Because the absurdity engulfing Ryan Braun needed another level of preposterousness, we learned this week that Braun’s being sued in Milwaukee County court by a fella who claims to be a (former) lifelong friend.
Because Paul and I have nothing better to do with our law degrees, we’ve endeavored to answer all your questions about the ins and outs of a defamation lawsuit, and this defamation lawsuit in particular, in our latest and greatest edition of BETTER ASK A LAWYER-TYPE.
OK, let’s get down to the basics. What’s a defamation lawsuit?
“Defamation” is our legal term for the concept of “you said something nasty and untrue about me to somebody else, and now people think less of me as a result.” (It’s taken from the Latin term “defamo,” meaning “to talk shit about.”) If somebody says something that’s not true and damages your reputation, you can ask a court to make that person give you money. Neat, right?
This sounds like a fun idea. Who can I sue? Can I sue the kids in elementary school who called me skunk-boy?
The most fun thing about the legal system is that you can sue anyone for anything! But you probably won’t have much luck suing your boyhood chums. For one thing, opinions are not actionable. “I saw Rubie having sex with a skunk” is actionable, because that’s a statement of fact. “I think Rubie smells like a skunk” probably isn’t, because that’s, like, your opinion, man.
So what’s this Ralph Sasson guy saying that Braun did to defame him, then? I read something that said he’s claiming that Braun’s people hired him to dig up dirt on the dude who kept Braun’s pee in his basement for two days, and then Braun tried to stiff him on the tab.
That’s in the lawsuit, but it’s apparently provided by way of background, because Sasson isn’t suing Braun for breach of contract — and, by the by, re: that background: Sasson says, back in 2011, he gets a call from Braun’s agent asking him to look into the background of an unspecified player who’d tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, only he didn’t know it was Braun at the time and only found that out later, and let’s stop right there for a second because
WHAT THE FUCK?
This high-powered agent for very, very rich baseball players reaches out to a dude living in Milwaukee with no apparent training as a private investigator who describes himself as a law student (more on that later) to do recon on one of those very, very rich baseball players, and (1) dude doesn’t realize immediately it’s Braun?, and (2) for emphasis’ sake, what the hell?
Anyway, back to the point — Sasson isn’t suing Braun for not paying up on those background checks, because, according to Sasson, Braun ultimately (and begrudgingly) did, but because after that, Braun was allegedly telling people that he and Sasson weren’t friends anymore because Sasson was rude to staff at Miller Park and was, and I quote, “crazy.” Those comments, says Sasson, weren’t true, and his reputation has suffered as a result.
His reputation with whom, exactly?
Well, that’s one of the delightful parts of this utterly delightful suit: Sasson says Braun’s allegedly untrue statements were made not only to Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and Packers demigod Aaron Rodgers (two people who, I suspect, couldn’t pick Ralph Sasson out of a lineup and probably didn’t have an opinion about his reputation in the first place, but that’s a separate issue), but also to members of Braun’s family — his mom and dad, and his brother — and Braun’s fiance.
Hold up: he’s suing Braun because Braun told Braun’s mom that he was crazy?
Yep. In a nutshell, part of the damage Sasson is claiming is that Ryan Braun’s mom now thinks he’s a nutbag who acts like a dick to people at a baseball stadium.
I know. Don’t think too hard about it. Let’s move on to something else.
Alright. So Sasson’s made his allegations in the complaint. What are his prospects for success? How hard is it to win a defamation suit?
About the same as getting through the Quickman stage in Megaman 2 on the first try without stopping time. (Related: telling someone “Rubie’s nickname in college was Quickman” is most definitely grounds for a defamation lawsuit.)
Whoa. That’s hard.
And it’s potentially harder than that. In your standard-issue defamation case, the plaintiff — the defamed — has to prove only a couple things: that the defendant — the defamer — made the statement in question, and that the plaintiff’s reputation suffered as a result, because the law gives the plaintiff a couple of assists. For one, it’s presumed that the statement that was made is false. (You’ve heard the saying: “The truth is an absolute defense”? This is where that saying comes from: if the defendant can show that his statement was true, the plaintiff can’t recover.) For another, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove that the defendant knew what he was saying wasn’t true. It’s enough that the defendant made the statement, it wasn’t true, and the plaintiff’s reputation was harmed.
Now, that’s the standard-issue case. There’s a whole ‘nother — and wholly more onerous — set of rules for matters involving statements about public officials or subjects of public interest, but you’re probably not that interested in reading about that and I’m not altogether keen on rehashing the Supreme Court’s (probably ill-fated) decision to wade into this particular area of law. Suffice it to say: if the statement in question is about a public figure or a subject of public interest, the plaintiff also has to prove (1) that the statement was false, and (2) that the defendant knew the statement was false or made the statement in reckless disregard of the truth.
