Dr. Phil McGraw: Six Lawsuits and Scandals, Natalee Holloway, Ted Williams & More

With three active lawsuits against Dr. Phil McGraw, Tricia Romano delves into the current and past scandals surrounding the controversial TV shrink.

Clockwise from Left: Dr. Phil McGraw in court, Britney Spears, and Ted Williams on the set of the Dr. Phil show. (Photo: Landov; AP Photo)

He could probably use some time on his own couch. Dr. Phil McGraw, TV’s most famous shrink, is currently in the middle of not one, not two, but three lawsuits that range from embarrassing to weird to serious.

Certainly, Dr. Phil is no stranger to scandal: these three legal proceedings continue forward, but Dr. Phil’s tumultuous times are not relegated to the present—he’s had some epic fails in the past few years. In 2004, for instance, he settled a class-action lawsuit over his diet supplements for Shape Up! for $10 million dollars (but admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement).

Some people have the magic touch. Does Dr. Phil have something like the opposite? Through a representative, he would not comment for this story. But let us review!

1) Current Lawsuit: Ouch, the Dog Bit Me!

It’s bad enough to be sued, but to be sued over a dog bite? Janet Harris alleges she got an infectious disease after Dr. Phil’s dog allegedly bit her. Harris is a skin-care specialist who has been a frequent guest on his show and, according to her lawsuit, was close friends with Dr. Phil’s wife, Robin McGraw.

Harris is claiming that after Dr. Phil’s Korean Jindo, Maggie, bit her, instead of taking Harris to a hospital, to avoid publicity, he procured antibiotics via a friend who was a nurse. Harris is alleging that the improper treatment led to her infection and caused tremors in her right hand, and permanent hearing loss. Dr. Phil’s attorneys are asking the lawsuit be dismissed because Harris had signed an arbitration agreement and she has no case.

2) Current Lawsuit: The Natalee Holloway Defamation Case

Then there’s the case of the Kalpoe brothers, onetime suspects in the disappearance and murder of Natalee Holloway. In 2005 Dr. Phil’s program on the blonde beauty’s disappearance heavily featured Deepak Kalpoe and Satish Kalpoe. They allege that show’s portrayal of them—using hidden-camera footage edited in an allegedly misleading way—constituted defamation. On Tuesday the judge allowed the deposition of Holloway’s mother, Beth—which Dr. Phil’s legal team had tried to prevent. Joran Van der Sloot was eventually indicted, and is the only official suspect.

When the suit was first filed, Paramount Studios (which is now called CBS) released a statement dismissing the accusations. “We stand by the integrity of the Dr. Phil show, our editing process and the accuracy of the program that we aired. We will vigorously defend against these baseless claims."

And don’t forget: he’s been sued unsuccessfully by other guests for defamation—such as Thomas Riccio, an instrumental witness in the O. J. Simpson civil case. (The defamation charges were thrown out and the case was settled).

3) Current Lawsuit: The Mysterious Brainwashing Case

In the crop of ongoing lawsuits, there’s the odd bit of alleged brainwashing and sexual harassment claimed by Shirley Rae Dieu, a 56-year-old Irvine, Calif., woman who said that during a group therapy session at the Dr. Phil House—which was being filmed for a show in 2007 (it aired in December 2007)—she had been held captive and “forced to be in the same room with a completely live naked man while he exposed his entire naked body, genitals and all.” In court docs, it says she was in treatment for her “problems with men.”

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After an appeal by Dr. Phil, the case is moving forward. In an email to The Daily Beast, her attorney wrote, “The court disagreed with his attorney's position and we are commencing discovery with the intent to take the matter to trial.” Dr. Phil’s lawyers deny all charges, and released a statement regarding Dieu’s case that read in part: “All of Shirley Rae Dieu’s claims are without merit. Dr. Phil is never alone in the House with any of these guests and all of his interactions are captured on video and/or audiotape…. Once Ms. Dieu expressed her discomfort, and producers ascertained there was nothing they could do to help her, they called a car service to return her to her home.”

