New York State Court of Appeals Allows Defamation Suit Against Jim Boeheim
Jim Boeheim and Syracuse University received a blow Tuesday when the highest court in the State of New York overturned an earlier court ruling and allowed a defamation suit to proceed.
The lawsuit is centered around comments Jim Boeheim made in response to allegations by Robert Davis and his step-brother Michael Lang that they were sexually molested by an assistant coach of the Syracuse Men’s basketball team.
In statements to the New York Times, the Syracuse Post Standard’s website Syracuse.com, SportingNews.com, and ESPN.com, Jim Boeheim called Davis and Lang liars, and stated that their allegations were financially motivated.
Davis and Lang sued, saying that Jim Boeheim’s statements to ESPN, the Post-Standard, and the New York Times, were false and defamatory, and had caused them economic, emotional and reputational harm.
The lower courts granted Syracuse’s motion to dismiss, arguing that the comments were “a biased and personal opinion on the accusations against Bernie Fine, not fact.”
Court of Appeals Rules Against Jim Boeheim
The Court of Appeals examined each of Jim Boeheim’s statements to determine whether they are opinion or fact.
Jim Boeheim’s comments were:
(1) “This is alleged to have occurred … what? Twenty years ago? Am I in the right neighborhood? … So we are supposed to do what? Stop the presses 26 years later? For a false allegation? For what I absolutely believe is a false allegation? I know [Davis is] lying about me seeing him in his hotel room. That’s a lie. If he’s going to tell one lie, I’m sure there’s a few more of them.”
(2) “The Penn State thing came out and the kid behind this is trying to get money. He’s tried before. And now he’s trying again …. That’s what this is about. Money.”
(3) “It is a bunch of a thousand lies that [Davis] has told …. He supplied four names to the university that would corroborate his story. None of them did … there is only one side to this story. He is lying.” Boeheim continued, “I believe they saw what happened at Penn State, and they are using ESPN to get money. That is what I believe.”
(4) “You don’t think it is a little funny that his cousin (relative) is coming forward?”
(5) Boeheim stated that the timing of Lang’s decision to speak out about his abuse seemed “a little suspicious.”
The Court of Appeals applied 3 factors in determining whether a reasonable reader would consider the statement to be fact or opinion: “(1) whether the specific language in issue has a precise meaning which is readily understood; (2) whether the statements are capable of being proven true or false; and (3) whether either the full context of the communication in which the statement appears or the broader social context and surrounding circumstances are such as to signal . . . readers or listeners that what is being read or heard is likely to be opinion, not fact.”
The court then held that in a pre-answer context, it was too early to determine whether the statements were true opinion. The court then allowed the action to proceed against Jim Boeheim. A copy of the opinion can be found here.
Takeaways from the Jim Boeheim Opinion
Whenever we sue a person for defamation, the first thing I tell me clients is to expect a motion to dismiss. Defamation is one of the most difficult actions to bring given New York’s history of dislike for the suits and the delicate balance between the First Amendment and wrongful speech.
In practice, judges are more likely to dismiss a defamation case pre-answer than any other type of case I have dealt with. This ruling should open the door to allowing more cases to proceed, and essentially protecting our clients’ rights.
Authored by: Daniel Szalkiewicz