positive manner, “like a phoenix rising from the ashes” after her TV show was cancelled due to her medical condition, per the complaint. Based on these representations, Morrissey allowed the project to proceed, with the understanding that nothing would be released without her and the court’s approval.

Instead, a trailer for the documentary was released without notification, Morrissey says.

“The Guardian was horrified by the release of the trailer and its contents, which falsely depict W.W.H.’s behavior and demeanor as being the result of intoxication rather than the result of her medical condition, which has been diagnosed by doctors at Weill Cornell,” the complaint states. “Selby informed the Guardian that he, too, was surprised by the February 2, 2024 release, and that he had not reviewed or approved either the trailer or the documentary prior to the Trailer’s release.”

According to the complaint, it’s unclear who authorized the creation of The Wendy Experience, which entered into a contract with Entertainment One to authorize footage of Williams in the documentary. The company was allegedly formed after Williams was placed under a guardianship. Morrissey was not involved in its creation and did not learn of the agreement until months after it was signed, per court filings.

“The Contract appears to have been signed on January 25, 2023 by the ‘CEO’ of The Wendy Experience, Inc,” the complaint states. “The name in the signature is not clearly legible; however, it is highly distinguishable from W.W.H.’s signature.”

The agreement allegedly included provisions in which Williams waived all physician-patient privilege in connection with the filming of the documentary.

The documentary was originally conceived as a behind-the-scenes look exploring Williams’ comeback via a new podcast. Filmmakers, who started following her in late August 2022, pivoted the focus of the project given her health.

Days before the documentary aired, Williams’ camp shared that she has primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia. She had already been diagnosed with Graves’ disease and lymphedema, which is the buildup of fluid in soft body tissues. Along with her alcohol addiction, the ailments were chronicled in the film.

Where Is Wendy Williams? producer Mark Ford told The Hollywood Reporter that “if we had known that Wendy had dementia going into it, no one would’ve rolled a camera.” He added, “At a certain point we were more worried about what would happen if we stopped filming than if we continued.”

When asked if he ever met Morrissey, executive producer Erica Hanson replied “No, no, no. She wouldn’t take my calls.” Ford added, “There were many attempts before and during. Honestly, we either got a terse hang-up or a very brief, unpleasant exchange.” He stressed that “it was all signed off on.”

“She [the guardian] was communicating with Will Selby, Wendy’s manager,” Ford explained. “Will was the point of contact with the guardian throughout the process and he would have to go to her to get documents signed, to get location agreements, to book her travel out of state. All of these things were things that had to be signed off on by the guardian throughout. So, it’s our understanding that she was very aware of everything throughout the process.”

In 2022, Williams was placed under a financial guardianship after Wells Fargo claimed that she was an “incapacitated person” and a “victim of undue influence and financial exploitation.” She contested the appointment of a guardian, saying that her health had improved and that she was “absolutely” of sound mind after receiving treatment for Graves’ disease and thyroid issues. The documentary revealed the accusations of financial abuse from the bank stemmed from purchases that her son, Kevin Hunter Jr., made while his mother was in his family’s care in 2021 until she returned to New York for court proceedings regarding her guardianship.

“My mom made me power of attorney because, at that time, the banks started accusing the family of doing things that weren’t true and saying that my mom wasn’t fit to make choices,” he says in the film. “The court tried to frame it as though I was making all these charges for my own happiness.”

It remains unknown whether any members of Williams’ family petitioned the court to be appointed as her guardian. In part four of the documentary, Williams’ sister Wanda suggested that she was willing to do so. “I was asked, would I consider being a guardian? And I said, ‘I don’t know what being a guardian involves,’” she tells producers. “I was told that it involved taking some kind of class, and I said, ‘Yeah I’ll do it.’ I said, ‘Whatever I gotta do, I’ll be focused on Wendy’s health.’ And then, all of a sudden, the wall came down and there was nothing.”

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