4.) Past Problem: The Ted Williams Fiasco

When the homeless man with the golden voice from Cincinnati became an overnight media sensation in January, many feared the worst. The onetime addict, who admittedly had family troubles and a drinking problem, was given first-class express entry into Hollywood, gifted with job offers and appearing on every talk show on TV. Within days, it was revealed that Williams was still drinking and that he had a not-so-ready-for-prime-time-TV family life. Dr. Phil came to the “rescue.”

After members of the family appeared on the show in an interventionlike setting, Williams got into a fight with his daughter at the Renaissance Hotel, and police were called. No charges were filed. And during a sit-down interview on his show, Dr. Phil cornered a quivering and shamefaced Williams to admit that he had not, in fact, been sober for the last two years, and then told Williams he needed to go to rehab.

The good doctor paid for his stay at a fancy private rehab in Texas, but Williams didn’t appear terribly excited to go. He checked out 12 days later.

He told E! in February: “I love Dr. Phil. I don't want to bash him in any way. I walked out of treatment because it was a little scripted, I felt. There was no anonymity.”

5) Past Problem: The Britney Spears Intervention

During the Britney’s-shaved-her-head-and-gone-crazy days of January 2008, the troubled singer was holed up at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The only people who could get to her were her family members and doctors, but Dr. Phil had other ideas. Reports surfaced (via his own reps) that he’d managed to get in the good graces of the Spears family, and had spent an hour with her as he walked her to her car.

His cover was blown when, after yapping about Spears on TV to CBS’ Early Show, saying that the family “was very frustrated that she was apparently wasn’t going to be held for a longer period of time,” it was unclear if he had even spent more than 15 minutes with the singer. TMZ later reported that Spears had left the room when he had arrived and had not interacted much with him, as by that time she was on her way to being released.

He had planned to do a special on his show about Spears, but that backfired when an incensed Spears family called him out. Lou Taylor, Lynne Spears’ business manager, told the Today show that Dr. Phil had crossed the line.

“The family basically extended an invitation of trust for him to come in as a resource to support them, not to go out and make public statements," Taylor said. "Any statement publicly that he made, because he was brought in under this cloak of trust, [is] just inappropriate. He was not invited to make this part of a public display or part of the media."

The special was scrapped and Dr. Phil apologized, tail carefully tucked between legs.

“We had planned to tape a Dr. Phil Now show today, focusing not on the tabloid side of Britney's latest problems, but instead on the very serious issues surrounding this case,” he said in a statement. “Because the Spears situation is too intense at this time, and out of consideration to the family, I have made the decision not to move forward with the taping at this particular time.”

6) Past Problem: The YouTube Beating

In April 2008 a YouTube video surfaced of six girls in Florida beating a 16 year-old girl in a house while two teenage boys served as lookouts. The girl, Victoria Lindsay, was being punished for things she had allegedly posted on Myspace. The attack quickly gained national attention, with the accused being dubbed “The Polk County 8.”

Wait, did you say, “national news story?”

Cue Dr. Phil, entering stage right.

Eager to nab an inside interview about the attack, an employee of Dr. Phil’s staff went down to Florida and bailed out the alleged ringleader, Mercedes Nichols. The news was leaked by a bondsman and the gambit quickly backfired on the celebrity talk-show host, who denied that he’d instructed the man to bail out the interviewee.

The man was identified by TMZ as a lower-level production assistant who had coughed up $30,000 for Nichols’ bond. When caught on camera, he told the other news reporters trying to interview his prized catch: “We have exclusivity!”

Dr. Phil’s reps released a statement to the press, apologizing once again for the show’s bad judgment, but not before passing the blame. “We have helped guests and potential guests in the past when they need financial assistance to come on the show. In this case, certain staff members went beyond our guidelines re: the bail being paid. These staff members have been reprimanded and our policies reiterated. In addition, we have decided not to go forward with the story as our guidelines have been compromised."

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Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, " The Sober Bunch."