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Stefanoni, Little League Official React to Judge's Ruling

A Darien Little League official and Margaret Stefanoni reacted to a judges ruling that Stefanoni's defamation lawsuit against the Darien Little League can go forward.

Update, 6:29 p.m.:

Margaret Stefanoni said she is "pleased with the decision" of a judge who recently ruled that her defamation lawsuit against the Darien Little League could continue to trial.

Thomas Luz, general counsel for the Darien Little League, said in an email Wednesday afternoon: "Right now we are consulting with our attorneys and have not decided whether to appeal. Regardless of whether we do so, we note that the decision was based on technical procedural grounds.

"We repeat our assertion that the complaint has no substantive merit," he wrote.

Judge Taggart D. Adams ruled on Nov. 22 that the Little League's request to throw out Stefanoni's suit were wrong on procedural and substantive ways. Unless the League finds new objections or appeals the decision, the judge ruled that it should go to trial. Stefanoni says League officials defamed her in large part by implying that she lied, although they didn't use the word "liar."

"They basically came out every which way and used the thesaurus to find every synonym for it [liar]," she said Wednesday in an interview. "The word choice was deliberate."

When one of Stefanoni's sons was moved from a division of older players to a younger one, league officials said they were simply instituting a new policy to put players in the same grades together, but Stefanoni told the Darien Times that she thought league officials were retaliating against her son for an affordable housing proposal she and her husband had put forward. She later specified a former league official who lived near a proposed housing development on Hoyt Street and an email from a league official to her.

Stefanoni is asking for a dollar in damages and a retraction of the Little League's statements. One of the most prominent statements she wants retracted is this one, which appeared in a letter to the editor of the Darien Times on Sept. 23, 2010, in which league officials referred to Stefanoni's initial statement to the newspaper that she believed league officials were retaliating against her. This excerpt from the letter is presented as the the judge's decision quotes it ("defendant" is the Little League; "plaintiff" is Stefanoni):

"We were surprised and disappointed to read untrue comments about [the defendant] attributed to [the plaintiff] .... We assure you and the entire Darien community that [the plaintiff's] comments are demonstrably false. ... [W]e are troubled by the false statements attributed to [the plaintiff]. ... [N]o one from the Times ever contacted the [defendant] to determine whether anything [the plaintiff] said was true. ... The fact that [the plaintiff] implicated the [defendant] in some half-baked conspiracy theory is disappointing; that the Times irresponsibly spread the rumor is downright shameful."

Taggart ruled that "Although the defendant does not expressly state that the plaintiff lied in making her comments, its statements [including the one above], given their natural and ordinary meaning could reasonably be considered to imply that the plaintiff lied."

Stefanoni told Darien Patch that she did not object to Patch republishing the statement so that readers would understand the context of Taggart's ruling.

Original article, 5:59 a.m.:

A state judge has rejected an attempt by the Darien Little League to get filed by Darien developer Margaret Stefanoni thrown out of court, allowing the case to go to trial.

The Little League's request to strike Stefanoni's complaint was not only technically defective in various ways relating to state court procedures, but also defective "on the merits," Judge Trial Referee Taggart D. Adams wrote. Adams issued his decision Nov. 22 in state Superior Court in Stamford.

Those merits, according to the judge, included a letter to the editor and other statements written by the league which "could reasonably be construed to imply that the plaintiff [Stefanoni] lied" in statements of hers published by the Darien Times, and which therefore "could reasonably be considered defamatory"—at least enough so that the matter can go to trial.

The judge's decision can be found on the Connecticut Judicial Branch website.

The dispute

stemmed in which Stefanoni alleged that Little League officials had put her son, who had played in an advanced group the previous season, into a division for younger, less experienced boys, and that they did so in order to retaliate against her and her husband.

League officials said that due to overcrowding they were sticking to a new policy that grouped students by grade level rather than age or experience level, and that two other boys were also moved from one division to another in the town Little League. Stefanoni argued that her son was the only one affected in his division and that the two other boys were moved because their parents had wanted the change for other reasons.

