Davis v. Boeheim

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This appeal dealt with the issue of whether the supreme court properly dismissed Plaintiffs’ complaint for failure to state a cause of action against Defendant Boeheim. Plaintiffs Davis and Lang commenced a defamation action seeking damages for statements made by Defendant Boeheim, the head men’s basketball coach for Defendant Syracuse University, in the wake of allegations by Plaintiffs that associate head coach Bernie Fine sexually abused them. Plaintiff Davis reported the alleged abuse to the Syracuse Police Department in 2002 and to the university in 2005. No criminal charges were brought against Fine at that time, and the University advised Plaintiff that it had determined, following an internal investigation, that the allegations were unsubstantiated and that the investigation was closed. It was after this investigation closed that Defendant Boeheim made the alleged defamatory statements.

The statements were made on November 17 and 18, 2011, during interviews that appeared on ESPN.com, Syracuse.com, and in the New York Times. Among the statements made by Defendant in various interviews were that Plaintiff lied when he stated that Defendant saw Plaintiff lying on the bed in Fine’s hotel room in New Orleans in 1987; that Plaintiffs’ allegations against Fine were lies; that Plaintiff had provided the University with the names of four people who could corroborate his allegations, but that the allegations were not corroborated; and that Plaintiffs’ allegations were financially motivated.

Considering these statements on appeal, the Court used the three factors laid out in Mann v. Abel, 10 N.Y.3d 271 (2008), to determine whether the alleged defamatory statements were actionable statements of fact or nonactionable statements of opinion. The Court first agreed with Plaintiffs that Defendant’s statements that they lied and did so out of a financial motivation were statements of fact when viewed against the first two factors set forth in Mann (i.e. those statements used specific language that “has a precise meaning which is readily understood” and are “capable of being proven true or false”). Id. at 276 (citations omitted). However, when applying the third factor in Mann, “whether either the full context of the communication in which the statement[s] appear[ ] 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 found that Defendant’s statements were likely opinion. Id. Defendant’s statements were opinion because they showed his support for Fine and constituted his reaction to Plaintiff’s implied allegation that Defendant knew or should have known of Fine’s alleged improprieties. In concluding that the statements were opinion and not fact, the Court affirmed the supreme court’s decision.

Justices Smith and Fahey dissented in the case because they believed Defendant’s statements were of “mixed opinion” (i.e. “statement[s] of opinion that impl[y] a basis in facts which are not disclosed to the reader or listener”). Gross v. N.Y. Times Co., 82 N.Y.2d 146, 153 (1993). The dissent also found that the defamatory nature of the statements could not be immunized simply by preceding them with the words “I believe.”

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2013 WL 5495837, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 06446

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