This is the third of three posts about the legal action taken by Lou Campanelli over his firing as Cal’s men’s basketball head coach in 1993. In our previous posts, Ohio Bear, CalBear81 and I discussed the beginning of the lawsuit process. We explained that Campanelli filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Regents of the University of California, Athletic Director Bob Bockrath, and Vice Chancellor Daniel Boggan, making a number of legal claims under state and federal law. The federal trial court in San Francisco (officially known as the "district court") dismissed all of Campanelli’s claims against the Regents, on the ground that Campanelli could not sue the Regents in federal court. He could only sue the Regents in the California state courts. The court ruled that Campanelli could re-file his California state law claims against the Regents, Bockrath and Boggan in state court.
Campanelli also had a federal law claim against Bockrath and Boggan for having violated his right under federal law to have notice of the reasons for his firing and a chance for a fair hearing where he could clear his name. The district court also dismissed this federal law claim, and Campanelli appealed this issue to the United States Court of Appeal in San Francisco. For reasons discussed in detail in our previous posts, the court of appeal overturned the decision of the district court and sent the case back to the district court for a trial, where a jury would be permitted to decide Campanelli’s federal due process claim. This whole process, summed up neatly in a few paragraphs, took several years and we're not done yet. There is yet more to discuss regarding this interesting legal saga. Follow the end game for Lou Campanelli after the jump. GO BEARS!
The State Court Case
At the same time that his appeal was going on in federal court, Campanelli re-filed his state law claims against the Regents, Bockrath and Boggan in a California state trial court, the Alameda County Superior Court. Campanelli made the same state law claims that he had previously tried to make in federal court: breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.
The first thing the Regents, Bockrath and Boggan did was file something called a "demurrer." A demurrer is the state court equivalent of a federal Rule 12(b)(6) motion, which is the motion the Regents, Bockrath and Boggan had used to get the federal district court to dismiss Campanelli’s claims. In a demurrer, the defendant says to the court: even if you assume that everything the plaintiff has said in his Complaint is true, it is not enough to support this lawsuit. For example, the Regents argued that Campanelli’s claims for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in his employment contract should be dismissed, because his contract specifically stated that Campanelli could be fired at any time for any reason. The Superior Court agreed. The Superior Court also ruled that the facts in Campanelli’s Complaint were insufficient to support a claim of negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress, because those claims require very extreme and very specific misconduct, which was not present. Finally, the Superior Court found that the facts alleged in Campenelli’s Complaint were insufficient to support a claim for defamation for two reasons:
(1) the statements made by Bockrath and Boggan about Campanelli were merely statements of opinion; and
(2) the facts set out in Campanelli’s Complaint demonstrated that the statements made by Bockrath and Boggan were essentially true.
After the Superior Court dismissed Campanelli’s entire case, and Campanelli appealed to the California Court of Appeal. He appealed only on the defamation issue.
State Court Appeal
The Court of Appeal began its opinion by considering the facts of the case, as alleged in Campanelli’s Complaint. Because the case was decided at the very early stage of a demurrer, before any evidence had been submitted by the parties, the court was required to consider all the facts discussed in Campanelli’s Complaint as being true, and not to consider any other evidence. The question before the Court of Appeal was: assuming that everything Campanelli claims happened actually happened, is that enough to support a lawsuit for defamation?
Here is how the Court of Appeal described the facts regarding Campanelli’s firing, as Campanelli himself had set them out in his Complaint:
Campanelli become head basketball coach at the University of California at Berkeley (Cal) in 1985. Bockrath, who was athletic director at Cal, traveled with the team on a road trip to Arizona in February 1993. Following two difficult losses, Bockrath overheard "a frustrated and angry Campanelli address sharp criticism to the players in the locker room." On February 8, Bockrath met with Cal’s vice-chancellor, defendant Boggan, and Chancellor Tien, recommending that Campanelli be terminated. Later the same day both defendants met with all but two of the team’s players and learned that seven were threatening to transfer to other schools unless Campanelli was fired. That afternoon, Bockrath called Campanelli into his office and fired him. The contract between Cal and Campanelli permitted Cal to terminate his employment at any time without cause.
