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11th Circuit refuses to reinstate fired Dolphins coach's defamation suit against Paul Weiss law firm

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Elbert P. Tuttle Courthouse

The Elbert P. Tuttle Courthouse in Atlanta, home of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Photo by Eoghanacht, via Wikimedia Commons.

A federal appeals court has refused to reinstate a lawsuit by a fired Miami Dolphins coach who claimed the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison defamed him in an investigative report of bullying by team members.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against former Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner in a decision Thursday. The Dolphins fired Turner in February 2014 after it received the Paul Weiss report.

The appeals court said sections of the report labeled defamatory by Turner were protected statements of opinion. In addition, Turner was a public figure required to prove actual malice by the law firm, yet he didn’t adequately allege actual malice in his lawsuit, the appeals court said.

The NFL had commissioned the report after offensive lineman Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team in October 2013 and checked himself into a hospital for psychological treatment. Martin said he left the team because of persistent taunting by others on the team.

Paul Weiss partner Theodore Wells had led the investigation and was also a defendant. The 144-page report had concluded that Dolphins coaches and players enabled the bullying culture by discouraging “snitching,” and the treatment of Martin and others was unacceptable.

Turner had focused on four passages in the report that he believed to be defamatory. One section referred to a player who endured homophobic slurs, even though he was not actually believed to be gay. The report said Turner was aware of the running joke, and he gave gag gifts of blow-up dolls to each offensive lineman. All received female dolls except for the taunted lineman, who received a male doll.

The appeals court said it agreed with the trial court that none of the report statements about the blow-up doll incident was defamatory. Statements in the report about the incident—that it constituted an endorsement of the player’s humiliating treatment or that it made Turner a participant in the homophobic taunting—were statements of opinion that can’t be the basis for a defamation claim, the court said.

The appeals court also labeled as opinion another section of the report criticizing Turner for texts he sent to Martin after he left the team. The texts had asked Martin to make a statement concerning a player identified in the report as the bullying ringleader. The player, who was a friend of Martin’s, “is getting hammered on national TV,” Turner had texted. “This is not right. You could put an end to all the rumors with a simple statement. DO THE RIGHT THING. NOW.”

Turner took other parts of the report out of context and targeted facts that were not false, the appeals court said.

Hat tip to Bill Rankin of @ajccourts.

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