Casey Close Takes Doug Gottlieb to Court Over Freeman Tweet

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Excel Sports Agency’s Casey Close sued radio host Doug Gottlieb for libel on Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The lawsuit concerns Gottlieb’s portrayal of why Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman left the Atlanta Braves as a free agent last offseason.

On June 29, Gottlieb tweeted that Close “never told Freddie Freeman about the Braves final offer, that is why Freeman fired him.” Gottlieb, who has more than 265,000 followers on Twitter and hosts The Doug Gottlieb Show on Fox Sports Radio, also insisted that Close “knew Freddie would have taken the ATL deal.” The tweet is still up as of this writing.

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Close categorically denied Gottlieb’s accusation, saying “there is no truth whatsoever to what Doug Gottlieb recklessly tweeted.” Close said he “would testify to that under oath.”

The lawsuit may give him that chance.

Sportico has obtained a copy of the complaint. Mitchell Schuster and Kevin Fritz of Meister Seelig & Fein in New York City are representing Excel and Close. In 2020, Shuster and Fritz successfully litigated on behalf of Robert Griffin III in a case involving unpaid agency commissions.

Close’s complaint, which says the agent “has received death threats from people believed to be Atlanta Braves fans” as a result of Gottlieb’s tweet, offers a detailed and specific timeline of events (as told from Close’s perspective). The complaint claims:

·      March 29, 2021: Braves offer Freeman in writing a five-year, $110 million contract extension. Freeman rejected it.

·      August 1, 2021: Braves offer Freeman in writing a five-year, $125 million contract extension.  Freeman rejected it.

·      August 4, 2021: Braves offer Freeman a five-year, $135 million contract extension. Freeman rejected it.

·      March 12, 2022:  Close and the Braves had their final two conversations regarding a Freeman contract extension. The Braves told Close they’d get back to him by the end of the day and Close shared that info with Freeman. Later in the day, Close presented two contract proposals to the Braves and the team rejected them. Close asked if the Braves “had any other offer” that he could bring to Freeman, and the team “responded in the negative.” Close relayed that point to Freeman, and “there were no further discussions’ between Close and the Braves.

·      On March 14, 2022: The Braves trade for first baseman Matt Olson as a replacement for Freeman, who three days later signed a six-year, $162 million contract with the Dodgers.

That timeline, if accurate, suggests that Close capably performed his duties and didn’t conceal information from his then-client.

Still, libel is ordinarily a difficult claim to establish, particularly when the plaintiff is a public figure. Libel refers to a false assertion of fact (as opposed to opinion) that causes reputational harm. Gottlieb’s tweet appears to meet the benchmark for constituting a factual assertion. The tweet specifically says Close did not tell Freeman about the Braves’ final offer and that the failure to inform is the reason Freeman fired Close. The complaint’s alleged timeline indicates that claim is factually wrong.

Public figures have the added hurdle of proving “actual malice,” which means the libelous statement was made with knowledge of being false or reckless disregard as to whether it was true or false.

Close, 58, is one of baseball’s most prominent agents, which superficially points in the direction of public figure recognition. However, the complaint asserts that Close does not count as a public figure in the context of this litigation.

Close’s attorneys might have case law on their side. Eight years ago, the SDNY in Mitre Sports v. HBO rejected a finding that “simply by virtue of being one of the largest sporting goods companies in the world,” Mitre is a public figure. “General fame,” the court went on to add, doesn’t automatically convert a libel plaintiff into a public figure.

Here, Close can argue that his negotiations with the Braves were conducted in private and with adherence to client confidentiality. Although Close is a well-known agent and Excel is a well-known agency, Gottlieb’s tweet concerned private, client activity. The court will need to determine whether Close and Excel are public or private figures.

If Close is a public figure, he’d need to prove Gottlieb’s statement was false and that he either (1) knew it was false or (2) recklessly disregarded whether or not it was true. Whether Gottlieb disregarded the statement’s truthfulness would depend on whether he made reasonable efforts to ascertain its accuracy before tweeting. Did Gottlieb hear it from Freeman or someone close to him, or did it hear from another agent and ran with it before carefully checking?

The complaint describes Gottlieb as being “grossly irresponsible” in fact-checking. Gottlieb, the complaint claims, neglected to contact Close or any other Excel Sports representative for comment. Gottlieb is also accused of telling Mark Steinberg, a managing partner at Excel, in a phone conversation afterwards that he had merely “parachuted” into the story shortly before tweeting.

Gottlieb and his attorneys will have an opportunity to answer the complaint and contest its allegations.

If the lawsuit advances, Freeman and Braves officials would likely be witnesses. The team might express reservations about testifying given the possibility of sharing trade secrets and other proprietary information about its negotiations with players.

If Close is guilty of what Gottlieb claims, Freeman could sue him for malpractice. Freeman could also file a complaint with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, which licenses agents and can take disciplinary action against them. There is no indication that Freeman has sued or threatened to sue Close or that MLBPA intends to take any punitive action. A source tells Sportico that no such complaint has been filed with the MLBPA.

Scott Soshnick contributed to this story.

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