Former New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra’s own bad reputation led a court to toss his defamation case against former teammate Ron Darling, and law professors say the ruling has the potential to expand the infrequently used “libel-proof plaintiff” doctrine in other cases.
The doctrine bars relief in defamation actions if a plaintiff has a reputation that is so badly tarnished that he or she can’t be further injured by allegedly false statements. Judge Robert D. Kalish of the New York Supreme Court, New York County found that Darling put forth enough evidence to invoke the doctrine, citing a litany of stories concerning Dykstra’s “poor and mean-spirited behavior particularly toward various groups including racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community.”
“What is fascinating about the Dykstra case is, here we have a plaintiff who manages to render himself libel-proof on multiple fronts through years of diverse forms of misbehavior,” University of Michigan law professor Leonard Niehoff said about the ruling. “He manages to make himself libel-proof with respect to racism, homophobia, misogyny, lewd conduct, assault, criminal behavior, fraud, embezzlement, bad sportsmanship, and being a jerk. It is really an astonishing accomplishment in a lot of ways.”
Darling wrote of an incident between Dykstra and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd in 108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game. Darling claimed Dykstra leveled racist insults at Boyd prior to one of his plate appearances during the 1986 World Series.
Dykstra filed a complaint alleging Darling had tarnished the team’s World Series Championship when he described the incident in his book. Dykstra also claimed Darling branded him a racist and maliciously attacked him and his abilities as a professional athlete. But Kalish dismissed the case, saying Dykstra’s reputation was already so tarnished, he could not be libeled.
Doctrine Is Subjective
“The libel-proof plaintiff doctrine is not applied that widely,” in part because of its subjective nature, said Samantha Barbas, a University of Buffalo Law School professor.
There is no clear set of standards that is applied in terms of the frequency of prior bad actions, the degree of the infraction, or a time frame from which someone can be considered no longer libel-proof, she said.
“It has to be to a pretty egregious case where somebody’s reputation is just trashed so that he or she just doesn’t have anything,” Barbas said. “It seems like this person is extraordinary.”
Niehoff said courts in some states have been hesitant to recognize the doctrine, but it is important to protect free speech.
Niehoff cited the case of James Earl Ray, the person convicted of assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who sued several authors for defamation.
“The court dismissed the case, essentially saying, ‘You’re kidding, you’re James Earl Ray. People cannot think less of you than they already do,’” Niehoff said.
Falling Into Extremes
Future cases could be differentiated by those who have garnered reputations that are so bad they are considered libel-proof plaintiffs generally and those who are considered libel-proof on specific issues.
Niehoff said people who are libel-proof are likely those convicted of serious crimes or multiple crimes. Another category is the unrepentant: people who enjoy the image that comes with having spotty reputations, he said.
“You cannot simultaneously say to the world, ‘Look at what an outlaw I am, look at what a jerk I am, look at all of the outrageous, offensive, terrible things I have done,’ and then when someone calls you out on it, you turn around and say, ‘Well, you hurt my reputation,’” Niehoff said.
There was evidence in the opinion documenting Dykstra’s behavior in magazine articles and sports television programs. In Dykstra’s case, the court identified another category of plaintiffs who, like Dykstra, have a history of repeated inappropriate behavior.
New York Protective of Speech
Another point worth noting in the Dykstra case is that the court applied the doctrine and granted the motion to dismiss without collecting affidavits, depositions, or other discovery devices.
“We are very early on in the litigation, and that makes the application of this doctrine even more aggressive in a way,” Harvard Law professor John Goldberg said.
Geography could have played a role in the ruling.
“New York is famously protective of speech because, in part, it is a state that has a lot of media companies,” Goldberg said. “New York City is a big media hub to particularly traditional media, newspapers and so forth. New York courts, on average, are more suspicious of claims involving speech, books, publications of this sort, which is part of what is going on here.”
“If I am a book publisher or a newspaper publisher, I am going to be trotting this opinion out whenever I have the basis for a libel-proof plaintiff argument,” he said.
A Wary Plaintiff
The ruling also could give pause to defamation plaintiffs who may want to reflect on their own behavior and determine if they compare to Dykstra.
“It would seem to potentially deter people with bad reputations from suing for libel,” Barbas said. “What happens is that the court officially deems you to be a crummy person. It backfires on you. In that sense, there could possibly be an effect.”
There is also a danger in further exposing plaintiffs to the unsavory decisions they made in the past.
“When you bring these causes of action, one of the consequences is that the falsehood is republished,” said Regina Austin, University of Pennsylvania law school professor.
“I can see not wanting to have it republished or feeling that your real status or reference group knows you better than you appear in reports. Then something happens and you feel that someone crossed a bridge that should not have been crossed.”