Stefanoni has argued that because she and her husband had tried to get unpopular affordable housing developments built in some places around town, they may have prompted league officials to retaliate against them. The Stefanonis said a board member of the Darien Little League had sent them an angry email which said he has friends who are neighbors of a proposed Stefanoni development.

Little League officials have strenuously denied that they were retaliating against the Stefanonis.

Stefanoni is suing the Darien Little League for a dollar and a public retraction of some of its statements about her.

What the statements 'could reasonably be considered'

Much of the lawsuit focuses on a letter sent to the Darien Times and published Sept. 23, 2010. The letter, as quoted in the judge's decision, included statements that Little League officials "were surprised and disappointed to read untrue comments about [the Darien Little League] attributed to [Stefanoni]," called her comments "demonstrably false" and "false statements," and said that Stefanoni "implicated [the Little League] in some half-baked conspiracy theory." The letter also strongly criticized The Darien Times for publishing Stefoni's statements without first checking them with Little League offiicals.

Referring to that letter, Taggart wrote: "Although the defendant [the Darien Little League] does not expressly state that the plaintiff lied in making her comments, its statements, given their natural and ordinary meaning, could reasonably be considered to imply that the plaintiff [Stefanoni] lied.

"These are not 'words [that] could not reasonably be considered defamatory in any sense,'" Taggart added, quoting another court decision. Similarly, an email sent out to Little League parents and later posted on the Darien Little League website for months "could reasonably be considered defamatory," because, the judge said, "the implication in the defendant's [the Little League's] statements is that the plaintiff [Stefanoni] lied."

Truth as a defense

Although a Little League's lawyer argued that truth is an absolute defense in a libel case, the judge cited a previous case, Goodrich v. Waterbury Republican Inc., which said that in defamation cases, "determining the truthfulness of a statement is a question of fact for the jury."

The judge also rejected the argument that Margaret Stefanoni is considered a "public figure," for purposes of defamation law. If she were a public figure, then under libel law she would need to prove that the Little League made its statements with "actual malice," meaning that league officials who made the statements did so either knowing they were false or had a reckless disregard as to whether or not they were false.

A person is a "public figure" under defamation law if the person's fame and influence in a community is connected to the matter directly concerning the libel, the judge wrote. Stefanoni was well known around town in relation to proposed housing developments, not Little League matters, the judge wrote.

Margaret Stefanoni is representing herself in court. The Darien Little League is represented by Fred N. Knopf and Michelle M. Vitullo, both of White Plains, NY.