The Defamation Claim Against Vice Chancellor Boggan
The Court of Appeal first analyzed the allegedly defamatory statements attributed to Boggan. Campanelli alleged that Boggan defamed him in an interview given to the SF Chronicle reporter C.W. Nevius. The Nevius article quoted Boggan as saying, "Jason Kidd's father felt that former Cal basketball coach Lou Campanelli was putting so much pressure on his son he was making him physically ill."
Campanelli claimed that, although Jason Kidd’s father did make this statement to Boggan, Boggan knew that Mr. Kidd was so anxious to have Campanelli fired, that "he would deliberately make false statements if it would accomplish that result." According to Campanelli, Boggan therefore knew that Mr. Kidd’s statement was false, and acted maliciously when he repeated it to the Chronicle reporter.
The Court of Appeal disagreed with Campanelli’s arguments. The Court began by explaining that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the expression of opinions. To win a defamation lawsuit, a plaintiff must show that a statement was made about him which was false and which exposed the plaintiff to "hatred, contempt, ridicule, obloquy, or . . . caused him to be shunned or avoided, or which had a tendency injure him in his occupation." The Court noted, however,that a statement "must contain a false statement of fact" to be actionable defamation. The Court added, "even if they are objectively unjustified or made in bad faith . . . statements of opinion rather than fact cannot form the basis for a libel action."
The Court then analyzed Boggan’s statement about Jason Kidd being made "physically ill" by Campanelli’s behavior, to see whether it was an opinion or statement of fact. First the Court noted that Boggan was merely repeating something which had been told to him by Jason Kidd’s father, and did not claim to have personal knowledge about it. Second, Boggan said only that Jason Kidd’s father "felt" that Campanelli’s behavior was making his son ill. The Court also noted that another Cal player, Brian Hendrick, was quoted in the article as saying, "You kind of numb yourself to it . . . but lately it came on a more consistent basis. It was happening after every loss, so many personal blows."
The Court concluded that no reasonable person could consider Boggan’s statement about what Kidd’s father "felt" was happening to his son to be a statement of fact, rather than an opinion:
Examined against the charged atmosphere surrounding Campanelli’s firing and the highly publicized facts set forth in the article, the statement by the elder Kidd about what he felt constituted either a subjective assessment based on parent intuition or colorful hyperbole illustrative of his apprehension over Campanelli’s behavior, but cannot be construed as intending to convey a verifiable assertion regarding his son’s health.
The Court concluded that Boggan’s statement was so clearly a matter of opinion that there was no reason for a jury trial do decide "whether Kidd’s father’s ‘feeling’ about the effect of Campanelli’s behavior on his son was empirically sound or medically justified."
The Defamation Claim Against Athletic Director Bockrath
The Court of Appeal then turned to the statements by Bockrath:
The same week Bockrath gave an interview to the New York Times explaining the reasons for Campanelli’s termination. Recalling the coach’s final tirade, Bockrath said, "There were things that were said that were unwarranted and inexcusable . . . . It was so incredibly bad. I said, "Sheesh, something must be done." The players were beaten down and in trouble psychologically. Every other word was a four-letter one. Let me tell you, if I hadn’t made that wrong turn [down the hallway where he accidently overheard Campanelli’s tirade], I wouldn’t have known the fix the team was in."
Campanelli argued that Bockrath’s statement that he had inflicted "psychological damage" on his players was false and defamatory. Once again, the Court determined that no reasonable person could believe that Bockrath’s statement was anything other than an opinion. The Court explained:
In light of the nature of the controversy and the overall tenor of the article, we cannot conclude the Bockrath statement was intended to be a factual assertion. Bockrath was not seriously maintaining that Cal’s players had suffered "psychological damage" in any scientific, verifiable sense. Instead, the phrase, "in trouble psychologically" was an emphatic way of expressing Bockrath’s central theme that he thought the players felt "beaten down" as a result of Campanelli’s harsh methods. . . . Bockrath’s statement was of a kind typically generated in a spirited dispute between two divergent viewpoints – in short, nonactionable opinion.
