The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to rule on the appeal of NASCAR driver Jeremy Allen Mayfield, who is appealing the dismissal of his case involving claims of defamation, breach of contract, and deceptive trade practices. The trial court had dismissed the case based in large part on contractual release and indemnification provisions, including a release of liability arising from the publication of the results of any substance-abuse test.
Mayfield entered into a written contract with NASCAR in which he agreed to submit to random drug testing. On May 1, 2009, NASCAR asked Mayfield to submit to such a test. He complied and informed David Black, the president of Aegis, the chemical company performing the test, that he had taken Claritin and Adderall just prior to submitting a sample for testing. On May 7, 2009, Mayfield was informed that his test came back positive for amphetamines. After some confusion about the number of samples and whether Aegis tested the correct sample, NASCAR informed Mayfield that he was suspended as a driver and as the owner of a team. The president of NASCAR, Brian France, then held a press conference announcing to the world that Mayfield had been suspended for taking either performance-enhancing or recreational drugs.
After the press conference, Black informed reporters that the positive test result had nothing to do with any over-the-counter medication. As a result of these public statements, Mayfield and his corporate NASCAR team filed suit against NASCAR, France, Aegis, and Black, claiming that they were responsible for publicly defaming him. Mayfield argued in the suit that the statements were “intentional, malicious, reckless and false.”
The big question the Fourth Circuit will need to address (assuming it gets past the release) is the level of specificity required in a defamation complaint. Plaintiffs argued that Rule 9 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure does not specify a heightened pleading standard for defamation claims and that it allows states of mind, including the malice required for a defamation claim, to be pleaded generally, rather than bolstered with specifics. The Fourth Circuit, after all, has ruled that notice pleading applies to defamation actions. Did the trial court short-circuit the case unfairly? Should Mayfield have been given the opportunity to prove his claims at trial? We may soon know what the Fourth Circuit thinks, but the questions may be moot if the release language is enforced as written.