SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) – The former athletic director of a Pennsylvania state school has immunity from claims that her lawsuit defamed an ESPN lead investigate sports reporter, a federal judge ruled.
Todd Bartley, the general manager and lead investigative sports reporter for the ESPN 1050 radio station, filed suit against former Sharon Taylor, the former athletic director of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.
Bartley’s federal complaint turned on an earlier lawsuit that Taylor filed in state court, where she claimed that Bartley criticized her in a letter to a wrestling group of which she was a member.
The state court entered summary judgment for Bartley when he disproved Taylor’s claims that he criticized her in an email to members of the organization, Preserve the Legacy of Wrestling (PLOW). Bartley had also denied participation in an allegedly defamatory pamphlet and defended an article that he wrote about Bartley as not libelous. Headlined “Taylor and the LHU Lose Another Court Battle,” Bartley’s ESPN article referred to a federal civil action in which Taylor was not a party.
The federal complaint claims that Taylor filed the “frivolous” state-court case to retaliate against Bartley for criticizing her job performance in his reporting.
Taylor moved for partial summary judgment, but Chief U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane refused to side with her on Bartley’s First Amendment retaliation claims.
Kane noted that the record indicates Bartley was “very interested in reporting on LHU athletics and Taylor’s job performance,” and that PLOW members helped him investigate these topics.
While Taylor may be able to show that her defamation concerns were legitimate, Kane said she could not enter judgment since Bartley “has produced evidence that he communicated with PLOW members solely ‘as a media member seeking the truth in all matters concerning LHU Athletics,’ that he never joined PLOW and that Taylor was not willing to respond to his questions or requests for information.
Taylor did persuade the judge that she has sovereign immunity as a state actor from claims that she misused civil proceedings and committed injurious falsehood and defamation, all in violation of Pennsylvania law.
Bartley acknowledged Taylor’s immunity, but said he brought the claims “in the event that Taylor denied that she acted under color of state law for purposes of his First Amendment retaliation claim,” the decision states.