California Court Rules That Soccer Executive Is Not A Public Figure

In a decision handed down this past Wednesday, a California Court of Appeals ruled that Asfaw Teferi, a soccer executive for a team in the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America (“ESFNA”), was not a public figure for the purposes of his defamation lawsuit. This opinion could have implications for other sports executives in non-major leagues moving forward.

Teferi has been involved with the ESFNA since 1985, when the soccer team that he played for at the time, the Los Angeles Stars, joined the league. In 1995, Teferi was appointed to the role of team president of the L.A. Stars, and soon after began serving a role on the ESFNA board. At a board meeting on January 19, 2003, after a dispute involving a relocation of the ESFNA tournament, sixteen of the twenty-five teams represented voted “no confidence” with regards to Teferi, who subsequently resigned. Teferi did maintain his role as secretary to the board for six months after.

In 2005, Teferi was once again elected as president of the L.A. Stars. In response, the president of the ESFNA emailed the L.A. Stars to inform them that the board had “overwhelmingly voted to impeach” Teferi in 2003 and that he was banned from coming back to the ESFNA board. ESFNA’s executive committee soon after voted to give the committee the power to amend the minutes of the January 2003 meeting to better reflect what happened at the time.

Teferi filed a defamation claim against ESFNA and the president based on the statements that were made asserting that he had been impeached in 2003. The trial court ruled in his favor, awarding him damages totaling $100,000. On appeal, the California court made two intriguing findings.

First, the court found that Teferi was not a public figure for the purposes of the defamation lawsuit because he was not involved in a clear “public controversy.” As a result, he did not have to satisfy the more onerous “actual malice” test required for public figures to prove defamation, but instead prove only that the defendants “failed to use reasonable care” in determining whether the statements they made were truthful.

Secondly, the court found that the trial court should have instructed the jury in regards to the defendants “common interest privilege” defense. Section 47(c) of the California Civil Code establishes that certain communications between persons regarding a matter of common interests are privileged so long as the statements are made “without malice.” In a final twist, the court found this error harmless, since the trial court jury already found “actual malice” under the public figure test, even though that test was wrongfully administered to a private figure.

While this opinion certainly seems a bit anomalous, it could have implications for sports executives elsewhere, but only for those in non-major league sports. The court’s logic almost certainly will not be extended to any official or executive of a major sports franchise, as a significant portion of the opinion rested on the fact that there was little media coverage of the ESFNA dispute. Those executives will thus still face the daunting task of proving “actual malice” should they ever find themselves in court asserting a defamation claim.

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