Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Local Sports Executive Not ‘Public Figure’ —C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The president of a local amateur soccer club was not a “public figure” for purposes of defamation law, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
In an unpublished opinion, Div. Four upheld a $100,000 judgment in favor of Asfaw Teferi. A Los Angeles Superior Court jury found that the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America and its president defamed Teferi by falsely officials of the Ethio L.A. Stars soccer club that the plaintiff had been “impeached” while serving as secretary of the Federation.
The federation sponsors soccer tournaments among member teams throughout the United States and Canada. Teferi played for the Stars beginning in 1983 and became the club president in 1995.
He also represented the club on the federation board, and served as auditor for the federation’s executive committee and as secretary in the early 2000s. A controversy arose during his tenure after some of the teams claimed they had not been kept informed regarding a legal action by a hotel to collect a cancellation penalty resulting from a change in the location of a tournament.
The dispute led to the resignation of several members of the executive committee; the election of a new federation president, Dawit Agonafer; and the rejected of Teferi’s request to the general board that he be given a vote of confidence. Teferi then declared his resignation as secretary, but stayed on for six months until his successor was elected, at which time Teferi was given an award for his service.
After leaving his federation post, Teferi agreed to rejoin the Stars’ leadership, and was named president of the club in 2005. Agonafer, however, called Stars official Abera Gebre and said Teferi was not permitted to represent the club in federation matters because he had been “impeached” in his prior position.
That was followed by an email sent to Teferi and other members of the Stars leadership, in which Agonafer said the board had “overwhelmingly voted to impeach” Teferi. When the club secretary asked for clarification, the federation president responded that Teferi “was removed by a vote of no confidence procedure” and that it was “a fact that he was impeached.”
At the trial of Teferi’s suit against the federation and Agonafer, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalin instructed the jury that Teferi was a public figure, and thus needed to prove malice by clear and convincing evidence. He denied the defendants’ request to instruct jurors on the common interest privilege.
Presiding Justice Norman Epstein, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Teferi was a private figure. Even if the federation’s debates and actions constituted a “public controversy,” which the jurist said was unclear, Teferi did not voluntarily inject himself into the controversy, as he did not raise the issue of whether or not he had been “impeached.”
Epstein also noted that the only media coverage of the controversy, an article in a community newspaper, was written after the lawsuit had been filed.
Because Teferi was only a private figure, Epstein went on to say, he did not have to prove malice, only negligence. Because the context of the defendants’ communications permitted the jury to treat the accusation that Teferi was impeached to mean that he was removed for incompetence, whereas Teferi was not removed but resigned, there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that the defendants were at least negligent, the presiding justice concluded.
He went on to say that it was error not to instruct on the common interest privilege given the relationship between the Stars and the federation and the team’s interest in knowing whether Teferi was eligible to represent it on the federation board. But the error was harmless in light of the jury’s finding that defendants knew the statement to the Stars was false or had serious doubts about its truth, meaning that they had no reasonable ground to believe the statement was true so that the privilege was inapplicable.
The case is Teferi v. Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America, B249880.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company