Libel Lawsuit Over Investigation of Alleged Slur at Polo Match Dismissed

From Judge Leonie Brinkema’s opinion yesterday in Gaebel v. US Polo Ass’n:

Gaebel is a 73-year-old retired United States Naval Commander and a senior level executive with a federal government contractor. He is a registered member of the USPA. On the evening of July 10, 2021, Gaebel was playing in a series of exhibition polo matches. Although the polo matches were not organized by the USPA or held at a USPA member club, a USPA member club-Twilight Polo Club-organized the event and rented a location for it….

During the match, Siddiqui, a 14-year-old who played for a opposing Gaebel’s team, caused his horse to collide with-or as the Complaint states, “T-boned”-Gebel and his horse, hurting plaintiff. Gaebel claimed that he bent over in pain and exclaimed “motherfucker” at the ground, but Siddiqui claimed that Gaebel called him a “motherfucking nigger.” After the match, Siddiqui immediately told his coach, Delora Burner, and his mother what he claimed Gaebel said. Burner then told the event’s manager, John Gobin, who walked over to Gaebel and asked Gaebel to apologize to Siddiqui. Gaebel claims that he approached Siddiqui and his family, “vehemently denied the accusation,” and told plaintiff that he has never used a racial slur. Burner and Siddiqui’s mother claim that instead of apologizing, Gaebel bullied Siddiqui by pushing his shoulder and repeatedly saying, “Didn’t we already settle this kid?”

The next day, July 11, 2021, Burner and Siddiqui’s mother each emailed the USPA to complain about the in-game and post-game incidents…. On July 14, 2021, the USPA informed Gaebel that Burner filed what the USPA Disciplinary Procedures Policy (“DPP”) refers to as a “Conduct Violation Complaint” against him. On July 23, 2021, the USPA emailed plaintiff a formal “Notice of Alleged Conduct Violations, Issuance of USPA Charges and Notice of Hearing” (“Notice”). The Notice charged Gaebel with violations of the USPA’s Code of Conduct, informed him of “The Alleged Conduct Violations,” and stated that a hearing would take place on Friday, August 6, 2021, over Zoom, during which plaintiff “will be entitled to present evidence, defending against the charges, and cross-examine witnesses.” The Notice also informed plaintiff of the evidence that may be used against him….

The hearing, which occurred on August 6, 2021, over Zoom, lasted eight hours and was judged by two USPA Hearing Officers…. The USPA issued a Final Order on August 20, 2021, in which, after finding that it had jurisdiction to consider Burner’s Conduct Violation Complaint for at least two reasons, it found in favor of Gaebel…:

After hearing all the testimony and considering all of the evidence in this matter, which they and the [Executive Committee] take very seriously, the Hearing Officers have concluded that there is not sufficient evidence to find that Mr. Gaebel directed a racial slur at Aleem Siddiqui. In reaching this decision, the Hearing Officers do not reject Aleem’s testimony. Rather, as the appointed representatives of the EC, they are obligated to apply the DPP’s requirement that “[t]he burden of proof necessary to sustain a charge against a charged party shall be met if the [EC] reasonably believes, after hearing the evidence presented, that a Conduct Violation has occurred.” Here, although Aleem testified that Mr. Gaebel directed the slur at him, Mr. Gaebel firmly denied doing so. Notably, the Umpire, Mr. Krabbe, testified that he heard Mr. Gaebel utter a vulgarity immediately after the collision, but he did not hear Mr. Gaebel use the racial slur. Additionally, Brock Bromley testified that he too heard Mr. Gaebel utter a vulgarity immediately after the collision, but he did not hear Mr. Gaebel use the racial slur. Given the contradictory testimony of the parties, and the presumably unbiased testimony of Mr. Krabbe, the Hearing Officers, acting for the EC, do not have a basis to reasonably believe that Mr. Gaebel directed A racial slur at Aleem Siddiqui, and therefore that a Conduct Violation occurred….

Gaebel then sued “Burner, Siddiqui, and Siddiqui’s parents for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking roughly $8 million in damages and fees” and separately sued the USPA for, among other things, libel; Judge Brinkema’s opinion deals with the USPA case:

Count I alleges that defendant defamed plaintiff in three ways: (1) by republishing the allegation that plaintiff used a racial slur in the Notice, which informed plaintiff of the charges and evidence against him; (2) by a public disciplinary hearing without jurisdiction and with “reckless disregard” for the veracity of the charges; and (3) by plain evidence a public Final Order implying that, based on the presented during the hearing, defendant considered the allegation of tiffs use of a racial slur to be true. Plaintiff alleges this conduct harmed his reputation, caused him mental anguish, and forced him to incur the attorney’s fees to defend himself at the USPA hearing….