Larry Griffiths November 30, 2011 at 01:50 PM
This is pathetic, ridiculous, absurd. Shame on the Stefanoni's.
Anthony DePaolo November 30, 2011 at 02:25 PM
This is pathetic, ridiculous, absurd. Shame on Larry Griffiths!
james clarke November 30, 2011 at 04:00 PM
@ksmithee - Good or Bad people? Doesn't matter in this case. If someone attempted to falsely disparage them by printing lies in the paper they should have their day in court. You would want that - wouldn't you?
james clarke November 30, 2011 at 04:01 PM
For what Larry? Protecting their rights? Please.
Larry Griffiths November 30, 2011 at 04:30 PM
The Stefanoni's are suing for one dollar and retractions of statements made in a letter to the newspaper (a weekly, free newspaper) by Darien Little League. The judge let it go forward because DLL's words "could reasonably be construed to imply that the plaintiff [Stefanoni] lied". Frivolous? If the Stefanoni's were truly concerned about their rights wouldn't they be suing the newspaper for a retraction? Instead of the group that made their 4th grade son play baseball with other 4th graders - oh the humanity!
Larry Griffiths November 30, 2011 at 04:31 PM
You're just upset you didn't get the case.
Chip Carr November 30, 2011 at 04:47 PM
If Mrs Stefanoni's son played the season before in the advanced division, then he should have stayed in the division the following year. If he didn't belong in that division due to ability level, then shame on little league leadership for allowing him there in the first place. Aside from that, these "adults" are acting like fools. Frivolous.
james clarke November 30, 2011 at 04:53 PM
Larry - Are you suggesting the paper should retract something that they didn't say? Perhaps you should re read the above article. It was said in a letter to the editor not in the editorial or news section of the paper. That is why letters to the editor are undersigned and the identity of the writer is confirmed by the paper.
Larry Griffiths November 30, 2011 at 06:05 PM
They changed the policy regarding placement in the time in between the two seasons (in between 3rd and 4th grade for the player in question), going with grade level rather than age or ability.
Larry Griffiths November 30, 2011 at 06:08 PM
"An entity that republishes a defamatory statement is equally liable as the original publisher. This law means that a newspaper editor who receives a letter to the editor defaming another person is just as liable as the letter's writer if the letter ends up in print in the newspaper." http://www.enotes.com/everyday-law-encyclopedia/libel-and-slander
Ksmithee November 30, 2011 at 07:47 PM
james clarke: I dont understand your reply to my comment above. To clarify my 833am comment was in regard to how the Judge determined whether MS was or wasnt a public figure...nothing to do with anything about "good or bad people". Of course everyone deserves their day in court and remember a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty so maybe YOU should practice what you preach and not make reference "falsely disparage them by printing lies in the paper".
ConcernedDarienParent November 30, 2011 at 08:53 PM
Chip, things change. A policy on one season may or may not be applicable to the next season. If I read the article clearly, there was less space and so all players that were 'playing up' were asked to move back to age appropriate grade. Don't fall into the Stefanoni's trap that there son was 'demoted'. He was not--he was playing in his proper grade. Unless the Stefanoni's can produce email traffic showing that DLL targeted their son, then this is a frivolous case. Perhaps we will see. I personally know a lot of the DLL board and they are all great volunteers. I cannot see for the life of me that anyone would do. In fact, knowing youth sports in Darien, I cannot imagine any program (lax, football, soccer, field hockey or baseball) targeting any child. It is not what makes these volunteers 'tick'.
ConcernedDarienParent November 30, 2011 at 08:57 PM
Josie, youth sports does not 'glorify' it players--far from it. The two incidents that you refer to are not even with youth players. Do yourself a favor and read some of the various youth sports bylaws (most are on their websites) and you will see that their values are well grounded. No sport's board acts like this nor would they tolerate their coaches acting or encouraging this. Please do not disparage one of our town's best assets (youth sports) over two bad apples doing something boneheaded.
Ksmithee November 30, 2011 at 09:07 PM
Let's remember the facts...the question of the child's placement was in the Fall League Baseball which is a completely different animal than the more competative Spring and Summer All Star Teams. The Fall Leage Baseball Teams do not follow the same format because it is a shorter or an "off" season sport and more relaxed atmosphere as coaches know the true fall sports (ie, football, soccer, etc) take priority in families. Fall Ball Placement should not be compared to the Spring or Summer Leagues.
Jack V November 30, 2011 at 10:50 PM
This isn't about money as suing for $1 is no powerball jackpot. Looking over previous articles, the boy was the only boy out of hundreds who was taken off a roster and then made to play at a lower level than before and that is what makes the situation unique. When there is only one that shows that there is a problem.
