In an order last week, Judge Sullivan (sitting by designation in the Southern District) dismissed claims brought by former Knicks star Charles Oakley against Knicks owner James Dolan and several Madison Square Garden entities.  The complaint alleged a claim for defamation as well as several state law tort claims, all stemming from a 2017 incident at Madison Square Garden where Oakley was forcibly removed from the stands during a Knicks game by the arena’s security.  After the incident, Dolan and the Knicks’ official Twitter account made several statements that Oakley claimed were defamatory, including claims that Oakley had been “drinking beforehand” and that he “behaved in an highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner.”

A key deficit for the defamation claim was the lack of actual malice:

A public figure cannot recover damages for defamation unless he proves, by clear and convincing evidence, that the relevant statements were made with actual malice at the time that they were spoken or written.  A statement is made with “actual malice” where it is made “with knowledge that the statement[] [is] false or with reckless disregard as to [its] falsity . . . Oakley fails to satisfy this requirement.  Indeed, he does not offer any facts beyond the conclusory allegations that the MSG Defendants or Dolan acted with actual malice.  The Amended Complaint asserts repeatedly that the MSG Defendants and Dolan were “fully aware that [their] comments were and are entirely without basis in fact and/or” that their comments were made with “a reckless disregard for their truth.”  But the Amended Complaint does not provide any factual grounds to support those conclusory allegations.  These are they type of “labels and conclusions” and “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action” that must be disregarded under Iqbal and Twombly.

Judge Sullivan also dismissed the state law tort claims, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act claims that Oakley was denied access to Madison Garden Square (a place of public accommodation) based on what the defendants perceived was the disability of alcoholism.  Judge Sullivan also denied Oakley leave to amend, citing Judge Lynch’s observation that “[w]hile pleading is not a game of skill in which one misstep may be decisive to the outcome, neither is it an interactive game in which the plaintiffs file a complaint, and then bat it back and forth with the Court over a rhetorical net until a viable complaint emerges.”