A recent case provides another opportunity to consider the legal issues surrounding defamation of a public figure. What constitutes defamation of character, where a football coach is accused of participating in bullying conduct? The Eleventh Circuit ruled against the football coach in Turner v. Wells, in an opinion published January 18, 2018.
James Turner coached the offensive line for the Miami Dolphins from 2012 until February 2014. Following allegations of bullying within the organization, the NFL hired the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and individual Paul, Weiss attorney, Theodore V. Wells, Jr., to investigate. After receiving the 144-page Paul, Weiss report (the “Report”), the Dolphins fired Turner in February 2014.
The Report focused on the bullying of Jonathan Martin, an offensive lineman for the Dolphins. Martin abruptly left the team in October 2013, and checked himself into a hospital for psychological treatment. The Report concluded that bullying by several players contributed to Martin’s decision to leave the team, and the Report also included several references to Turner, opining that his unprofessional conduct played a role in Martin’s struggles.
After being fired, Turner filed suit against Paul, Weiss, and Wells, in U.S. District Court in Florida. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, and Turner appealed to the Eleventh Circuit (which has appellate jurisdiction over federal cases arising from Alabama, Georgia and Florida).
The Eleventh Circuit reviewed Turner’s claims of defamation by applying the elements of Florida law, which requires: (1) publication; (2) falsity; (3) the statement was made with knowledge or reckless disregard as to the falsity on a matter concerning a public official, or at least negligently on a matter concerning a private person; (4) actual damages; and (5) the statement must be defamatory. The Court concluded that Turner had failed to prove his claims of defamation. Continue reading