A federal judge has tentatively dismissed suspended professional baseball pitcher Trevor Bauer’s defamation claim against a lawyer for the woman who accused him of sexual assault, concluding the statements Bauer took issue with are “factual in nature.”
Niranjan Fred Thiagarajah’s comment to the Washington Post that “there’s no doubt Mr. Bauer just brutalized” Lindsey Hill is synonymous with a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge’s description of Hill’s injuries as “terrible,” according to an order from Senior U.S. District Judge James V. Selna.
When arguing the statement was defamatory, Selna said, Bauer “conspicuously omits a key portion of Thiagarajah’s statement”: “The issue was whether or not she consented to the abuse.”
“Judge [Dianna] Gould-Saltman herself stated that Hill’s injuries were ‘terrible,’” the judge wrote. “Bauer does not present any compelling argument as to why Thiagarajah’s using a synonym of the court’s own language misstates the court’s findings.”
Selna said Thiagarajah “likely overstated the evidence’s strength,” though he also said he “does not adopt Bauer’s interpretation of the state court’s decision” not to issue a restraining order.
The 16-page ruling is the first substantive order in two defamation lawsuits Bauer has filed against four people since Major League Baseball suspended him for two seasons. The suspension followed the highly publicized dispute with Hill, who admitted consenting to “rough sex” with Bauer after messaging him on Instagram but said their second encounter evolved into assaultive behavior she didn’t want. Gould-Saltman rejected Hill’s request for a restraining order in August 2021, but as Selna wrote, her decision was “premised on insufficient evidence of consent and the threat of future harm, not on doubts as to whether Bauer inflicted the ‘terrible’ injuries on Hill.”
Selna’s decision isn’t final. Based in the Central District of California’s Santa Ana courthouse, the 2003 George W. Bush appointee routinely issues tentative rulings on Fridays so attorneys can know where he’s going before oral argument hearings on Mondays. He once described them as “an intellectual safety net” that make “oral argument much more efficient.”
“If I or my clerks miss something, well, people have the opportunity to tell me about that on a Monday afternoon. And, by large, people do that in a very gracious fashion,” the judge told the Los Angeles Daily Journal legal newspaper in 2017.
— LA Daily Journal (@LADailyJournal) July 5, 2017
But in a sign he doesn’t view the legal issues in Thiagarajah’s motion to strike as vexingly complex, Selna vacated a hearing scheduled for Oct 3 when he issued the tentative ruling last week. He gave attorneys until 5 p.m. Tuesday to submit a brief of “no more than five pages” to explain why oral argument is necessary.
Bauer’s attorneys did so, and they pointed to a newly obtained video Hill took of herself hours after her second encounter with Bauer, in which she’s in his bed and smiling as he sleeps beside her.
“The discovery of this video is consistent with the Complaint’s allegations that Mr. Thiagarajah knew that Ms. Hill had concealed and deleted material information that disproved her claims,” according to a brief from Blair G. Brown of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Washington, D.C.
Brown said Thiagarajah “likely” knew of the video “exonerating” Bauer when he spoke to the Washington Post.
“At bottom, discovery is needed on this point. With the benefit of such discovery, it will be a question of fact for the jury as to whether Mr. Thiagarajah made his allegedly defamatory statement despite: (i) having concrete evidence in his possession disproving it; and (ii) actively concealing that evidence from the state court and from Mr. Bauer,” Brown wrote.
Brown also said Bauer “had no intention of obfuscating any portions of Mr. Thiagarajah’s statements” in not mentioning the other part of the comments made by Hill’s lawyer (i.e., “The issue was whether or not she consented to the abuse,” though the brief again does not mention the exact statement).
Selna has not yet ruled on the hearing request. His tentative order grants a motion to strike the claim against Thiagarajah that was brought under California’s anti-SLAPP law, which aims to quickly dispose of meritless lawsuits that strategically target people for participating in public processes.
The judge said in his tentative order that he believes every statement Bauer contends is defamatory “falls within the ambit of the Anti-SLAPP statute,” so Bauer’s defamation claim can’t be valid. He also said all the statements are covered by California’s fair reporting privileges, which covers “any fair and true report in, or communication to, a public journal of a judicial proceeding, or anything said in the course thereof.”
But even without those findings, the judge said Bauer’s defamation claim has little chance of succeeding. All but one statement at issue is factual, Selna said, and the statement that isn’t is a clear opinion: “It’s easy to deny these things occurred when you’re not going to have a chance to be cross-examined about it.”
“Further, even if it was a statement of fact, it is indisputable that pre-recording a video explaining one side of events is in stark contrast to testifying under oath and being subject to cross-examination,” Selna wrote. “While it is certainly Bauer’s right to exercise his Fifth Amendment privilege, it is similarly Thiagarajah’s right to exercise his privileges under the First Amendment.”
In his analysis of the language the lawyer used (“The evidence is overwhelming that these things occurred . . . that was established to 100% certainty”), Selna said Thiagarajah’s statements “point the listener to the ‘overwhelming’ amount of evidence to support Hill’s position.”
In addition to the lawsuit against Hill and Thiagarajah, Bauer is suing The Athletic and journalist Molly Knight.
On Aug. 29, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald in Los Angeles heard oral argument on dismissal and strike motions through by defense lawyers but has not yet issued a ruling.
Here’s @TheAthletic‘s motion to strike. “In his first claim for relief, Bauer asserts that The Athletic defamed him by quoting a woman’s sworn statement, submitted to a court in support of an application for a restraining order.” https://t.co/hABhZoiyHe
— Meghann Cuniff (@meghanncuniff) September 15, 2022
Read Judge Selna’s full tentative ruling below:
(Image: Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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