A Pima County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that the blackmail and defamation lawsuit filed by Georgia Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner against an Oro Valley man will proceed in full.
Judge Brendan Griffin said he believed a reasonable jury could conclude that there was actual malice committed against Pastner by Ron Bell in the case.
Bell’s attorneys had argued in court papers that Pastner will be unable to satisfy the heightened burden of proof — malice — that applies to a public person in a defamation case.
Bell has been locked in litigation with Pastner since February 2018, when Pastner filed a lawsuit against Bell and his fiancee, Jennifer Pendley, accusing the couple of unsuccessfully trying to blackmail him.
Bell and Pendley filed a counterclaim in which they accused Pastner of sexually assaulting Pendley in a Houston hotel room in 2016 and groping her on several subsequent occasions. Court documents said an eyewitness to one of the alleged groping incidents admitted during his deposition that he had lied about the incident. He said Bell and Pendley offered to pay him a portion of any settlement they obtained in the lawsuit, according to court documents.
Pastner’s lawyers have also cited recordings from jailhouse phone calls between Bell and Pendley made last spring. Pastner’s lawyers contend the couple appeared to admit fabricating the claims.
In December, Bell filed a motion for partial summary judgment in the case on all defamation-based claims relating to Bell’s statements that Pastner knowingly committed or condoned NCAA rules violations, saying the statements were justified. A summary judgment is a court order saying that no factual issues remain to be tried in a case and all or some of the causes of action in the complaint can be decided based on certain facts and without trial. Pendley was not included as a party to the motion.
The motion spent several pages outlining Bell’s claims of various NCAA violations by Pastner, a member of the UA’s 1997 national championship team and a former Wildcats assistant coach. Some alleged violations were made public during the 2016-17 basketball season, when two Georgia Tech basketball players were disciplined for receiving impermissible benefits.
Pastner’s lawyers opposed the motion, saying it appeared it “was not filed to be successful in obtaining summary judgment, but instead as a publicity stunt in furtherance of Bell’s ongoing defamation scheme to cost Pastner his job.”
Bell’s attorney, Justin Niedzialek, said in court Thursday that text messages between Bell and Pastner show that Bell communicated with a recruit, a violation of NCAA guidelines, and that Pastner knew about it.
Scott Palumbo, one of Pastner’s attorneys, argued that contacting a player isn’t the same as paying thousands of dollars in impermissible benefits, as Bell’s previous statements claimed.
Niedzialek cited the substantial truth doctrine, which says that a defendant can avoid liability if the gist or sting of their statement is true.
Griffin denied Bell’s motion for summary judgment Thursday, saying he didn’t think that Bell’s statements in his motion reflected the gist of all of the allegations in the complaint.
On Tuesday, Pastner’s lawyers filed a supplement to the response citing new evidence. An NCAA notice of allegations letter sent to Georgia Tech last week contends Bell provided impermissible benefits to basketball players and had impermissible recruiting contacts with one student-athlete in violation of NCAA rules.
The notice of allegations does not say that Pastner violated any NCAA rules, “nor does it allege or suggest that Pastner was aware of or knew of Bell’s alleged violations,” according to the supplement.
“The NCAA ... found that Bell, not Pastner, violated NCAA rules relating to impermissible benefits being provided to student-athletes,” the supplement says, adding that the jury should be able to use the NCAA’s finding to determine whether Bell defamed Pastner when he publicly said that Pastner knew about and condoned Bell’s behavior.
“Josh cooperated fully with the NCAA investigation and he has not been charged with any violations,” said Scott Tompsett, Pastner’s lawyer.
In late February, Bell filed a separate lawsuit against Pastner, Tompsett and Palumbo, accusing them of abuse of process, aiding and abetting and civil conspiracy. The lawsuit says that the men have used “a number of legal processes” to interfere with Bell’s ability to defend himself against Pastner’s claims, and made false statements in an attempt to vilify Bell.
Last week, lawyers for Pastner, Tompsett and Palumbo sent a letter to Niedzialek, requesting that the lawsuit be dismissed within 10 days on the grounds that it was filed for an improper purpose. The letter also said that the lawsuit’s claims are “not supported by existing, non-frivolous law” and that the suit is an attempt to manufacture a conflict of interest between Pastner and his attorneys.
The letter says if the lawsuit isn’t dismissed, attorneys will pursue sanctions against Bell and Niedzialek.
Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4191. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt