As the pandemic and civil unrest continue, a bit of levity might be a welcome relief. Thus, let us consider the defamation case filed by former Major League Baseball player Lenny Dykstra against former teammate Ron Darling, among others.
Ron Darling pitched for 13 years for the New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland A’s. In perhaps his best season, he helped lead the Mets to a World Series championship over the Boston Red Sox in 1986. After retirement he pursued a successful business career, then moved into broadcasting baseball in New York, as well as on a national level.
Lenny Dykstra played in the outfield on the same Mets team that won the 1986 series, and was later traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. He was known for his tough and gritty style of play (hence the nickname “Nails”). Dykstra’s post-career life has been marked with multiple business and legal problems, including but not at all limited to:
- Numerous lawsuits against his business for credit card fraud, unpaid rent and other financial disputes.
- Chapter 7 bankruptcy that included fraudulently hiding and selling assets.
- Conviction for bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.
- Conviction for grand theft auto and providing false financial information.
- Conviction for lewd conduct/public exposure.
- Numerous accusations of sexual assault and offensive behavior regarding African Americans, women and gay people.
In 2019, Darling published a book entitled 108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game. In one portion of the book, Darling called Dykstra “one of baseball’s all-time thugs” and described a point in the 1986 World Series where Dykstra began heckling Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, an African American pitcher for the Red Sox. Darling recalled Dykstra:
“shouting every imaginable and unimaginable insult and expletive in his direction — foul, racist, hateful, hurtful stuff…the worst collection of taunts and insults I’d ever heard — worse, I’m betting, than anything Jackie Robinson might have heard, his first couple times around the league.”
Dykstra was not pleased with this characterization and sued Darling and the publisher for defamation, a claim requiring proof of (1) a false statement; (2) the statement was communicated to a third party; (3) the statement harmed person’s reputation or held him up to scorn, ridicule or contempt; and (4) damage occurred. Some types of defamation are considered defamatory per se, meaning that damages are presumed and need not be proved. These include claims that the person has committed a serious crime, has a terrible disease or is incompetent in their job or profession.
Justice Robert D. Kalish in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan skipped right over most of the elements to dismiss the case for the following reason:
Dykstra was infamous for being, among other things, racist, misogynist, and anti-gay, as well as a sexual predator, a drug-abuser, a thief, and an embezzler…[A]s a matter of law, the reference in the book has not exposed Dykstra to any further “public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace,” or “evil opinion of him in the minds of right-thinking persons,” or “deprivation of friendly intercourse in society.”
The judge suggested instead that “given Dykstra’s celebrity and apparent attraction to the spotlight, [his] remedy lies in telling his own story to the public.”
Dykstra did not take the dismissal well, reportedly claiming that the judge must have been paid off. In addition, he is now threatening to release secret information that he says proves that Darling’s 2018 diagnosis for thyroid cancer is a “fraud.”
No real employment law lessons here but perhaps a life lesson courtesy of Will Rogers: “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.” Lenny Dykstra may need a few more lifetimes.