Truth as a Defense
In addition to finding that Campanelli’s defamation suit could not proceed because Bockrath and Boggan’s statements were opinions, the Court of Appeal also found that based on the facts admitted by Campanelli in his own Complaint, their statements were also true. And truth is an absolute defense: it can never be defamatory to make a true statement about a person.
The court described the facts which Campanelli had admitted in his own Complaint:
Campanelli admits that he was a "strict disciplinarian" who exhibited an "emotional outburst" in which he leveled "sharp criticism" at the players in a "fit of anger." The Complaint itself alleges that, at the time of his termination, seven of Cal’s players had threatened to leave the team if Campanelli stayed on. In the articles which Campanelli attaches to his Complaint, Bockrath calls his outburst "profane and abusive," and Cal player [Brian] Hendricks is quoted as saying Campanelli’s tirades included "so many personal blows" against which the players tried to "numb" themselves. Campanelli’s Complaint does not deny the truth of any of these statements.
The Court concluded that Campanelli essentially admitted that what Bockrath and Boggan had said about him was true:
Campanelli’s own allegations, coupled with assertions of fact which he attached to his complaint and incorporated therein, show that he engaged in temper tantrums directed at his players which included verbally abusive and profane remarks of a personal nature, to the extent that seven members of the team wanted to transfer unless he has fired. Through these concessions, Campanelli has admitted the essential accuracy of Bockrath’s statement that the players were "in trouble psychologically."
Because the California Court of Appeal found that the statements by Bockrath and Boggan were mere opinions, and were also true, the court concluded that there was no basis for Campanelli to proceed with a defamation claim against the Regents, Bockrath or Boggan. And Campanelli had not appealed the dismissal of his other claims. Therefore, there was nothing left of his state court case, and it was dismissed.
Back to Federal Court
While all this was happening in the state court case, Campanelli’s federal court case claiming a "due process" violation by Bockrath and Boggan was still going on. As explained in our previous post, the federal court of appeal had sent that case back to the federal trial court (known as the "district court") for a jury trial. But when the California court of appeal issued its decision on the state defamation claim, it changed everything in the federal case.
Although Campanelli’s defamation claim, which was decided by the California Court of Appeal, was brought under a different law and in a different court than his §1983 due process claim, they both involved the same essential issue. To win on either claim, Campanelli had to be able to prove that Bockrath and/or Boggan had made false and defamatory statements about him. But now the California Court of Appeal had ruled that Bockrath and Boggan’s statements were not false or defamatory because they were merely opinion and because Campanelli had admitted the statements were "essentially true."
Bockrath and Boggan now made another motion to the district court asking that the case be dismissed, this time under the legal doctrines of "res judicata" and "collateral estoppel." In an nutshell, these doctrines say that when claims or issues have been fully litigated between the same parties in a previous lawsuit, they cannot be re-litigated.
Once the first court reaches a final decision on the issue, all other courts are bound by the decision of the first court.
The purpose of this doctrine is to keep a losing party from raising the same issue over and over in different courts. Bockrath and Boggan argued that because the California Court of Appeal had determined that their statements were not false or defamatory, the federal court was bound by that determination. Therefore, Campanelli could not win on his §1983 due process claim, any more than he could win on his state law defamation claim. The district court agreed, and again dismissed Campanelli’s suit.
Campanelli gave it one last try, appealing the district court’s decision once again to the United States Court of Appeals. This time, he was out of luck. The Court Of Appeal held that, since Campanelli could only win on his federal court "due process" claim by showing that their statements had been false and defamatory, the decision of the California Court of Appeal that their statements were not false or defamatory meant that Campanelli could not win his federal court "due process" claim either. The court ruled that it was bound by the findings of the California court of appeals that Bockrath and Boggan’s statements about Campanelli were merely opinion and were "essentially true."
So, there you go. A different angle on an old story that you might have forgot. Remember, we aren't Berkeley if a giant lawsuit isn't involved. Whether its tree-sitters or fired basketball coaches, we're the most litigious school around. GO BEARS!