Would those rules apply to Sasson’s case? He certainly doesn’t qualify as a public figure, and while Braun’s PED imbroglio has certainly been in the spotlight for months, the statements being complained about — that Sasson was a jerk to staff at Miller Park, or is crazy — are only related tangentially to all that drama. Still: it’s a long, hard road in a defamation case, whether the statement concerns a matter of public interest or not.
So, wait. Let me make sure I understand this. Braun can win the case if he proves that Sasson was rude to the vendors at Miller Park? Like, will that be part of any trial?
One of the fun — and by “fun” we mean “crap-your-pants-level terrifying” — parts of any defamation case is that you have to be willing to expose all of your dirty laundry. It’s sort of a catch-22 in that the defamed often ends up making the situation much worse. In this instance it’s entirely possible that, should this case go to trial (and it won’t), Ryan Braun could find some vendor who thought the guy was rude and Sasson might end up with the story of how he ordered three Lites when you can only order two at a time, and only tipped a quarter, and told the vendor he had an ugly hat and stupid shoes. This is one of my favorite parts of any defamation trial. (I’d also say that “rude” is a matter of opinion. Like crazy.)
But what about “crazy”?
Well, “crazy” is an interesting word. 99% of the time something like that is going to fall into the realm of “opinion” and an opinion, not being a statement of fact, is not actionable. Crazy is mostly used in the hyperbolic sense. If Braun had told his dad that Sasson was, like, clinically crazy and Braun’s dad was a psychiatrist and they drugged Sasson and committed him and he ended up lobotomized like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (spoilers! Also: Chief is a boss) he might have a defamation case. But a standard, every day “you so crazy” isn’t really what we’re looking for here.
What’s the deal with these “requests to admit” that Sasson submitted with his lawsuit?
In a civil case, when you don’t have to worry as much about someone’s pesky constitutional rights, courts try to encourage the parties to get down to the nub of the dispute as best they can. So, in civil cases, you have things like requests to admit, where you try to eliminate areas where there aren’t dispute so you can focus on the areas where there are. For example, in a hypothetical car accident case, you might ask the other party to admit to the road conditions, or what time of day the accident happened, or that your medical bills are reasonable.
The requests to admit that Sasson sent to Braun are … well, they’re a little unusual. According to the Journal Sentinel, Sasson has asked Braun to admit that he was ‘roided up as far back as his days at the U, that he cheated academically at Miami, that he lied to Rodgers about using PEDs, and, perhaps most entertainingly, that Braun’s been humpin’ around on his fiance and that he’s been humpin’ around on each and every one of lady friends dating back to high school. What, exactly, that has to do with Braun allegedly telling people that Sasson is wacko I’m not sure, and I’d bet Braun’s attorneys will point that out.
And while we’re talking about attorneys: you’ll see repeated references in the lawsuit that Sasson’s proceeding pro se, that is, without the assistance of legal counsel. In general, unless you’re filing a case in small claims court, this is a very bad idea. Pro se litigants are obligated to follow the same court rules, rules of evidence, etc., that attorneys are bound to follow, and when you don’t have an attorney on a case like this, you end up doing things like issuing requests to admit that ask Braun to acknowledge he tested positive for “steroids,” or using vague, undefined words like “amorous relationships,” or making reference over and over to a non-disclosure agreement (that Sasson was allegedly forced to sign) without attaching a copy of that non-disclosure agreement to the complaint.
What’s the most unintentionally hysterical line in the Journal Sentinel article about Sasson’s lawsuit?
I’m so glad you asked this. Near the end of the article is this line:
“Sasson, who says he is a law student…”
How great is that? Most of the time, when a reporter includes that parenthetical explanation of what a person does for a living, they’ll go: “Rubie, a cumquat farmer and amateur blogger, ate twelve tacos…” But the furthest the Journal Sentinel is willing to go with this cat is that he says he’s a law student, like they’re not even going to bother to take the two minutes to confirm with the Taft Law School (which is apparently a thing) that Sasson is studying there. Instead, they’re all: “That’s what dude says. I dunno, you figure it out.”
Huh. This almost seems like a bit of convenient piling-on by a dude whose gravy train left the station.
That’s certainly one way to read this filing. But at the same time, given everything that’s happened in the last few months, having everything that’s alleged in this suit turn out to be true would be like the fourth-most shocking event in this neverending whirlwind of nonsense.