Hundley v. ESPN Productions Inc.
An individual can qualify as a limited purpose public figure, if the person invites public attention to her views, voluntarily injects herself into a public controversy, assumes a position of prominence in the public controversy and maintains access to the media. The plaintiff, Brooke Hundley, alleged that Steve Phillips, a married, on-air reporter at ESPN, made unwelcome sexual advances in July 2009. Allegedly, Hundley informed her supervisor, who did not take any action. Phillips allegedly "forced himself" sexually on the plaintiff. The plaintiff allegedly engaged in a brief relationship with Phillips. In August 2009, Phillips allegedly reported to ESPN that Hundley had been stalking him. Hundley denied Phillips' allegations. Hundley and Phillips agreed to settle. In October 2009, the New York Post reported that Hundley and Phillips allegedly had an affair. ESPN discharged Hundley for "misconduct" and allegedly making "inconsistent" statements. Hundley sued ESPN, alleging she was discharged in retaliation, because she reported Phillips' harassment and that ESPN published false and defamatory statements. A defamatory statement is a communication that tends to harm the reputation of another, as to lower the individual in the community's estimation or to deter third parties from associating with him. To establish a prima facie case, the plaintiff must prove: 1.) the defendant published a defamatory statement; 2.) the statement identified the plaintiff to and was published to a third person; and 3.) the plaintiff's reputation suffered injury. If the plaintiff is a public figure, the plaintiff must prove the statement was made with actual malice. An individual can qualify as a limited purpose public figure, if the person invites public attention to her views, voluntarily injects herself into a public controversy, assumes a position of prominence in the controversy and maintains access to the media. There were genuine issues of material fact with respect to whether the plaintiff was a limited purpose public figure and whether ESPN's statements were false. There also were genuine issues with respect to whether ESPN's rationale for discharge, that the plaintiff's answers during an internal investigation were inconsistent, constituted a pretext. The court denied ESPN's motion for summary judgment.