Joyce Ishimata November 30, 2011 at 11:03 PM
Jack V etal, You are relying on the allegations of the Stefanoni's for your information. I dont see any affirmation by anyone other than them, that he was the only one. If you are claiming the Little league hurt this boy without proof, then it would seem as though you could be sued by the League for false accusation. See how simple it is? How would you like to offer an opinion, or defend yourself, and be asked to appear in court? I read it that the Stefanonis claimed he was the only one, and the Little League said that is not true. I am guessing that the Little League knows if it affected more than one boy, more than the Stefanonis. I heard that this was fall baseball. Not really in season baseball. A program designed simply to have kids who like baseball to play. It seems to me, 4th graders playing with 4th graders is hardly worth making an issue out of.
Josie December 01, 2011 at 12:17 AM
I'm with Chip. If they let the boy play with older kids in the spring, they should not then demote him a few months later in the fall. That's just basic. Anyone running a youth program should realize that. As for who is right? The judge thinks the case has enough merit to go forward. I read the posted pdf of the judge's decision. He appears to agree with what Stephanoni wrote. The judge has no ax to grind and is likely to be the most impartial-- and unlikely to encourage frivoulous lawsuits.
Larry Griffiths December 01, 2011 at 03:10 AM
"If they let the boy play with older kids in the spring, they should not then demote him a few months later in the fall" This happens all the time, fall ball and spring are divided up differently. It's really not that uncommon. I don't know Darien, but I know in my town, this happened to a handful of kids this fall. None of them sued our town's Little League.
Josie December 01, 2011 at 04:26 AM
What town are you talking about Larry? It would be interesting to know if other Little Leagues routinely assign thier players to lower leagues after these same players have already played in a higher level. I just doubt that's true, but please prove me wrong by stating your town.
Joyce Ishimata December 01, 2011 at 04:58 AM
If the boy was the only affected, then by definition, he was THE ONLY ONE ALLOWED to play UP.
Joyce Ishimata December 01, 2011 at 05:09 AM
Josie, The article says the Stefanonis know that at least 2 other boys were similarly affected by the rule, but they claim the parents wanted the arrangement. So if I may conclude, that more than the stefanoni boy was affected, but ONLY ONE PARENT objected. I think that is the more accurate statement,
Larry Griffiths December 01, 2011 at 11:16 AM
The levels are different in Fall Ball than in Spring Ball. That's the part that is easy to miss. Spring has 11-12 year olds in majors, some 9's but mostly 10-11 in AAA, then AA, A and t-ball for younger players. In Fall, the baseball 12's are gone, so it's baseball 10-11 in the highest level (no 9's). So the 9's who played AAA with 10-11 year olds in the spring had to play with 8-9's (and some 10's) in the Fall. In this way it seems like the 9 year olds who "played up" with older kids in the Spring are made to play at a lower level in the fall.
ConcernedDarienParent December 01, 2011 at 12:41 PM
In the end, I suspect, this suit is not about defamation with DLL, it's about preserving their reputation as hustlers and extortionist in town. They go around town, looking for cheap property, then 'threaten' neighbors that they will wreak their neighborhood unless they pony up a nice 'profit' on the land and buy them out. They want to be viewed exactly as they are portrayed in the press, since anything otherwise will be viewed as a weakness towards accomplishing this strategy. I, for one, am glad the DLL is fighting them so that the their ridiculous claim will be exposed. However, I do feel bad for their kids that must tolerate their parents anti-Darien behaviour.
Joyce Ishimata December 01, 2011 at 02:27 PM
Josie, You asked Mr Griffiths to 'state his town." I read his patch comments from past. He posted on Simbury travel basketball schedule tryout. Meaning, that he is involved in Youth Sports, and from another town, and he is using his real name. I guess that proves you wrong? But, will you admit it? That is my question to you. Joy
Saul Green December 01, 2011 at 04:09 PM
Joyce Duncan- where do you find the time? There is nothing to win on this blog either. Wouldn't your time be better spent winning in court?
Tara McFarland December 01, 2011 at 04:36 PM
So many axes to grind and excuses in all these comments-- but the only voice worth listening to is the judge's. Does anybody really think they are influencing anything here?
Joyce Ishimata December 01, 2011 at 07:05 PM
Who is Joyce Duncan? Are you referring to me?
Skipaway December 01, 2011 at 08:29 PM
The whole thing is a shame. The Stefanoni kid throws a nice basball and he runs out every grounder.
Darien Septuagenarian December 01, 2011 at 08:52 PM
Always good to see the sock puppets out in force.
Skipaway December 07, 2011 at 09:56 PM
Sock Puppet! You can't say that! I should sue you for $1.

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