Philadelphia Partners Win Summary Judgment in Defamation Case Establishing Precedent in Protecting Olympic Athletes

December 2020

Philadelphia partners Sara Anderson Frey and Alexander Nemiroff recently obtained dismissal of a high profile defamation case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiff, an Olympic gold medalist and politician, sued the National Governing Board ("NGB") in the United States for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intrusion upon seclusion. 

During the plaintiff’s candidacy for United States Congress, the NGB received a report of alleged sexual misconduct involving the plaintiff.  The NGB was mandated to report these allegations to the United States Center for SafeSport pursuant to a recently enacted law, the SafeSport Authorization Act of 2017 (“SSAA”).  While the plaintiff did not dispute that the NGB was required to report the allegations, the plaintiff alleged that the NGB defamed him by placing him on a list of suspended riders pending the investigation and by confirming to a local newspaper that it had forwarded allegations to the Center for SafeSport.

After a vigorous and contentious discovery period, Frey and Nemiroff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the NGB was immune from liability under the SSAA.  The SSAA, like many mandatory reporter statutes, immunizes reporters of abuse from liability for defamation, libel, slander, or damage to reputation if such action arises from the execution of the NGB’s responsibilities or functions under the SSAA. 

This was an issue of first impression, as there are no other reported opinions interpreting the SSAA’s immunity provision. Given the importance of this issue, the Center for SafeSport submitted an amicus brief in support of the NGB’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

The district court granted the Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissed all claims against the NGB.  With respect to the plaintiff’s claims that the NGB defamed him by placing him on a list of suspended riders, the court held that the SSAA immunized the NGB for such claims, as the imposition of interim disciplinary measures fell within the responsibilities or functions under the SSAA.  In doing so, the court emphasized the importance of the SSAA’s broad immunity provision in encouraging people to come forward with allegations of improper conduct and in preventing abuse of young athletes and noted the chilling effect that could result if reporters were subject to liability.

With respect to the claims that the NGB defamed plaintiff by speaking to a reporter, the court found speaking to the press was not within the responsibilities or functions under the SSAA and, therefore, the NGB was not immune from such claims. Nonetheless, the court granted summary judgment on those claims, finding that the statements given to the newspaper were truthful and incapable of defamatory meaning. Additionally, the court held that the plaintiff, a public figure, had failed to demonstrate any actual malice on the part of the NGB.

As the first reported case interpreting the immunity provision on the SSAA, this was a very significant win.  The precedent established will go a long way in encouraging the reporting of improper conduct and in protecting young athletes.