By Dr. Robert J. Romano, JD, LL.M, St. John’s University, Senior Writer
On September 1, 2023, Jim Estes, a member of the board of directors at USA Track and Field (USATF), filed a civil action against USA Track and Field, Max Siegel, the organization’s CEO, and Renee Washington, the organization’s COO, in the Marion County Circuit Court, Civil Division, for the state of Indiana. As part of his four-count complaint, Mr. Estes claims that his ‘sterling reputation’ in the area of track and field has been tarnished because of false and reckless statements regarding his professionalism were made by the defendants, and because such was carried out in a negligent manner, he has been defamed and his privacy has been invaded.
The basis of Mr. Estes complaint stems from the way in which USATF awarded the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials to the city of Orlando, Florida, while at the same time disqualifying the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the only other city that submitted a bid to host the event. Mr. Estes claims that USATF CEO, Max Siegel, sent a letter dated November 8, 2022, to the Chattanooga Sports Commission stating the city had been disqualified from the bidding process because of a conflict of interest involving Mr. Estes, who at the time served as both USATF board member and a consultant for Chattanooga’s bid. Mr. Siegel’s specifically stated in his letter that the reason the Chattanooga Sports Commission failed to receive the bid was because of “the conflict of interest involving Mr. Estes”, and that these “circumstances were neither created by USATF nor condoned by USATF.”
Mr. Siegel’s disqualification letter was sent despite the fact that in May 2022, Mr. Estes wrote USATF to inform the organization that he was a consultant for the Chattanooga Sports Commission and that he intends to recuse himself from any board discussions concerning the Olympic Marathon Trials.
Therefore, because of his previously disclosed recusal and Mr. Siegel’s subsequent letter to the Chattanooga Sports Commission, Mr. Estes claims that his reputation has been damaged as the statements made within the letter “attribute (his) misconduct as the sole reason for the disqualifying of Chattanooga Sports Commission’s bid for to host the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials.” In addition, Mr. Estes asserts that Mr. Siegel on other occasions made “intentionally and repeatedly false verbal and written statements regarding (his) professional conduct and that these statements caused both professional and reputational damage.”
In a statement to the press, Brock Hagerman, the attorney representing Mr. Estes, commented that “Jim has worked in this industry for decades,” and that “this debacle has tarnished that reputation unfairly.” Hagerman continued by claiming that when Mr. Siegal, on behalf of USATF, put the blame for Chattanooga’s failed bid exclusively on the shoulders of Mr. Estes, such was a “direct attack on his client’s professional reputation, which in the state of Indiana constitutes defamation per se.”
The state of Indiana defines defamation as “a statement that tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him/her in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him/her.” Or more completely, that which “tends to injure or to diminish esteem, respect, goodwill, or confidence in the plaintiff, or to excite derogatory feelings or opinions about the plaintiff.”
But Attorney Hagerman, in both the filed complaint and press statement, selected his words carefully by averring that the defendants’ statements were defamation per se. This is important because in the state of Indiana, defamation per se constitutes any publication or statement that is, by itself, defamatory, and includes, but is not limited to the following:
- Statements related to the plaintiff’s sexual misconduct;
- Statements related to the plaintiff having a contagious disease;
- Criminal accusations; and
- Professional misconduct assertions.
Additionally, in a defamation per se claim, an injured party does not have to prove material damage because the damage or damages are presumed since the harm to one’s reputation is inherent within the statement.
USATF, however, stands by its decision to disqualify Chattanooga based upon its asserted misconduct of Mr. Estes involving the conflict of interests of him serving as both a board of director member and consultant for Chattanooga’s bid process. When asked about Mr. Estes’ lawsuit, the USATF stated that “All board members have a duty to avoid these types of conflicts” and that “the USATF, as an organization, has the responsibility to manage actual, potential, and perceived conflicts of interest to avoid even the appearance of impropriety or unfairness in the competitive bidding process.” This may be true, but an organization should not defame one when attempting to avoid the appearance of a conflict with another.