[T]he Notice does not create any liability for defamation, regardless of whether it was published or not, because it does not contain any actionable statements. It neither stated nor implied that Gaebel actually used a racial epithet or actually bullied Sidiqqui; it only stated that it was alleged that he had done so. All the Notice does is give the plaintiff very clear notice of the charges he faced, the names of witnesses who might testify, and copies of Burner’s and Siddiqui’s mother’s complaints.

Although plaintiff argues that the Notice adopted Burner’s claims as true, no plausible reading of the Notice supports that conclusion. For example, the subject line states, “Notice of Alleged Conduct Violations,” the first section is called “the Alleged Conduct Violations,” and the Notice explicitly states that Gaebel’s conduct would amount to violations only “if proven to be true.” Nonetheless, plaintiff argues that the Notice mischaracterized the evidence against him by implying that there were multiple witnesses with “first-hand knowledge of the incident at issue”; However, that is not a mischaracterization, because multiple witnesses observed the in-game collision, and Burner and Siddiqui’s mother claimed that they observed plaintiff bully Siddiqui first-hand.

What the Notice shows was the defendant’s effort to ensure that plaintiff was fully advised of the charges against him. To hold this type of notice defamatory would deter private ajudicatory bodies from advising people of the claims which they need to resolve.

Second, plaintiff argues that the hearing itself defamed him because it “contributed to, furthered, perpetuated and gave credence to the defamatory statements against [p]laintiff; However, the USPA never made any actionable statements during the hearing. None of the defendant’s officials ever said or implied that the claims were true, and the hearing actually gave the defendant the opportunity to show that they were false. Moreover, plaintiff has not cited any caselaw supporting his claim that holding a hearing to determine whether claims are true is tantamount to stating that those claims are, in fact, true. And although plaintiff argues that the defendant adopted the claims by calling the minor and his family and allowing them to state their claims, plaintiff does not offer any caselaw to support that argument.

Third, plaintiff argues that the defendant defamed him in its Final Order by implying that it believed the claims when it stated, “In reaching [its] decision, the Hearing Officers do not reject Aleem’s testimony.” Defendant argues that plaintiff ignores the end-result, which is an exoneration of plaintiff. In fact, the Final Order clearly states, “Given the contradictory testimony of the parties, and the presumably unbiased testimony of Mr. Krabbe [the umpire], the Hearing Officers … do not have a basis to reasonably believe that Mr. Gaebel directed a racial slur at Aleem Siddiqui, and therefore that a Conduct Violation occurred.”

From these words, a reasonable person could not interpret the Final Order as implying that Gaebel actually directed a racial slur at Siddiqui. A far more likely interpretation was reluctance by the hearing officers to label a 14-year-old as a liar. This common-sense reading is reinforced by a summary that was published and made publicly available after the hearing. The summary states, in full:

The USPA received a Conduct Violation Complaint on July 11, 2021, alleging that USPA member Darrell Gaebel used offensive language when addressing a minor USPA member during a game played at the Great Meadow polo facility under the auspices of Twilight Polo Club on July 10, 2021 On July 20, 2021, the USPA Executive Committee issued charges against Mr. Gaebel for violating the USPA Code of Conduct. A hearing was held on August 6, during which Mr. Gaebel, the minor USPA member, and fifteen other witnesses testified. The Hearing Officers rejected Mr. Gaebel’s jurisdictional objectives, but concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to find that Mr. Gaebel used the offensive language alleged in the Complaint. Accordingly, the Conduct Violation Complaint was dismissed in a Final Order dated August 20, 2021.

This published summary clearly shows that defendant did not find that Gaebel used the alleged slur.

{Because Count I fails for lack of actionable statements, the Court has not addressed the defendant’s alternative argument that its statements were privileged because they were made in furtherance of a common interest in resolving a dispute; however, that argument also provides a separate meritorious basis for dismissal of the defamation claim.}

The court also rejected Gaebel’s claim that the USPA violated its internal procedures and thus breached its contract with Gaebel, as well as Gaebel’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim:

Although Count V fails to allege sufficient facts to support any element of an IIED claim, the simplest element to focus on is the element of outrageousness. The Supreme Court of Virginia has held that to satisfy this element, a defendant’s alleged behavior must be “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” The behavior plaintiff claims was outrageous was (1) holding a hearing without jurisdiction and (2) holding a hearing based on false claims.

Plaintiff offers no caselaw to suggest that such conduct exceeds “all possible bounds of decency.” Moreover, as discussed above, the USPA had jurisdiction to charge plaintiff and conduct the hearing, and the hearing afforded plaintiff full fair process, resulting in his favor. When the defendant held the hearing, there was no indication whatsoever that the USPA knew or had reason to know the claims against plaintiff were false. What the USPA did in this case was not outrageous. To the contrary, it was responsible: upon receiving claims that one of its members used a racial slur against a minor, it held a hearing to get to the bottom of the allegations, and after finding insufficient evidence for the charges, dismissed them. To find such conduct outrageous would deter the USPA and any other private organization from investigating complaints made against its members….

Congratulations to Heather M. Fields of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough on the goal.

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